Wednesday, June 03, 2009


Microsoft's weirdly named 'Natal Project' was one of the few things in their press conference that got me a little excited…but not for the reasons they probably think.

At its core, it's a very interesting piece of technology. From what I can gather it uses 3D stereoscopy to perform live motion tracking. Basically, the system can literally 'see' you in 3D and then some very clever software works out where your head, arms and legs are and maps their movements to a game character. I love that it can recognize your face and doesn't just recognize what you say, but how you say it as well.

I'll be completely honest, when I saw the trailer I thought it was just so much PR bullshit. However, once I saw it demonstrated live, my opinion changed.

The thing is, I'm not really all that interested in this as a gaming device. Like the Wii, I'm sure it'd be an amazing novelty, but the simple truth is that I don't want to jump around my living room like a lunatic every time I want to play a game. Sure, I can imagine playing some basic Wii sports type games with it…but I don't want to play the next Call of Duty or Resident Evil or Dead Space by flinging my arms around.

In simplest terms, I think there's a very good chance that motion-control for games will always be a cool novelty, but for actual, proper gaming there will always be some form of controller in your hands.

However, what I'm really interested in is this technology as a user-interface.

You see, playing games is a very small part of what I use my 360 for. I use it to stream movies and TV shows from the library on my PC and use it to listen to music through my surround sound system. In the future I see games consoles becoming much more multi-function devices. Pretty soon we'll have a single device that takes the place of our cable boxes, Tivos, DVD players, stereos…that we'll also use for video conferencing, email and web surfing.

The problem is that all of this functionality is overwhelming for a lot of people. Most non-gamers I know think that even the 360 as it is today is 'too complicated'. My daughter in law recently watched me set up a multiplayer match over Xbox Live as said "Ugh, I can't believe you go through all that just to play a game!"

The truth is that I didn't feel like I was 'going through' anything. I've used computers and consoles long enough to where the 360's dashboard is intuitive and easy…looking at it from the perspective of someone who's never held a controller before, it does look complicated and daunting. Even Sunny has problems even signing into the profile I set up for her.

Which is why I love the technology behind the Natal Project.

There's no need to sign in because the technology recognizes your face and your voice. Best of all, completely removing the need for a controller makes everything less intimidating. If you want movies, you say "movies", you move your hand from left to right to scroll through the list. You point and 'jab' at the movie you want to see.

Basically, this is the first step towards the awesome user interfaces I've seen in sci-fi movies all my life.

Of course, I'd like to make it clear I'm talking about this as a technology and not talking just about Microsoft's device. While Microsoft's tech demo was impressive, the sad truth is that a device like this needs to be almost 100% accurate in order to be successful. However, I really love the idea of walking into my living room and my 'device' recognizing my face, telling me which of my favorite shows are on that night, which have been recorded while I was away and telling me that the game I've been waiting for is available for download. Then I call up my email simply by saying 'email', scroll through them with a gesture and place a video-call to one of my friends about the email they sent me with just another few words.

Yup, that's exciting to me, alright.

Oh, and just as an afterthought, Microsoft's device works by using a 3D camera…there'd have to be a special display or some regular old 3D glasses or shutter glasses involved, but for someone who lives thousands of miles away from his family, the idea of a stereoscopic 3D video conference would be awesome.


Sunny said...

I agree!!! When is this device projected to be out for me??/...I mean the public???

Evan 08 said...

I'd like to add one little item into your projection of convergence.

Our Tivo, DVR, game console, computer, etc. will definitely converge into a single device.

I see them all merging into our cell phones, which we will be able to dock into dumb terminals.

I'm a little excited about the technology you mentioned.

Paulius said...

I'm excited too...but like I said in the post, I'll have to see it working and working well before I'm sold on it.

I'm sure it will work fine on a great big, well-lit stage...but will the camera be able to pick you out from the background in a smaller room? How bright will the room have to be?

The problem with these sorts of devices is they have to be almost perfect just to work. A twitch-based game that requires you to be quick and accurate won't work if the device is only 90% accurate.

It's like speech recognition, 90% accuracy means it misses one work in ten... which makes the whole technology almost useless for dictaing a letter.