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E3 2009 Opinion: Microsoft’s Project Natal Possibilities

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In case you’ve been living under a rock or you just aren’t interested in technology, the gaming industry revealed it’s newest advances and projects at the E3 2009 Expo recently.

As always, hardcore gamers around the world are foaming at the mouth to get their first look or news on their favorite gaming franchises (such as Halo, Mass Effect, Star Wars, Mario, Metroid, and more). The big console makers (Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft) all had their press conferences to reveal their console specific game releases as well as the new features and technologies they plan to release for their current consoles.

One of the biggest questions coming into E3 this year is how does Sony and Microsoft plan on competing with the amazing sales numbers Nintendo has shown with their less powerful, yet easy to pick up and play Wii?

Microsoft revealed a very interesting project called Natal that could be a very powerful answer. Though it won’t defeat the Wii’s approach of a simple controller, it does leave the door open for some interactive games.

Project Natal is technology that has full 3-D motion sensing to allow for the gamer to use their entire body as a controller with no actual interface (controller). The unit also uses voice and facial recognition to accompany a 3-D scanner. With all of this packaged together, there are a number of possibilities for new and hardcore gamers alike.

To start off with, the idea of just walking up to your Xbox and telling it to turn on is cool. The video shown in the conference had a family playing a racing game where one member using their hands to simulate driving. Then, seamlessly, in the pit, another family member got up to change the car’s tires without having to say “my turn” or do anything. This has a lot of possibilities for new party games to get families playing – could be good for simple kids games as well.

This could even be a great way to navigate through menus on certain games (whether the game needs a controller or not). The demo video displayed a woman flipping through the Xbox Live menus to browse and play a movie.

Just these features alone have a lot of possibilities for new and core gamers. Fighting simulators can now be a full bodied experience for training or practice or maybe even teaching. Imagine taking that a step further and actually being able to have a Guitar Hero game where you actually use a real guitar to play! In fact, why limit it to that? It would seem that you could scan most instruments in and use them I would think. I’m not quite sure of the limits of this scanning technology but it seems as if this idea can’t be too far away given what was shown at the E3 demo.

The 3-D scanner technology did show a kid scanning in his skateboard to use in a Tony Hawk-like game, so doing so for the new popular music games doesn’t seem like much of a stretch now. I’m pretty certain that the VR goggle experience is probably on the horizon as well. Next thing you know the old Nintendo Glove will make a return to the gaming scene!

Think of how this technology could simplify the controls for strategy or RTS games. It would definitely revive and expand the popularity of these games beyond PC gaming to be fun on consoles finally. That is, of course, if developers spend the time using and developing the interface for their games.

Lastly, the presentation showed a revolutionary A.I. interaction module developed by developers Lionhead. They named the project Milo and showed a video that had a person have a full blown artificial intelligence conversation with a boy named Milo. The person asked Milo questions and the virtual boy answered the questions and made quirky little observations about the person based on facial expressions and vocal tones. Since A.I. is pretty heavy on the computation it will be interesting to see how this technology would be used in a game.

One particular application of ‘Milo’ could be in the RPG conversation realm. Currently, gamers select preset questions via scrolling menus and such. Eventually, games could have deep social interaction not only between computer characters but online characters as well. Putting a whole new spin on the term ‘avatar’, this technology could allow for console games to have a unique experience in Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs the likes of World Of Warcraft. Not only that, imagine future installments of games like Mass Effect, Star Wars, or Elder Scrolls where the open world interactions become so much more complex and expansive. Now that could draw in a lot of new gamers!

Watching this person interact with ‘Milo’ was pretty funny though. She was a 20-something year old woman talking to a pre-teen boy about basically nothing. It was creepy and interesting at the same time because just like Steven Spielberg said when he was on stage, Natal could change story telling and social interaction.

With all of this in mind, it makes the fully interactive entertainment ‘box’ a bit more feasible. Before you know it, Microsoft will throw their hand into the cable provider market and provide a box that allows you to do it all, computer software, gaming, TV, movies, internet, AND video chat in one.

So, tell me… where do you see Project Natal taking us in the near future?

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  • Charlie

    The teaching aspects are limitless. TV has cartoon characters that help children learn a new language, but imagine how much more effective this would be if the character could recognize correct pronunciation. It doesn’t stop there. Flash cards where the child can shout out the answer and the character can say correct or incorrect for math, science, language, etc. Intuitive karate classes in your own home where the instructor can stop and correct form. I am excited to see all the possibilities