Someone telling you they can feel your heartbeat is a sweet, intimate act. Most of all when you’re with your lover; slightly less sweet when it’s your doctor, and not all that sweet really when it’s a bearded man screaming it through your letterbox in the night.
With the release of the Xbox One, there’s a new category that’s possibly the least sweet of all – an inanimate object that tells you it can feel your heart beating via its frightening infrared camera. Previously, videogame hardware capable of seeing into your body had been limited to Nintendo’s follow-up to the Virtual Boy, 1997’s unpopular Endoscope & Watch. Now, with Kinect, Microsoft aren’t happy with just owning the living room, they want to stake a claim on the internal organs and blood of the people sat in it.
On the surface this seems like a terrifying and unnerving violation of your privacy, partly because it unarguably is a terrifying and unnerving violation of your privacy. When asked whether they’d like a tiny robot with the ability to see in the dark and understand human speech to sit silently watching them like a cross between fictional serial killer Buffalo Bill, an actual serial killer, and that robot from The Black Hole, most people would respond “no”. Kinect is inherently a bit creepy. It could measure you for a suit without you knowing. In a pitch-black room, it could not only determine whether there was a murderer poised behind you with an axe, but also record how long it took you to die.
It’s not all watching you while you sleep, though. Having Wall-E’s evil pervert brother peering over the top of your television listening to your heartbeat may seem intrusive now, but it could save lives in the future. Gaming is a stressful, intense pastime – defeating a boss in Dark Souls is the cardiovascular equivalent of lifting weights on an exercise bike in a sauna for an hour and then standing up really quickly -– and if Kinect detects excessive, heart-straining excitement, it could react and dynamically make a game less interesting, with the developers of Ryse reportedly already hard at work on this technology.
Similarly, rather than fulfilling the traditional role of a videogame console in a relationship – that of an impenetrable barrier which cuts one person off from another and cuts both of them off from happiness – the Xbox One could actually bring people together. By combining detection of pulse with blush response, respiration and pupil dilation to form a working polygraph test, the mystery as to whether your partner actually does mind you playing Battlefield 4 right now rather than just saying they don’t could be resolved forever; furthermore, asking your partner a series of emotionally probing questions could determine whether they’re a replicant.
Kinect is useful right now too, allowing you to not only use your voice to turn your Xbox on but to turn it off again. That alone justifies it staring at you all the time. Rather than some body horror nightmare, this is human and machine working together for the benefit of both – like C3P0 giving you a totally appropriate sponge bath with no funny stuff at all, as opposed a kind of Tetsuo II: Body Hammer situation. Sure, the console might be able to monitor your pulse and record your voice and send any data it collects to anyone in the world, but it almost certainly won’t do this. This is reassuring, although admittedly only in the sense that someone who has your house keys texting you to say they definitely won’t sniff your pillows while you’re on holiday is reassuring.
And if you don’t find it reassuring, if the idea of an insect-eyed camera that can literally see fear unnerves you a little, then it’s probably best to keep quiet. Ignore the rumours that the Kinect sensor moves around your house at night. Don’t mention it out loud. Try not to even think about it. Because if you do, if your blood vessels start to dilate, if your heart beats just that little bit faster… then Kinect will know. Rest assured, it probably won’t do anything with that information.
But it will know.