The second of Microsoft Studios’ new ‘2-way TV Experience’ products, launched alongside the critically acclaimed Kinect Sesame Street TV, the Relentless Software developed Kinect Nat Geo TV is another interesting experimentation into the future of television entertainment. Offered for a few pounds more than your typical documentary DVD, the Kinect Nat Geo TV retail package (season one is currently available via Xbox LIVE Marketplace) includes two seasons of four episodes each, with around forty minutes of action in each episode. But you can’t measure Kinect Nat Geo TV in terms of duration alone despite its generosity, as it’s the interactive nature of the product that offers so much more.
Hosted by Casey Anderson, the Kinect Nat Geo TV bases its format on the popular America the Wild show, though with some significant adjustments to allow for the interactive nature of the software. As the programme progresses players will be part of an award system that sees them earning a medal at the end of each episode: bronze, silver, gold or platinum. Each correct interaction will earn you another chunk of the meter that builds towards each new medal, interactions such as Snapshots, Sidetracks, correctly answering questions and taking part in mini-games.
The Snapshots gameplay is the most immediate of all, paralleling the picture taking in the aforementioned Kinect Sesame Street TV. The player is given a situation, such as a cub in a tree or a wolverine in mid-air, and must take a certain number of these pictures by shouting ‘snap’ when they see it taking place on-screen. Similar in fashion – though not in outcome – are the Sidetracks sections. Saying ‘tracks’ when you see an animal’s tracks on the screen and a Sidetrack event will begin, offering more details on a certain aspect of the study which has just been discussed. It’s a short cutaway video that expands on the premise, making sure you’ve been paying attention and giving you a reason to return once having watched an episode if you missed any.
Each episode also features mini-games which ask for more than a simply voice command or raise of the arm. Asking the player(s) to get out of their seat, Kinect Nat Geo TV will use augmented reality features to place you in the videogame and give you a specific task related to the episode you are watching. For example, bears will have to fit rocks to disturb moths out of the hiding place as a light snack, whereas wolverines will need to dig through snow to find the meat lying hidden below. Players are awarded up to three stars depending on their score (two player matches will join both scores) which of course count towards the medal received at the end of the episode. Just as with Kinect Sesame Street TV however, should you simply wish to watch the television programme you can ignore all of this interactivity and Kinect Sesame Street TV will automatically continue after one minute of inactivity.
The final interaction available is that of the question and answer set-up. Occasionally Anderson will through a question at you, usually related to the subject matter discussed literally second ago. You’ll get two options and can select by raising your left or right hand accordingly. Get the question right and you’ll proceed naturally, get it wrong and Anderson will inform you of your error while carefully avoiding becoming condescending. It’s a small touch, but a brilliantly devised one.
The presentation of Kinect Nat Geo TV is remarkable. Along with Kinect Sesame Street TV, this first step into brand new territory lives up to the grand promises made. It’s an experiment that has paid in dividends, and deserves success not just for the extraordinary achievement made here, but so that others have the courage to follow suit. It may be decades away, but it’s wholly possible to envisage a future where all kinds of television programmes, from dramas to sitcoms, feature some kind of interactivity as part of the experience, whether it be a cutaway or a plot development mechanic. There’s no finer way to explain Kinect Nat Geo TV then to propose a hypothesis: if you were looking to buy your family any kind of wildlife documentary DVD this winter and already own an Xbox 360, stop. Buy an episode via the free the Kinect Nat Geo TV app for your console and try to find a reason why that extra few pounds wouldn’t be wisely spent.