Update: Microsoft has provided us a statement on Kinect voice commands. You can read the entire statement detailing Microsoft's correction to Phil Harrison's statements on June 9, 2014.

Original Story:

Last week at E3, I sat down with Microsoft corporate vice president Phil Harrison to talk about Xbox One and the recent changes to the platform. During that conversation, we spoke about Kinect, the unbundling, and what it means for developers.

During that part of the discussion, I asked Harrison a number of questions about the increased GPU power now available to developers and how Microsoft was imposing restrictions on system-level voice commands. Following the interview, we ran a story titled "Developers Can Completely Shut Off Kinect Functions" based on Harrison's assertion that was the case. During the interview we asked the question, requested clarification immediately following, and then used our "last question" as designated by the two PR representatives in the room to make sure we got the story right.

Today, Kotaku published an interview with head of Xbox Phil Spencer that provides information directly in conflict with what Harrison told us throughout the interview. We've of course contacted Microsoft again to find out what the real story is, and have not yet received a response. For the sake of clarity, I’ve transcribed the relevant three minute segment of the twenty-three minute interview.

Game Informer: In terms of the choices that have been given to developers, there has been some confusion amongst consumers about what that might mean for basic Kinect functionality in a game where developers choose to apply that GPU bandwidth to gaming as opposed to the Kinect functions. Is there a new baseline of mandatory Kinect functions for developers? In other words, does the microphone need to stay on so that you can answer a Skype call or “record that” or any of the very basic voice functions?

Phil Harrison: The simple summary is we put those choices in the hands of the developer rather than make them reserved by the system. We think that’s the right balance. That will give up to 10 percent more performance, and developers are already telling us that it’s having a material impact in gameplay as well as game visuals. Our commitment is to continue to do that. It’s not just a one-time thing. Our platform engineering team will continue to eke out every bit of performance they can, handing that over to the developer as efficiently as possible so that the developer can integrate it into the experience that makes the game fun.

So it is conceivable then that a developer could choose to disable voice commands entirely?

I think the scenario that most developers are going to choose, where they need every last mip and megahertz of the system, is when the gameplay finishes and when the player quits out of the game back to the dash, the game will hand back the system reservation and then all of the functionality of Kinect will continue as before.

Again, this is just me wanting to make sure that I understand. So, right now you can “go home” by hitting the guide button on the controller, but you can also say “go home.” You can also say things like “Xbox, record that.” I want to make sure that what I’m hearing is that it is possible for a developer to say, “We want to disable the record function, we need to get everything out of the system that we possibly can right now.” So it’s conceivable that they can say, “We’re just going to make sure that if you want to ‘go home,’ you can tap the guide button.”

To answer your question in detail, on the Xbox Wire post that Phil did last week, there was some details on the system update. If anything is unclear on that, maybe we should go back and enhance that.

We checked the Xbox Wire post about the unbundling following the interview, and the type of details we were asking about were nowhere to be found. We ran the story about Kinect flexibility confident that we had done our due diligence in asking the question and clarifying not once, but twice immediately after.

To cover our bases, we followed up with Microsoft and received a clear response from a PR representative the next day. We received the following response confirming our research and the information we had been provided. 

“[I was] passed your question about if devs can fully ‘shut Kinect off’ by utilizing the GPU reserve changes.  They aren’t technically shutting Kinect off, but they just aren’t writing any code that is listening for it or talking to it,” the representative told us via e-mail. “This is really about giving back horsepower that was held for Kinect and letting them use it for other things...devs decide how much to use, how fluid they want to be with resources, where in the game they want to use % of memory, etc.”

With that confirmation of what Harrison told us in hand, we moved through the rest of our E3 week. Tonight, we noticed contradictory information appear, as Kotaku ran an interview with head of Xbox Phil Spencer.

In speaking with that outlet, Spencer made it clear that voice commands like “go home” and “record that” cannot be affected by developer choice. “You can still say ‘Xbox, record that’ and grab clips even in non-gesture games, Spencer said, noting that the system's verbal user interface will keep running,” Kotaku writes. “Since those voice commands are going through the Kinect, then the Kinect is doing something, just not anything visually intensive.”

We’ve followed up with Microsoft to try to reach clarity on this matter. We’ll update should we receive a response.


Our Take
Microsoft’s last year has been about improving communications and staying on point with messaging. This incident is what I would have expected from Xbox in 2013, not at E3 2014.

We can’t say for sure who is correct yet, unfortunately, as Microsoft has yet to respond definitively to us. Phil Harrison has a history of misspeaking, taking another crack at explaining Xbox policies to Eurogamer last year, and providing erroneous information to Kotaku before Microsoft corrected the error with another site.

We attempted to get as much clarity last week as we could. It’s unfortunate that there is this much confusion around what should be a fairly simple question. As a Xbox One owner who uses Kinect, I'll be glad to find out that Phil Harrison was wrong. However, because of the discrepancy, we had no choice but to share our process and point out the conflicting information coming out of Microsoft.