Project Natal Software Impressions

Microsoft debuts its motion and voice peripheral for the Xbox 360, and we check out what the company's promising you can do with the new technology.


At this morning's Microsoft E3 press conference, the company finally confirmed something that has been in the rumor mill for months--that the Xbox 360 will be getting into the motion-sensing controller arena made ubiquitous by the Nintendo Wii. The add-on--which currently has the not-at-all catchy moniker of Project Natal--will apparently be able to do much more than the Wii Remote, promising full-motion capture abilities and speech recognition that will let players interact with applications using their bodies and voices.

The Natal device itself resembles a standard camera attachment and looks to have three lights on the front of its black frame. Microsoft says the Natal sensor combines an RGB camera, a depth sensor, a multi-array microphone, and a "custom processor running proprietary software." The company says all these technologies help Natal track people's body movements in 3D, as well as respond to emotion in someone's voice. The new add-on will apparently be compatible with all past, current, and future 360s--including the next generation of 360 hardware.

As for how you'll actually use Natal, Microsoft used the final part of its E3 press conference to outline some possible uses and applications for the technology. A three-minute trailer showed plenty of uses, some of which seemed quite impressive (especially if Natal works in real life as well as it did in the trailer). The footage started with a young boy walking into a living room, only to be challenged to a fight by a kung fu master who was shown on the living room TV's screen. The boy then took on this master by doing actual kung fu moves, punching and kicking towards the TV. A family was then shown playing a racing game, with the daughter "steering" by holding her hands in midair.

The trailer then went on to show two girls playing soccer--one kicked the ball, while the other acted as a goalie. In the next scene, a teenage boy held up his camera to the Natal, where it scanned both the front and back of the board. The teen was then able to use his own board in a skating game, and he performed movements such as doing ollies and kicks in the living room while his onscreen avatar mimicked his actions.

In a non-game-related application, the next scene showed a young girl walking into a living room and video chatting with a friend using her 360. Her friend suggested some new clothes for a party, and the girl was able to see how she'd look in the outfit by moving back and forth in front of the screen. Up next were two families playing against each other in a quiz show format. This showcased Natal's voice capabilities, with one of the families yelling out the answer to a question at the TV.

After the trailer, some Microsoft talent took to the stage to do some demos. The creative director for Project Natal--Kudo Tsunoda--demonstrated a 3D version of Breakout, where you apparently have to use your whole body to bat a ball backwards and forwards against a wall. Another application shown was called Paint Party, where you dip into a virtual bucket and throw paint onto an imaginary canvas. Interestingly, changing paint colors seemed to be as simple as calling out the name of the color.

Finally, Lionhead Studios head and famed developer Peter Molyneux took to the stage, saying that his team had been working with Natal for some months now. What they've come up with so far is a virtual boy called Milo, who can apparently recognise people, respond naturally to conversation, and react to external cues. In a short video, the press conference attendees were shown a young woman walking into a room, only to be greeted by Milo, who was onscreen in what looks like an idyllic countryside location. The woman started to have a conversation with Milo, asking whether he had done his homework. Milo looked like he was hiding something, though, which prompted the woman to ask more questions. The conversation flowed quite naturally and wasn’t punctuated by the gaps you tend to hear in most virtual dialogues.

Later on, Milo asked the woman to help him go fishing. The view moved to the end of a virtual pier, and looking down into the water, the woman was able to see her reflection on the water's surface. Fish could be seen swimming, and by waving her hands in front of the TV screen, the woman could form ripples on the onscreen water. After this, the woman drew a fish on a piece of paper. She held it up briefly to Natal, where Milo almost instantaneously recognised the image and its color.

Molyneux said this technology was something science fiction hadn't even dreamed of and will actually be shown at closed-door events during this year's E3. Famous for his hyperbole, Molyneux ended his segment by saying, "I hope you agree--this is a landmark for computer entertainment."

We'll have more on Project Natal soon, so check back for more updates. For more from the show, check out GameSpot's complete coverage of E3 2009.

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