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ups: Enables custom gamer pics, installs and integrates into Xbox dashboard easily, video chat, lots of potential.
downs: Not a lot to do with it at the moment.

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Xbox 360 Gains Big Glowing Eye
game: Xbox Live Vision Camera
four star
posted by: Shawn Rider
publisher: Microsoft
developer: Microsoft
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date posted: 08:51 PM Tue Sep 26th, 2006

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Click to read.The idea of a game system with an eye has always intrigued me. As cell phone cameras and webcams become more and more pervasive, the camera seems like a natural extension of the technology landscape games (and other applications) inhabit. I\'ve seen some cool games from companies like Ojom that utilize a mobile phone\'s camera functions to provide interaction with the game. And websites like YouTube and Google Video prove that just about everyone online has a webcam, and they\'ll use it if you give them a reason.

However, in the game world the adoption of cameras has happened more slowly. The GameBoy Camera was a novelty, and I only ever saw a couple of them "in the wild." EyeToy has been a more interesting and popular novelty, but has not become utilized or adopted as a mainstream part of the PlayStation 2. The EyeToy Play collections are decent, but ultimately are not compelling enough to keep gamers\' attention. There have been a couple of full-length games but these titles, such as Anti-Grav (the hover-boarding sci-fi race game made by Guitar Hero creators Harmonix) failed to generate a devoted cult following.

But at the cusp of the next-generation, the camera seems to have been adopted as a worthy paradigm for online-enabled consoles. The rapid increase in digital camera quality, as well as advanced computer vision algorithms, have made the idea of a camera-based input system more interesting to game developers. Microsoft has picked up on the camera concept, and released their Xbox Live Vision Camera last week for $40. This Xbox 360 accessory adds several new features to general Xbox workings and opens a realm of possibility to game developers.

Of course, it offers a realm of possibility to gamers, too, and as webcams have shown, it\'s almost impossible to imagine the depths of depravity or heights of silliness these devices will prompt on networks of console gamers. My bet is that the Xbox Live Vision Camera will lead to hitherto unknown levels of online mayhem.

All predictions aside, the Vision camera packs quite a punch. It is smaller than most webcams, but still packs 1.3 megapixels of digital imaging power. The imaging is good, but not great. Built-in algorithms color-correct, provide all the basic cheesy video filters, and digital zoom. These functions are about what one would expect, and overall the Vision takes good pictures. The camera itself features an optical focus ring, which is a good thing.

Installation of the Vision camera is simple: Plug the thing into one of the two Xbox 360 USB ports and it will power up. From your dashboard you can access the basic camera features under the Settings blade. There is not much to configure about the camera. You can force a type of color-correction (for incandescent or fluorescent light sources), and set the background color. (One thing we noticed at E3 was that the Vision camera seems to do much better than EyeToy with real-world backgrounds.) The camera effect on the dashboard background is set in the Themes editor, which can be found under the Personal Settings option in your Xbox Guide.

By default, the Vision camera overlays whatever it sees on the background you have selected for your Xbox Dashboard. The camera indicates whether or not it is looking at you by illuminating a green ring around the lens. This feature gives the camera and Xbox 360 a somewhat creepy quality, which is enhanced by my memory of meeting representatives from GestureTek, the company that created the chips and libraries that run the Vision camera.

GestureTek\'s software development kit and imaging technologies have been in high demand lately: Various security agencies have shown interest in their facial recognition technology. At E3 2006, GestureTek showed off demos of the Vision camera tracking individual faces, recognizing particular human beings based on their facial characteristics. In these demos, the camera never got confused, and the tracking of recognized faces was amazing. If that demo alone isn\'t enough to blow the average gamer\'s mind, GestureTek also showed off technologies that seemed to make it possible for the Xbox to mimic the best of the EyeToy games and the interaction of the Wii controller. GestureTek has developed a proprietary stereoscopic vision chip which could allow the Vision camera to recognize the position of a player\'s hand in 3D space, not only tracking it, but recognizing individual movements. All of these demonstrations, plus many more small and interesting functions, made it clear that the Vision camera could do a lot more than video chat and custom Gamerpics.

Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, all the Vision camera really does is video chat and custom Gamerpics.

The only currently-available games that support the Vision camera are Xbox Live Arcade games. The Hardwood games series (Backgammon, Hearts, etc.) have downloadable updates to support the camera, and Uno has always supported cameras since its release. With cameras being so new, it\'s unusual to find somebody else with a camera, which leads to the very odd experience of being the only person at Uno whom everyone else can see. It\'s unsettling.

Texas Hold\'em allows players to view each other as they make crucial decisions in the game, which could be a real bonus for poker games. Totem Ball is an Xbox Live Arcade game scheduled for release this Fall that uses the camera to control interaction with the game. But until a game like this is available, it\'s hard to talk about how the Vision camera will perform in a game environment.

The Xbox Live video chat service is operational and provides quality video chat. Again, you have to know somebody with a Vision camera, but if you do, and you really like to talk to that person, then you\'re in luck. In video chat, you see both your image and your friend\'s image. The audio sounds the same as Xbox Live always does, which is not great but not bad, and the images pretty much match the mediocre quality. With good connections, the image can be very fluid, but in moments of congestion, it stutters. The resolution is decent, but it\'s impossible to stream full-quality video, even using a broadband connection.

Of course, with its limited features and focus on chat and casual games, the Vision camera feels a bit pervy. We already know that people have no problem getting freaky on their webcams, and the Xbox Live community is not exactly known for being cautious, reserved individuals. Poker with video just screams "strip poker" to me as loudly as Uno with video screams "strip Uno."

And lest you think me improper to have such thoughts about an Xbox with a camera, I believe Microsoft has given us a sly wink: the Tickle Feature. In video chat you can "tickle" your friend by pulling the triggers on your controller. This causes your friend\'s controller to vibrate. Maybe I\'m just an old perverted gamer, or maybe I\'ve read Jane Pinckard\'s classic essay about the Japanese version of Rez (which came packed with a vibrator peripheral) one too many times, but I do believe this feature is Uncle Bill\'s way of telling us, "It\'s OK. Those feelings are natural. Go, make new friends."

Regardless of how gamers use the Vision camera, what will really make it worthy of purchase is how game developers make use of it. The Vision provides a huge array of features to game creators, but so far all of that is on paper. At the moment, the Vision camera is only really useful if you\'re way into video chat. And if you are, then it\'s pretty great.

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