Xbox One's Kinect Can Turn Off, Microsoft Says, Noting Privacy Worries

The state of confusion around the new Xbox One console is such that we're delighted to bring you the news that Microsoft's next console has a power button. What's more: its watchful new Kinect sensor that must be plugged in for the console to run can be turned off.

Oh brother, big brother! Maybe this new Xbox won't be spying on everyone after all.

"It is not always watching or always listening," a rep for Microsoft told me over e-mail while I was trying to nail down some facts for a story about next-gen consoles that ran in yesterday's New York Times.

In the Times article, I reported that Microsoft says the Kinect can be turned off. The entire console can be powered down. This might seem obvious to anyone familiar with how consumer electronics work, but... let's face facts...the Xbox One has seemed, for the past week, to be a tad different than the average piece of consumer electronics.

"Yes, you can turn the system completely off," the Microsoft rep said. "This would use no power and turn everything off. We’ll share more details about how it all works later." I believe this powering off involves the aforementioned power button.

Last week, Microsoft did not present a vision of an Xbox One that can or should be turned off. Rather, the company showcased a console that could be "always-on" and managed to freak out enough people who started envisioning an Xbox One that seemed capable of spying on its users.

Microsoft: "We are designing the new Kinect with simple, easy methods to customise privacy settings."

The spying concern wasn't groundless. The new Kinect can see in the dark, pick out human voices in a noisy living room and read your heartrate just by looking at your face. It was unveiled by Microsoft last week as a fixture of the fall-releasing Xbox One. The thing has to be plugged in for the console to work, and is in some way already checking out what's going on in the room it's in.

Even when ostensibly not functioning, the Xbox One can run in a low-powered state, ready to be snapped on at a moment's notice. That's something Microsoft was showing off last week as an asset. The only on-switch Microsoft showed for waking the machine from its low-power state was a voice command... "Xbox On." The Xbox One could only hear that if the Kinect was already, always listening. The idea that the Kinect might always be listening got people reaching for their tin foil or vowing to not let an Xbox One into their home.

Microsoft is now seeking to calm concerns that the new Kinect might spy. "We are designing the new Kinect with simple, easy methods to customise privacy settings, provide clear notifications and meaningful privacy choices for how data will be used, stored and shared," the Microsoft rep told me.

"We know our customers want and expect strong privacy protections to be built into our products, devices and services, and for companies to be responsible stewards of their data. Microsoft has more than 10 years of experience making privacy a top priority. Kinect for Xbox 360 was designed and built with strong privacy protections in place and the new Kinect will continue this commitment. We’ll share more details later."

Answers about the Xbox One beget more questions. Blame our endless curiosity, Microsoft's confusing messaging or just the complex nature of the new console.

It's useful to know that Xbox One users can turn off the console and its sensor all at once without having to, say, unplug the machine. But it's still hard to tell how watchful the Kinect will be during gaming and other uses of the console.

The Xbox 360's Kinect was easy to baffle or block. Players had a leg up on it and could easily maintain their privacy. The sensor didn't have to be plugged in for the console to work. When it was plugged in, it didn't have to face the player. Most games didn't even require it. Xbox 360 users could leave the Kinect unplugged or even block the device's visual sensors if they just wanted to use its microphone for voice commands.

The new Kinect seems like it will be trickier to foil technologically, making Microsoft's promised privacy settings all the more relevant and essential. The new Kinect's vastly-improved sensors can identify its users in the dark and even track which controller they hold in their hands. The new sensor can tell when a user smiles or turns away from the TV and can react. It's unclear if the new Kinect must see a player in its view during their play session or if it can handle being obscured. This is partially a policy decision by Microsoft, which will get to decide whether to require persistent Kinect-based facial recognition to log a player in or, a la Xbox 360, will settle for button prompts.

Microsoft is promising more information about all things Xbox One at E3, the big gaming show that is now just two weeks away.


Comments

    You know you've stuffed up when the off button makes the news.

    Microsoft better be giving out chocolate and puppies to everyone at E3.

      God I hope they don't try to make awkward jokes about it to an audience which is not in the mood. Some past E3 videos like that have been more cringe-worthy than an episode of Frasier or Seinfeld.

        They already made the joke when they announced the console.

        Don Mattrick: "Thank you for being here at our 2013 press conference. There will be a TON of games to show today! Apologies for starting our press conference a few minutes late. We were just having a bit of internet trouble... *shows his "geddit?" face*"

    The title is misleading... I believe people are most interested in being able to turn the Kinect off when they are sitting in front of the thing for hours every day. People don't care that it will power off when you go to bed and power things off yourself.

    Tell me why it can't be turned off while watching a movie or playing a game already...

      I read as MSFT will clarify at E3 through privacy settings on the console that the Kinect can be turned off at all times.

      Yeah. Turning the console off is ok, but lets face it we could do that by switching it off at the wall. The real questions are can the Kinect camera/microphone be turned off while playing, can it be set to turn itself off after X minutes of not being used, does it display a prominent visual indicator of it's current status (on, recording, streaming), does it prompt the user for permission to turn it back on if the software decides to wake it, can it be set to require permission to start any sort of shared/streaming content, can I block/whitelist specific programs from using the cam and/or mic, can we have multiple states of off/on for both the camera and mic (ie, full on, on for local use only, off)?

      I love the idea that every XBOX One ships with a Kinect but they seem to have just ran with the idea that people want it on all the time for the stuff that's not related to the games they play.

      [Edit: Forgot the big one. What sort of things are they doing to ensure the people who make software for the XBOX One aren't abusing it. Is there a loophole where the individual game is free to break privacy agreements made by Microsoft? It's all well and good that Microsoft agrees not to monitor you, but they're giving the tech to thousands of developers. What's to stop EA from recording data on us and sending it back to base? There is afterall no real difference on a technical level between using the camera to interact with the player and using the camera to record the player.]

      Last edited 29/05/13 10:21 am

        You can turn off all the Kinect functions in the settings. This has been clarified by Microsoft.

          News to me. Can you tell us where you heard that? Source?

          But can you pick and choose or is it a blanket off/on? I know I'm asking a lot, but I'd really love Microsoft to make up a silverlight beta of the XBOX One OS, complete with settings, so we can get all the feedback out there before it launches. I want to be able to use the Kinect I just don't want it doing anything without my permission and I want to be able to restrict it's functionality in certain situations. That sort of micromanagement doesn't really mesh with consoles, but when you're talking about an always connected webcam there's a bit of trouble.

          You mean just like I can turn off GPS on my smartphone? Which doesnt mean a thing because any app on my phone can reactivate and use my GPS at any time.

          what would be the point of requiring the kinect always be connected if you can turn it off by itself?

    Ok MS your excuses and bs side stepping are just embarrassing now. I dont care about when its off, of course its less likely to work when its off. I want to know the legitimate reason behind it being a necessary feature? I mean you can do everything with a controller on dashboard anyhow? I and most others will not be satisfied until you can actually unplug it when not needing it. Its not that I dont trust you MS... I REALLY dont trust you. At all.

      I'm with you. Why is is necessary to have it plugged in ALL the time?

        So devs start actually doing stuff with it. They didn't pay too much attention to the last Kinect because not everyone had one or had it plugged in. If everyone needs to have one though, that makes it less a waste of resources to make game features based around it.
        That's just one reason anyway.

          Having it as a primary option is ok but again theres zero logical reason behind it needing to be plugged in that I can see other than monitoring and potential stat gathering.

          Sure, and that is a valid reason to have it packaged into every console but for me its still not a reason to have a requirement to have it plugged in before you can power on your console when you have no intention of using it.
          I don't think anyone is under the impression that every game is going to require it. I think most that will use it will also have an options to not use it, particularly the cross platform games. Just my thoughts and I would feel the same way about PS if they required the move camera or some other peripheral i don't want to be always connected.

          Yeah, look forward to kinect usage being shoehorned into otherwise good games, resulting in unbearably awkward experiences at best, utterly detrimental at worst (and most likely). One in a thousand will see an incidence of inspired, seamless, worthwhile integration which somehow manages to not be shit (while still not providing much benefit over existing systems).

          Source/precedent: Every motion-controlled game ever. And the signature 3D in the 3DS.

            Yeah, look forward to kinect usage being shoehorned into otherwise good games,

            That's sort of the point though. The Kinect no longer has to be shoehorned into games. It's just on the table for developers to use. Right now the XBOX 360 Kinect is all or nothing. You either sell your game specifically to people who have a Kinect or you don't, and it's a choice you make early in development. Thanks to it being standard there's no commitment required for developers. They've got full freedom to use as little or as much Kinect functionality as they want, and are able to just dump it when it doesn't play well.

              But like I said, we've seen this before. Look at the original DS or the 3DS. All the early titles made token, frustratingly unintuitive and unrewarding use of the non-mandatory bells and whistles. (Yes, people playing a portable handset are likely to do so in public - they probably don't want to be shouting and screaming into their handheld while on a train.) Look at the Wii, Wii U, or the Sony Move. (I don't even own one, let alone have it plugged in, Sony - stop wasting my time with 10 second Move-specific splash screens on my games.)

              Many of their problems came down to the fact that the motion controls were just plain shit, where the kinect 2 promises (and I have no faith that it will deliver) to be something other than the ungodly innacurate nightmare which turned what should have been an awesome mech game (Steel Battalion) into one of the most universally criticized/'0 rating' reviewed games for the console. Sure. But even after the wii got a proper oldschool control pad, developers kept on making games which were made worse for their attempt at the motion control gimmick.

              Edit: I can only suspect that there was some level of corporate influence going on that carried incentives to try and make use of whichever platform's gimmick, and if that was the case, I expect that to continue. Either that or devs are more bone-headed than we give them credit for, and I expect that to continue.

              Last edited 29/05/13 10:26 am

                In the case of the 3DS I'd say it's partially because the actual 3D functionality doesn't have much substance. The Kinect has potential even if it's barely touched on it so far. It's more like the stylus/touch screen on the original DS.

                Steel Battalion was mostly the developers fault. They failed to realise people don't act like robots. When they do the motion to close the porthole they reach forward, grab the 'bar', pull it down, then, and this is the important part, pull away before releasing their grip on the bar. Without an actual bar there nobody thinks to release it. The game was full of things that expected you to treat them like real objects without realising most people aren't natural mimes.
                I think developers will get a better feel for it with the Kinect being available at all times. Building in things to compensate for stuff like that. Like I said before there's no commitment, they can ease their way into it rather than going full force like Steel Battalion. It reminds me of camera controls in early 3D engines. With time and the hardware as standard we should see a vast improvement. I'd expect to see it used as an augmentation for the gamepad more than just the crappy dance camera we've seen so far.

        Probably for the same reason the PS3 and Wii aren't really turned off unless you physically power them off, so you can turn them on wirelessly. The XBox 1 might also might download updates during non-peak hours. In any case, it's not going to blow up or melt down and stop working forever if you pull the power plug.

          I meant the Kinect always plugged in not the console :)

        So developers know that it's an accessory they can develop for knowing that EVERYONE will have one?

        That way we don't have another situation like Move or WiiMote plus where no games ended up supporting them because no one had them.

        Same way devs here held back by the Xbox 360 not having a standard hard drive. Kinect isn't just "arm flailing lol" like ignorant trolls would have you believe. Smart developers who think outside the box could implement SUBTLE Kinect touches that can genuinely help with immersion.

        Example. Forza Motorsport. What if, when the race gets intense, Kinect detects your heartbeat increasing and the game then changes the style of music to one that further enhances the intensity? Or in a tennis game, during a long rally, the increased heart rate gets the crowd more involved?

        Maybe in an FPS, the NPC that needs to deliver classified information asks if "the person in the room with you" is ok to speak in front of?

        Those all have zero to do with arm flailing, woudl require minimal development cost/effort but could enhance immersion greatly. I'm sure there's plenty of other subtle touches. Maybe Kinect could detect the lighting in the room and adjust the lighting in game based on the same?

          You are avoiding the issue entirely. It is a fact that everyone who own an X-Box1 would have a Kinect. What that does NOT explain, is why the the Console can't be used without the Kinect connected.

          Everyone will have Kinect. It is pre-packaged goods. You have NOT explained why its connection is mandatory.

            For the same reason the Nintendo 64 RAM Expansion Pak was "mandatory".

            Yeah, you could take the RAm Pak out because it ruined the looks of your console, but most games after it's release used it so you'd end up plugging it in anyway.

            Whether Microsoft makes you plug it in, or developers do, what's the difference? Storm in a tea cup. If it bothers people so much, don't buy it. Microsoft isn't forcing anyone to buy it.

      Hear hear... and while we're at it I want to know why power steering is necessary, or toasters, or mobile phones...

        Yeah bloody oath,
        Don't you hate when you forget to plug your toaster in and the house lights wont turn on.

        Don't forget automatic doors and cameras... they steal your soul!

          When I was at high school I knew a guy who got suspended for tearing down the motion sensor that triggers when the urinal should flush. Quote: "I don't want someone looking at my dick."

          I would not be surprised if Microsoft needs to covertly communicate to the general public that yes, this creepy face-recognizing camera and microphone can actually be completely shut down entirely when you and your partner are using the machine to play back materials which, say... 'set the mood'. Or if you're going solo.

          In short... Xbone: don't look at our junk.

          Last edited 29/05/13 10:13 am

    They need to allow people to just disconnect Kinect. I understand it being included with every console so developers will support it more but having it mandatory to be connected is just plain stupid. Many people just want to play games with a controller.

    "We will give more details later" seems to be their catch-cry.

    Is it because they're hastily redesigning systems to make them more acceptable, or do they genuinely think this is a good approach to PR?

    Or because the news is so bad they need to drip feed us information at carefully controlled intervals to protect their stock prices?

    Last edited 29/05/13 7:58 am

      I'd say they're drip feeding that info so Sony doesn't one up them. Same reason why we don't know much about how the PS4 works.

      Drop a bombshell.
      Gauge public opinion (AKA "We will give more details later").
      Are consumers threatening a boycott?
      If so, water down bombshell.
      Repeat.

      I really do wonder if someone has had to sit down and make the decision, "OK, so we need to reveal our product and its details very slowly, drip-by-drip, to avoid tanking the share price." For the sake of my faith in human intelligence, I hope not. I mean, you would think that if it is apparent to you that unveiling your product as-is would result in obliterating your stock value, maybe you should reconsider your product.

      It'd be like gently lowering yourself into magma, inch by inch. Yes, you'd probably stop feeling pain after that part of the body has been submerged long enough, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea to keep lowering.

    Because streaming 1080p or 720p footage 24/7 from your xbone to MS is feasible anyway...

      Audio is or how about footage after a key phrase is flagged?

      Every article I read on this, I feel like people are consistently missing the point...
      Everyone keeps going on about "Microsoft watching me in my sleep" and how "lolsworthy" it is that tinfoil hats believe they would do that. Its beside the point. To me the issue is: you have essentially an always on webcam attached to your xBox in your living room. Due to the nature of the console, its going to be pretty close to an "Always connected" experience in regards to the internet.

      Just think about that for a second.

      14 year old kids have been able to hack webcams for years. They're not even smart. You go to a website offering you the tools to do it, spend some time learning it, done. Now you have some candid shots of internet randoms with poor security or knowledge, from their laptop webcams. You think that the second this console comes out people wont be trying to find ways to introduce exploits into the system to allow remote access to the kinect? That's just being naive.

      Not that I think its something to get so worked up over, but it would be nice for an article to at least once go, "Well hey, yeh this is actually a bit of a risk. Users should just be wary of this sort of thing, as with anytime they are on the internet."

    Sounds to me like Microsoft has gone in to freak-out mode and are trying to redesign the way the console works at the last minute. It would definitely explain all the "more details later" rubbish they keep spouting; they don't actually KNOW how it's going to work YET, but it definitely won't do that thing that they said it would because everyone hated it.

    Last edited 29/05/13 8:04 am

      I think they're going into freak out mode because the internet went into freak out mode.

        Only a vocal minority has gone into freak out mode. Testing said somewhere in the vicinity of 20% of people responded negatively, with 40% mixed and 40% positive.

        I think making any major changes based on the comment section at Kotaku is probably jumping the gun - let's at least wait until after E3 and see what's cooking.

          Thing is, if you do a google search for 'xbox one' that 20% seems to be at the top of the search results. Either that 20% has had a chance to expand into something far more significant, or google is providing search results based on my post-viewing history.

          ...Shit!

            That's the way the internet works. The vocal minority are the ones that are passionate enough to complain on every messageboard they can. The people who are happy or excited generally don't have much to say about it online. What is there to talk about?

              The point is the way messages spread. So there was 20% negative, 40% positive (I have my doubts, really), and 40% unaware/neutral. If those unaware want to go look something up and type 'new xbox' or 'xbox one' into Google, the first few hits they're going to see are people slagging it off and calling it a failure. Shrug. Walk away.

              The point is that it shouldn't be that hard to please that 20%. These are the people who were looking forward to it, the people who tuned in and were waiting to be spoken to - and instead got flipped the bird. An opportunity to bring gaming into a new era came as the future... with a wheel clamp on it. Bits and pieces of which they are slowly walking back from

              Compare water to tea leaves. Tea leaves comprise the minority of that mix, but it is potent and pervasive. Just like negative reaction amongst experts.

            "google is providing search results based on my post-viewing history."

            yeah... they do that.

            you should use duckduck.go if you don't want your search results tracked or filter bubbled.

          I am not saying to trust those figures or not but you can silence voices in the market by making them feel like they have minority opinions and are therefore insignificant.

    “Yes, you can turn the system completely off,” the Microsoft rep said. “This would use no power and turn everything off. We’ll share more details about how it all works later.”... Walk to wall socket, flip power switch to OFF position, done.
    I'm hoping there is a "fake kinect" dongle coming that makes the xBone ~think~ a kinect is attached but just has a small amount of sound and vision on continuous loop.

      I would put the Tom Jones song 'sex-bomb' on the dongle loop - just to freak microsoft out.

    What if someone doesn't connect the kinect up in the first place. Would they still be able to use their Xbone? What if the Kinect breaks. Is your Xbone unusable until it's fixed? Will it turn on everytime your cat walks in front of the sensor?

      Only if your cat learns to say "Xbox on"

      And I dont know too many cats that can talk

      I think thats the least of your worries anyway - if you had a cat that could talk....

      What if the sensor bar breaks on your Wii?

        then it would probably be a lot cheaper to replace than a new Kinect 2

          What if the gamepad controller breaks on your Wii U?

          Not that this line of questioning actually goes anywhere, since Microsoft has a long history of replacing faulty tech so I can only assume you broke your kinect 2.0 by doing something retarded in the first place.

    I find it interesting that people are looking for excuses like this to have an opinion when their phones have constant location tracking, as well as camera.

      A camera which is not always-on during normal operation or when in standby mode. And when it is active, is unlikely to catch any incriminating or embarrassing behaviour that isn't (perhaps drunkenly) intended. Unless you consider my pocket especially riveting. If it is up and communicating, the battery goes flat faster than shaken coke left out to dry (on the iphone at least).

      It's kind of comforting to know that if anyone is actually trying to track and covertly monitor my activities they've only got that brief and controllable window to do it, and probably not when I'm engaging in the acts I want to keep private.

      There really is no comparison between the two.

        So just put a piece of cardboard over the lens and you have the same effect as your phone does as your pocket. Big deal.

          The suggestion has definitely been made to do the old Skyrim 'bucket on the head as a work-around.

    I'm going to make a little courtesy curtain for my xbox. Cover it up when not in use.
    Also... kotaku articles are so much nicer to read at 16px font size, with a 23px line-height. Why the tiny font?

    Are there any circumstances where Kinect 2 could be triggered remotely? That's all I want to know.

      Of course there would be, but they won't tell us about it. Just think of the next wave of warrantless searches performed by law enforcement who can simply contact MS and then watch your house from the inside. Recording everything you say and due just because they suspect you and need proof for a real search. If you trust a company to put an always watching always listening system in your house your a fool. People are corruptable and business more so.

        That's horrifyingly likely. I remember that US "law enforcement" authorities have taken people's phone data from telecoms without a warrent so often that the telcos actually have manuals for "police" on how to do it. No reason to believe they won't use this chance to invade people's privacy and ignore their rights too.

    I can already tell that the "privacy options" are going to be buried in some obscure sub-menu where no one ever will bother to look, while the factory default is going to be the "always-on" creepy stalker mode.

      If you can't be bothered to look, can you really complain its always on?

    So if they once again dodge the question of whether you can deactivate Kinect WHILE THE CONSOLE IS ON AND YOU'RE USING IT, then that means they really do want to spy on you. Because if they weren't they'd LEAP on the chance to reassure customers that an orwellian nightmare future was the LAST thing their console could possibly produce. More double-talk, obfuscation, and trust-destroying garbage. I guess it makes sense the internet is on FIRE with hate against this thing.

    At the risk of nit picking, the second sentence in the article did my head in.
    I just couldn't read past it.
    "What’s more: its watchful new Kinect sensor that must be plugged in for the console to run can be turned off."
    Does it mess with anyone else's head?

    All these comments missing the point.

    If you have to turn it off at the wall to power down, that's bad.

    BUT, the main problem is this: Having that kind of instant on recording works both ways. Microsoft is notorious for caving to government pressure. I'm refusing to put an easily accessible camera in my house just for a games console.

    Sooooo I can't just sell my Kinect and be done with it? Why can't Microsoft just stick with making a gaming console and not this piece of crap?

    I believe Microsoft is ALREADY watching us through the Kinect on the 360, A friend and I were playing a local game, while taking a break we heard a voice come on the TV. It gave a description of me and my friend down to the clothes we were wearing. it went on to say it knew we were smoking marijuana and was tracing my IP address, Microsoft has ignored me completely on the subject so now I am looking to the internet to bring them to justice because my girlfriend and I have had sex in front of the sensor, and I FULLY believe whoever saw me and my friend had to see this as well and this is a full invasion of our privacy

    Ok listen here you super paranoid kataku'ers... Think about this, your a billion dollar company - your reputation, your fortune, its on the line. Your trying like hell to please billions of loyal fans, and entice billions of competitors fans, and you are designing the future of video game technology, and your spending just retarded buku bucks on research, on design, on programming of this high end technical achievement. You already have had one (arguably) successful version of said high end technical device (the original kinect) and your planning on building on top of that success with a more powerful, more accurate successor. Now while your in the midst of this you have a VERY EXTREMELY limited window of time to finish the development of this device (microsoft wont be outdone by sony), and your spending more and more money for every single little thing you wish to add in to this devices functionality. Put yourself in these shoes...

    Ok so with that state of mind... are you going to actually alienate your entire possible market (the loyal and unloyal alike) by creating some so called super secret backdoor which *ofcourse* - is guaranteed to be discovered by the genius community which reverse engineers your device (and network) - every single time you release ANYTHING.......

    ORRRRRR........... are you going to f#$king put your nose to the grindstone, crunch out every little kink in its REAL - actual functionality, and then just rake in the bucks from your commercial success..... or go with the whole "ruin our entire company in a huge scandalous sure-to-be-exposed act of stupidity" route......

    I mean get a effing grip! This is microsoft - sure, not the most trustworthy company, but by far they are NOT going to overstep their boundaries breaking into a new area of technology and bring this flagship device down Hindenburg style... its just insane and even paranoid to think that - and to even fathom M$ taking some radical chance to watch you jerk off - over making hundreds of dollars consistently from you - I reallllllllllllllly - I MEAN REALLLLLLLLLLLLLY think they are gonna take the money instead. No offense, but M$ as well as probably most people - DO NOT WANT TO WATCH YOU JERK OFF YOU PARANOID IDIOTS! So come back down from your pipe dream (nightmare?) and realize that your much more likely to have big brother watch you through your forever connected smartphone than a damned game console thats designed entirely with making money in mind... and you know what DOES NOT MAKE MONEY? Screwing your fan base... so yeah its never gonna happen - wake up.

      pfft. Two Words. Windows Eight.

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