Xbox 360 Project Natal
The importance of Project Natal to Microsoft cannot be overstated, so it is with a rare sense of genuine excitement that I'm ushered into a demonstration room where one of the system's masterminds, Kudo Tsunoda, is waiting to tell us all about the Xbox 360's motion controller - and hopefully let us get a little hands-on time with the new experience.
Before we can leap to our feet and give some of the technology demonstrations on offer a try however, Tsunoda wants to give us a little background information, and explain what Microsoft hopes to achieve through Natal. As he leaps around, busting blocks with a whole-body controlled ball in the Breakout-style demo first shown back at E3, Tsunoda explains that the Xbox 360 is designed to be an entertainment 'hub'. What's vital, it seems, is that Microsoft's console is perceived as something far more inclusive than the 'shoot box' portrayal it sometimes gets from unkind critics and suits.
Part of the 360's efforts to achieve this 'central' status sees Microsoft trying to make the console appeal to non-hardcore players, the audience presently rather titillated by the Nintendo Wii. Tsunoda explains that traditional controllers are too confusing for the uninitiated, while Microsoft also want to push the envelope a little for their existing customers: hence Natal was born.
Natal is the brainchild of project 'incubator' Alex Kipman, who gave the project the name Natal in honour of the Brazilian city of his roots, but also because it literally means 'related to birth', Microsoft keen for the motion control system to be viewed as a fresh start, not just for the Xbox 360 but for 'gaming' as a whole in the most grandiose sense of the word. Of course, critics will argue that Natal simply stands upon the shoulders of what Nintendo has already achieved in the motion control-stakes, and there's no doubt the Wii has influenced the firm hugely. That said, having seen and played with Natal, it does seem an altogether more ambitious interpretation of the motion control brief; even compared to Sony's wand-based PS3 motion controller.
Tsunoda seems at pains to point out the lengths Microsoft have gone to when it comes to the technology at the heart of the new system. Not only does Natal do away with the traditional gamepad, but it does away with any kind of object-based input device whatsoever. The players body becomes the only thing required to interact in the gaming space on-screen, although the E3 demonstrations we witnessed earlier in the summer did see real-world items like skateboards 'scanned' into games using Natal. Likewise, in Lionhead's Milo and Kate demonstration Kate was seen passing real world objects 'through' the screen to her virtual in-game charge.
Still, such advances are put to one side for this demonstration, Tsunoda showing us the full-body motion sensing that he argues will revolutionise the way we play games. Natal knows what the human body looks like, and how it bends, folds, and is therefore able to work out what the player is doing in a full 3D space, even when extremities such as arms and legs are obscured by items such as chairs. Perfect replication is billed, even when it comes to moving forwards and backwards from the screen - and the Natal sensor bar - as we're shown later.
The Ricochet demonstration ably demonstrates how Natal can detect every part of the body and translate it into on-screen actions, as I experienced when 'breaking out' in the Ricochet concept. The visuals may be simplistic, but in terms of understanding what the player is doing with their body Natal seems like a genuine step forward. More impressive still is the Burnout Paradise demonstration I also experienced, Tsunoda pointing out that his team weren't given access to the game's source code, but simply built a Natal-based control scheme off the back of the standard controls. Thusly we make an invisible steering wheel with our hands and accelerate or break by stepping forwards of backwards.
What impresses during this concept demo is the speed and accuracy of the responses. I genuinely forgot I didn't have a real wheel in my hands and concentrated on the driving, an experience that left me in little doubt that there is some powerful potential humming under the hood of the hardware and software behind Natal. What about a Call of Duty-style game, where you can make a gun with your hands, suggests Tsunoda, or how about a penalty-kick competition with real run-ups to a virtual ball? The possibilities are immense, so let's just hope this isn't turned into another excuse for some party-themed mini-game collections.
Sensing that his audience is suitably impressed, our host ceases the initiative and assures us that Natal will work with every current Xbox 360 SKU, and while at the moment only two players are supported on-screen, the final release will capture the movements of up to four people with complete skeletal mapping. Couple this with the microphone used in the Milo and Kate demonstration, not to mention the ability for Natal to scan, virtualise and use real world objects, and you begin to see why Microsoft view Natal as a genuine 'rebirth' for games-playing. We leave the room impressed, and eager to see the Xbox 360's motion control system put to more complex use. The sooner the better.