Dawdle founder Sachin Agarwal is covering the E3 gaming expo for The Business Insider.
Well, Ars Technica was right.
At their E3 press conference yestereday, Microsoft’s big reveal was “Project Natal” (Natal as in Natalie, not neo-natal), a camera-based system for motion and gesture control. Microsoft’s demo was incredibly impressive, with a character on the screen tossing a ball at the player, and luminaries such as Steven Spielberg and Peter Molyneux were on stage to sing its praises. Here’s Microsoft’s blurb on the technology:
Compatible with any Xbox 360 system, the “Project Natal” sensor is the world’s first to combine an RGB camera, depth sensor, multi-array microphone and custom processor running proprietary software all in one device. Unlike 2-D cameras and controllers, “Project Natal” tracks your full body movement in 3-D, while responding to commands, directions and even a shift of emotion in your voice.
In addition, unlike other devices, the “Project Natal” sensor is not light-dependent. It can recognise you just by looking at your face, and it doesn’t just react to key words but understands what you’re saying. Call a play in a football game, and players will actually respond.
There are a number of claims here that cause me to be sceptical. First, rather than the standard two-camera system used by every other “3D” technology, Natal uses a single camera and a depth sensor. Now, this may allow the system to have a wider field of vision, but depth has been the one thing that the Wii Remote has difficulty with in anything by perfect environments (a dark TED stage is ideal; a sunny room is terrible), and it uses traditional triangulation to determine depth. The included microphone may mean that headsets cannot work, meaning that play in a noisy room is impossible. While Natal is exciting technology, its benefits may be better for subdued videoconferencing than a more choatic gaming environment.
The second issue is that this system doesn’t appear to allow for “waggle”. Waggle is the term the gaming press uses to denote that the Wii Remote handles a quick wrist shake as the same input as full body movement. Although many gamers deride the Wii for waggle, it’s actually incredibly valuable as it reduces strain and exertion. Without waggle, playing Wii games would be a full workout and extended play would be exhausting and frustrating. With waggle, you don’t have to be a physical freak like Rafael Nadal to play Wii Tennis for hours on end; you can just flick your wrist. Natal looks to require the player to be up close to the television and require full body movement. That could make Natal great for parties, but poor for every day gaming. Games that use Sony’s existing EyeToy cameras have exhibited issues with gamer fatigue.
The last issue is that Microsoft hasn’t announced a release date. “Compatible with any Xbox 360 system” doesn’t mean that Natal will be available this year. Even more conspiratorially, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Natal will be released for the 360 at all. It could be released for Microsoft’s next generation system and just be compatible with the 360. Nintendo’s Wii launch title, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, was actually designed on GameCube hardware, but it was retrofitted for Wii controls. We may very well see the same situation here with Natal.
I look hopeful that Natal will be available on the E3 floor, and you can be sure that I’ll be asking the Microsoft reps these questions and more.
Here’s Microsoft’s official demo video:
Sachin Agarwal is the President and CEO of Dawdle.com, an online marketplace for gamers to buy and sell new and used video games, systems, and accessories with other gamers online. Sachin is covering E3 Expo 2009 for The Business Insider.