Game Theory: Project Natal


Two years after dismissing, and even mocking, the Wii Remote, Microsoft has had a change of heart about motion control. Project Natal is an attempt to get rid of the controller altogether, replacing it with a tool that combines an “RGB camera, depth sensor, multi-array microphone, and custom processor running proprietary software.”

All of this provides full-body 3D motion capture, facial recognition, and voice recognition, then converts that information into real-time game control. The figures onscreen respond to your movements and even react to emotions based on facial expressions.

You know Microsoft is serious when it wheels out the big guns to deliver the overstatement. Such as when Steven Spielberg was asked for his thoughts on Project Natal at this year’s E3: “This is a pivotal moment that will carry with it a wave of change, the ripples of which will reach far beyond video games.”

Although the E3 demos focused on Xbox 360, Bill Gates has revealed that he sees Natal coming to PCs, with motion control not only for gaming, but for apps and media management.

The demos are impressive, with people fighting martial arts opponents by flailing their limbs; driving a car by miming drivey kinds of hand positions; kicking soccer balls; etc.

If Microsoft didn’t want people to immediately file Project Natal under “yeah, right,” it probably shouldn’t have relied on self-promoting, semi-automated broken-promise dispenser Peter Molyneaux to hype the technology with his demo of Milo, a creepy virtual boy who reacted to and interacted with a woman in response to her gestures, movements, and facial expressions.

There are a lot of potential pitfalls with Project Natal, which still lacks a release date, price, and other important details. Anyone with experience in voice recognition, face recognition, and motion capture will be familiar with the vast challenges of making it all work, consistently, with a diverse array of users and environmental variables.

At one end, we have the slick interfaces from the movie Minority Report, which would be cool.

At the other, we have the PlayStation Eye, which would not.

Which do you think we’ll get?

Thomas L. McDonald has been covering games for 17 years. He is Editor-at-Large of Games Magazine .

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