published Friday, Mar 12th
Project Natal was announced and demonstrated with expectation at Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) 2009. Preceding the event was rumor, spreading like wildfire, that both Microsoft and Sony would try and breach the ‘casual’ market where Nintendo’s Wii had done so well. However, there is one major difference between Microsoft’s Project Natal and what Nintendo and Sony are offering.
Both the Wiimote and PlayStation Move have something physical that can translate a user’s movement to a motion on-screen, whereas Project Natal does not. Natal uses a sensor ‘camera’ to achieve the same, without the need or cost of multiple controllers. “Though that was accomplished with the PlayStation 2’s Eye Toy” – I hear you cry. This is a crude comparison, because it is not just a camera, but also a three-dimensional sensor that can track the slightest of movements efficiently, even in questionable lighting environments. Not only this, but the technology can detect objects in the surrounding environment, be it gestures, voices or even people’s faces.
Statistics following the E3 event is that Natal is capable, so far, of tracking up to four people at one time, at 48 points on each body and at a rate of 30-frames per second. Not only was the potential made clear, but proof came from Lionhead Studios in an interactive application named Milo and Kate.
Milo and Kate was met with scepticism and was immediately mocked for its seemingly naive appearance, but the fact remains that if true, it is astonishing technology. There has been sufficient artificial intelligence technology, especially in games, for human-realistic recognition, processes and response for years. The problem is in the hardware; there hasn’t really been any break in the gap between AI and human intelligence, outside of research and development in Japan and Germany, and definitely not at a consumer level. Peter Molyneux, after having the hardware for ‘months’, was able to produce the Milo character and his interactive world within that time for presentation at E3. Molyneux seems to have masterminded a personified system that can do everything that has come to be expected with artificial intelligence. Only this time with real people and environments, rather than digital characters and objects within the confines of the game world.
There are other examples of applications with Natal even used to log into Xbox Live, and animate an Avatar, with an exact replication in real time. The sports games shown at E3 presented the movement in 3D space, recognized in conjunction with detailed object and sound recognition, presenting no limitations.There are no controls for the player to learn or for developers to program into the game, which perhaps paves the way for more disability friendly gaming environments. Project Natal is simple and seamless.
A number of developers have given their support of natal, with between 70% and 80% of publishers worldwide working on a Natal based game of some kind. Microsoft has created a business model with great contrast to the of Nintendo in particular. Microsofts’s Robbie Bach has said, in an interview with the Financial Post, that their model is “about third-party publishers making money. [Nintendo makes] most of their money from first-party games. It is a great business model, but it makes it hard for third-party publishers.”
Nintendo are doing well as a business, but are hindering outside-developers in the process. Microsoft has made a point of ensuring that developers are heading down the right path in terms of bringing “new ideas, new innovation, and new concepts to the marketplace”. Names like Turn 10 and Capcom have made it clear that Project Natal is definitely not a gimmick, it is something original and unique.
Peter Molyneux is prominently at the front of the charge with Natal based developers. Lionhead are not only leading the way with Milo, but this year’s Fable 3 will also feature motion control in some fashion. Speaking with Gamereactor, he voiced his prediction on Natal changing interaction like the mouse, “The mouse was the real revolution of the PC — not the Intel processor. And who’s to say Natal couldn’t end up creating something you and I can’t even imagine now. It forces us to approach technology in a completely different way. Before the mouse, we only had the keyboard.”
The PlayStation Move might be smooth and accurate, but that doesn’t detract from the stick with a giant glowing ball in your hands. The most impressive aspect of Project Natal is it’s intricacy. The subtle transition between movement and interaction, especially in a concept such as Milo, is key to what is to what developers want to achieve with immersing gameplay. Microsoft is bringing innovation to the table, and developers with it.