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Microsoft: Dropping Kinect could free up extra processing power in Xbox One

Today's surprise announcement that Microsoft will next month start selling the Xbox One console for $100 less without a Kinect came after a couple of months of serious discussion, said Yusuf Mehdi, corporate vice president for devices and studios.

Mehdi said Microsoft officials spoke with developers and publishers over the past few weeks to make them aware of the change. On June 9, Microsoft will start selling a Kinect-less version of the Xbox One for $399 and a standalone Xbox One Kinect sensor hits this fall.

The news comes almost exactly a year after the Xbox One was revealed on the Microsoft campus with an all-new Kinect that Microsoft officials said at the time was an "essential and integrated part of the platform. By having it as a consistent part of every Xbox One, game and entertainment creators can build experiences that assume the availability of voice, gesture and natural sensing, leading to unrivaled ease of use, premium experiences and interactivity for you."

In an interview with Polygon today, Mehdi says the company's support of Kinect hasn't changed.

"We remain deeply committed to the Kinect as a core component of a next-generation console," he said. "We think that the bio-metric sign-in, voice controls of the menu, ability to say 'record that' and capture a moment of gameplay are all critical to the experience.

"We have never wavered from that since the launch."

But, Mehdi said, they have also "tried to be very responsive to feedback."

That first wave of feedback, a reaction to the requirement that the Kinect, an array of microphones and cameras, had to be plugged in and on for the Xbox One to operate, resulted in a change before the console was launched, Mehdi said.

In August, the company announced that Kinect could be unplugged and that the Xbox One would still operate.

"We updated the system to enable those capabilities," he said. "So you could pause Kinect or the Xbox One would work without it plugged in. Those were features that we didn't have from the beginning."

And today's news, Mehdi said, is also being driven by feedback.

"The decision we're announcing today is offering a choice to people that would allow people to buy an Xbox One and then ramp up to Kinect when they can afford to," he said.

Mehdi said the decision was driven in part by the adoption rate of current Xbox 360 owners.

"We have over 80 million people who have yet to buy Xbox One," Mehdi said.

"Our view is that the Xbox One with Kinect is the premium experience."

It's possible that with Microsoft officials saying the Kinect would always be bundled with the Xbox One, some of the current 5 million or so owners might feel like they purchased the system too soon. I asked Mehdi if there were any plans to make that up to those early adopters. The short answer is "No."

"Our view is that the Xbox One with Kinect is the premium experience," he said. "The things you are able to do are pretty magical. I think that (early adopters) are hopefully delighted as well with their usage."

One of the arguments Microsoft made for packaging in the Kinect with every Xbox One was that it would allow "game and entertainment creators" to build experiences assuming the availability of the camera and all of its features.

But with this new Kinect-free console, that won't be the case anymore.

Mehdi said he doesn't think that will be a problem for developers.

"We have been working with our developers and game publisher partners for awhile trying to balance two goals," he said. "One is the accessibility of the Kinect and the other is the desire for customers to onboard to Xbox One. They want both, a large audience of users and the best features.

"We feel this vision is balance the best of those goals."

Now the team is working to prepare for the transition. That includes repackaging the half dozen or so Kinect-only games to make it obvious that the camera is required.

"We will have more to talk about soon."

Mehdi said the team is also reexamining the Xbox One's hardware architecture. Last year, Ben Kilgore, then corporate vice president of Microsoft's Interactive Entertainment Business and one of the chief architects for the new console, explained that the Xbox One's operating system was highly specialized.

The console's architecture gives the game operating system a fixed reservation of CPU power and the same is true for Kinect, he said.

"We have special processors for Kinect that enables a bunch of really cool things like part of what you saw today, when Yusuf was like in Internet Explorer and said 'Go to home' or 'Go to ESPN'," Kilgore said at the time. "He also said 'Go to Halo' and when he was in Halo he could have gone somewhere else. So the system is always listening, kind of outside of the game, which is really different from the 360 model, once you get into the game, it's really only the game code that is running. So we can extend all that in our system versus it being tied up in the game code."

But Mehdi said that could change now.

"We are in discussions with our game publishers about what we might do in this space and we will have more to talk about soon," he said.

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