Project Natal, Microsoft’s new addition to the Xbox 360, was announced at E3 2009 last summer and is on track to be released in December 2010. With the tag “you are the controller” the Xbox is launching a direct challenge to Nintendo Wii’s dominance of the gaming interactivity niche.
The demo videos shown on the Xbox website and at YouTube show just how far Microsoft have taken the concept of gamer interactivity. Say goodbye to your controller, games that support Natal will not need them. The device is a sensor that measures approximately nine inches in length and incorporates 3D mapping infrared technology and a camera that incorporates advanced gesture and voice recognition at the core of the concept. Able to map the area it looks at, creating a 3D model of your room to then distinguish the player from the background, Natal will use its facial and voice recognition software to tailor the gaming experience to the individual and allow a much deeper level of immersion into a game. Even your desktop will become more interactive, greeting you personally when you log on and tailoring your experience to your preferences.
When it comes to actually controlling the games, your body becomes the controller. Kick, stop or trap an imaginary ball and it’ll happen onscreen. Playing driving games will see players holding imaginary steering wheels and shifting fictional gears. The whole idea is to make the player feel more involved in the game. Interacting with AI characters will become more personal with game characters reacting differently to variations in tone and emotion in responses. It looks very much like the future of gaming is about to be unleashed.
Where I feel the technology may fall short is that it could be seen as gimmicky. It’s all very well saying that players can interact more readily, but not everyone is David Beckham. How many Xbox owners can easily move from a standing to a crouching and then prone position easily whilst avoiding incoming grenades and knifing your enemies in the back, or can run and jump over a car before pulling an innocent owner out of it and speeding off with the police in hot pursuit? All right, some, but not all. I am looking forward to getting to grips with this next great step in gaming technology but truly hope it isn’t the end of my beloved controller; after all, I do enjoy loafing on my sofa whilst saving (or destroying) the world.