Project Natal was announced by Microsoft at E3 as new interface peripheral for the Xbox 360, which removes the need for a joypad, instead body movement, facial recognition and voice are used for interaction.
We have seen similar innovations with the EyeToy for the PS2 and the notion detection in the Wii, but both have severe limitations. The EyeToy is a single lens camera, so it is easily affected by lighting and background, while the motion detection in the Wii is built into the joypad and has limited capabilities by default.
The demo shown at E3 is jaw dropping, showing seemingly natural interaction with a character called Milo, but anyone with any experience of Microsoft demos treats them with appropriate levels of scepticism. Since they haven’t beaten the Turing test there is certainly some smoke and mirrors going on, in the words of Milo’s creator Peter Molyneux “If we had, then applying it to a computer game would be the last of the solutions we’d use it for.”
Other demos include a painting application and a dodgeball style game. They are relatively low tech examples but the dodgeball game has been demonstrated with journalists and celebrities, and has appeared to withstand their scrutiny. Interestingly Endgadget’s demo turned the lights down to see if it can cope with different lighting, and it had no problems.
Although shy on the details Microsoft have said it contains an RBG camera, an infrared camera, a multi-array microphone and a depth map. New Scientist among others suggested it is using the infrared camera technology by 3DV, an Israeli company that Microsoft purchased. This heat detection allows it to maintain a level of functionality regardless of light sources or obstacles.
Project Natal claims to have facial recognition and voice recognition, but we’ve only really seen this in the Milo demonstration, which could have been entirely scripted. So the extent of this capability is still not fully understood, although the voice recognition is based on Windows 7 functionality.
While Natal does recognise actions sitting down, a notable thing from the demos is the space of the room they were demoing in. When you use your whole body as a controller you need enough space to do so. A bit like Wii Fit, removing the traditional controller can pose logistical problems for the smaller household; for me my living room becomes more like an obstacle course.
Paradoxically playing a game with your body rather than your thumbs can be both more intuitive and harder work. I am old enough that can still remember my initial awkwardness interacting with a computer mouse or a console joypad, even though it seems like second nature now. However this hurdle is removed by Natal, making gaming and potentially all human-computer interaction much more accessible and intuitively responsive to an even wider audience, although it lacks the feedback a physical peripheral affords.
If I sat playing Burnout as it has been demonstrated with Natal my arms would ache after a while. But one thing I do know from marathon Guitar Hero sessions is that I will play through most aches for the right game. Interestingly a great many of the games we play allow us to explore far beyond our own physical limitations, so I wonder where the disparity is between simulation and escapism and what we desire from our gaming experience.
I don’t think we will be getting rid of the joystick anytime soon, but this definitely opens the door to new kinds of games and game play that we haven’t seen before. Its greatest potential is in the creative and imaginative hands of games and software designers everywhere.