This looks like it's pretty cool. It's similar to the Wii in respect to motion sensing, but takes it to new level:
Let's just admit it: the Nintendo people are total geniuses. I was one of the first journalists to see the Wii, in Kyoto in the spring of 2006. I even tried it out. I played fake mime-tennis. I caught a virtual fish by casting with the Wii controller. I did a little dance and watched a little guy do a little dance on the screen. At the time my thoughts were as follows: 1) Technologically speaking, this is a pretty amazing hack; 2) too bad the graphics suck; and 3) nobody will buy this ever. And 4) at least I got a free trip to Japan. And this was even before they told me the name.
Now the Nintendo folks have sold about as many Wiis as Microsoft and Sony have sold Xbox 360s and PlayStation 3s put together. They are geniuses.
The Microsoft people may or may not be geniuses, but they're definitely geniuses at figuring out who the geniuses in the room are and then doing what they're doing. Today at E3, Microsoft announced a new technology that, like the Wii, uses motion-sensing to control video games. But it may just be better than the Wii. In fact it may just kill the Wii. (Read "Why Video Games Are an Excellent Economic Indicator.")
The Xbox 360 is a great machine. Hard-core gamers like it because it's got decent graphics and a great online service and it's developer-friendly, so there are lots of good games for it. But to compete seriously with the Wii, the Xbox has to expand outside the hard-core gaming scene too. It needs casual gamers, and that's where it has a problem. Non-hard-core gamers have trouble using the Xbox controller. It has two joysticks, two triggers, two bumper buttons and a bunch of other buttons besides. It takes time to learn. Their little thumbs get all confused. The Wii isn't like that: you just wave it like Harry Potter and you're golden.
If it had really tried to, Microsoft probably could have come up with a decent knockoff of the Wii controller. But instead they — meaning Don Mattrick, the head of Microsoft's interactive-entertainment division and the former head of Electronic Arts — decided that instead of imitating Nintendo, Microsoft would try to leapfrog past Nintendo. "We did explore whether we thought a motion-based controller was a true next step or a transition step," Mattrick says. "And for us, we decided it was a transition step." So about 18 months ago he started up Project Natal.
Microsoft tends to name its internal projects after cities. Natal is a city in Brazil, which is where Alex Kipman, one of the key engineers on Project Natal, comes from. What Mattrick and Kipman decided to try to do was to get rid of the controller altogether. They wanted a technology that would enable a gamer to control the game just by moving his or her arms and legs and other body parts. The gamer would become the controller.
This has actually been tried before, with peripherals like the Sony EyeToy. The problem with the Sony EyeToy and its ilk was that they were lame. They didn't track your motions very well, or precisely, and there were no good games for them. That's not surprising, because building a system of this kind is a very hard technological problem. But Microsoft's Xbox division has a somewhat different corporate culture than the rest of the company — it's nimbler and friendlier to innovation — and Kipman and his colleagues are extremely clever. Which is good, because they were going to have to innovate like hell to make this work.
What they came up with is a kind of self-contained module that you add onto your Xbox 360. It has a video camera in it that tracks where your body is and what you're doing with it. It also has a monochrome camera (it works with infrared) that reads depth — how far away your body and its component parts are — and a highly specialized microphone that can pick up voice commands. Along with all this hardware, it's got a ton of software that tells the Xbox how to find your body's various joints (it tracks 48 of them), how to keep track of multiple players at the same time, how to tell your Hawaiian shirt apart from the colorful wallpaper behind you, and so on. Microsoft even did an acoustic study of living rooms, so Project Natal can tell when you're talking, when your buddies are talking and when somebody in the game is talking, so it knows whom to take voice commands from.
The result is ... impressive. You start getting impressed when you walk in front of the thing and it immediately recognizes your face and logs you in. Very Star Trek. A few months ago Microsoft demoed Project Natal for Steven Spielberg, who in addition to directing movies designs video games, including Medal of Honor and the Wii title Boom Blox. He's one of the few movie people who really gets games as an insider, and Microsoft was looking for his blessing. He gave it. "The technology recognized me as a full person," he says. "It identified me, my legs, my arms, all of my movements, not just my wrists and my fists, and my thumbs, which is the current state of the art. This recognized my entire person and in a way accepted all of me as a competitor inside the gamespace." (See the 10 worst video-game movies of all time. )
Let the games begin. I had a chance to play a simple dodgeball-type game called Ricochet, in which you just punch and kick and head balls at a three-dimensional wall. It's weird to be playing a game with nothing in your hands — if you've ever played a theremin, the sensation of playing with Project Natal is not dissimilar. It's spooky. But it's also very immersive. When a ball comes bounding at your head and you butt it back with your forehead, you can almost feel the smack of it against your skin. "It was the most tactile experience I've had so far in a gaming space," Spielberg says. "I got a sense that I was inside the space more than I have on any other platform."
Kipman also showed me a version of Burnout that had been set up to work with Project Natal. Burnout is a serious game, not just a tech demo — it's a polished, fast-paced racing game with high-end graphics, and I happen to have played a lot of it. With Project Natal, instead of using a joystick, you steer by holding your hands up in the air like you're gripping a steering wheel. To hit the gas, you move your foot forward along the floor. To brake, you move it back. To trigger the turbo boost, you do a gear-shifting, fist-pumping movement with your right arm. Awesome.
It takes a few minutes to get the hang of it. You tend to oversteer, since you can't quite believe this thing is going to pick up your movements, so you exaggerate them. But soon you start to trust it, because it does actually work. I couldn't detect any significant latency. And there's definitely an extra edge to playing a game with nothing between you and the screen but your clenched, white-knuckled fists. I'm a hard-core gamer, so I'm not the person Project Natal is targeting. I love my controller as it is. But the appeal of Project Natal is real. You could compare it to the difference between regular movies and 3-D movies: it puts you in the action in a way that nothing else could.
Of course, the success of Project Natal ultimately depends on whether developers embrace it and write decent games for it. Today game developers all over the world have got their little Project Natal starter kits, and it's up to them to figure out what this stuff is good for. I saw a demo cooked up by Peter Molyneux (Black & White, Fable) in which you chat with a realistic-looking little boy. He recognizes your face and what color your clothes are, and he follows you with his eyes. If you walk over to a pond, you can ripple the water by moving your fingers across it. If you lean over it, you see your reflection. Freaky. "I think it's the next step after Wii," Spielberg says. "The Wii platform is totally engaging and awe-inspiring. But this is one step beyond that."