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E3 2009 – Microsoft Conference: Project Natal Unveiled

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People should be forgiven for walking into this conference with a cynical mind regarding the proposed motion controller for the Xbox 360. Groans were the usual reception which granted the very mention of the idea, and rightfully so too as it just reeked of ‘Me-too!’ or should I say ‘Wii-Two’.

Well, the motion controller got it’s unveiling at the tail end of the Microsoft conference and it’s a little bit Eye Toy, a little bit Minority Report and a whole lot of WTF. The premise of the motion controller is simplistic; it removes the need for a conventional controller. Natal combines two cameras for range and 3D depth perception, allowing for a full articulation of movement and 1:1 recognition of said movement. This allows the player to either fully represent themselves on screen, with the full use of all limbs with zero lag or, have the camera pick up their limbs in 3D space.

Showcasing the advanced gesturing system, one Natal demonstration showed players making steering wheel gestures and gear changing gestures whilst playing a racing game. Another was the Ricochet demo, whereby the lady on the stage was deflecting balls back at set of blocks Breakout style through a silhouetted on-screen avatar, yet she was using all parts of her body; fists, elbows, knees, feet in a highly kinetic display. In all cases the recognition was 1:1 and there was no lag whatsoever.

Natal also allows users to log in automatically to their 360 through facial and voice recognition.

A demonstration video showing two players interacting with their avatars over XBOX Live, using hand gestures to flick through costumes for their avatar and also to navigate the NXE interface, gave a certain credence to the Minority Report similarities. In addition to this, it was revealed that Natal also comes with a microphone and advanced voice recognition software.

Showcasing the combination of 3D space recognition and voice recognition was the upcoming 1 vs 100 quiz game, where a question was asked and each of the four contestants would have race to give the answer by tapping the palm of their hand with the bottom of a closed fist (simulating the buzzer button of a quiz environment). Once done they could then give their answer in speech to the system and through the software, Natal would determine if what they said was correct or not.

No demonstration however, ably demonstrated the synergy of Natal’s motion control and voice recognition capabilities more than Peter Molyneux’s ‘Milo’ technical demo. In this demonstration, a player would literally ‘speak’ to Milo asking him how his day was, and what he had been up to and Milo would reply accordingly in a frighteningly life-like manner. Milo, after being chided for not doing his homework by the player (and looking suitably sheepish as a result) offered to do a project with the player involving sea creatures. At this point milo would throw a pair of goggles to the player and ask them to put them on; instinctively of course the player reaches down and affects a gesture of strapping the goggles over the head. The player then stares into the water (with their own real-time reflection staring back at them no less) and then using the gesturing system, motions to create ripples in the water, strengthening the illusion that they can reach into their TV and somehow ‘touch’ the water in front of them.

Milo however, remains an undeveloped idea. This is due in part to the fact that it would be theoretically impossible to have a unique, human response to everything that you talk to the lad about and as such while Milo is at an early stage of development, it would be shurlish/bullish/unrealistic to assume that you could have a fully developed dynamic conversation with an AI. Instead, if Milo doesn’t understand what you are asking him, he will respond based on your tone of voice and inflections.

Ultimately, anybody can see that the gameplay implications, given the veracity of the tech demos taken at face value, are simply staggering. This type of control over games is truly a generation leap ahead of the current Eye Toy and Wii motion controller systems, however we must keep in mind this; all we have seen are demos, tech demos at that. If history has taught us anything it’s that implementation and proof of concept are very different matters, and given the lack of a tangible release window or developer support, it will be sometime indeed until see the fruits of any labour associated with Project Natal.

In the meantime, take a look at the Natal demonstrations and see for yourself:

Written by bitsnark

June 4, 2009 at 9:19 am

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