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Friday, June 05, 2009

New Potentials

When I saw Microsoft's E3 advertisement for "Project Natal", my first thought was that it was a clichéd opening to a science fiction movie. "Natal is your friend. Trust Natal. It won't try to take over the world, oh no." What this shows, I guess, is that I watch too much science fiction.

But it really is rather science-fictiony. The hardware itself is nothing impressive: a microphone and two cameras. But what the software does with it is amazing. The two cameras' data is combined to form a 3D model of the room and everything in it. Then facial recognition is applied to figure out which people are there. And then it looks at what their bodies are doing, by which I mean their entire bodies -head, torso, hands, arms, legs, feet- and converts that into movement data for 3D avatars. It also seems that it can recognize other sorts of inanimate objects in the room and what's being done with them. And it can apparently pick up on emotions from subtle cues in the player's face. And they threw in voice recognition too, so you can talk to the TV.

This whole package is codenamed "Project Natal". They're implying that it'll be an add-on for the XBox 360, but I don't buy it. I've heard this story before, and that's not how it goes. Back when the Wii was still "Project Revolution", it was teased as an add-on for the Gamecube. But Nintendo realized that they'd make more money treating it as a brand-new product. The Wii is barely more powerful than the Gamecube, and in fact uses most of the same technology. But while the Gamecube brand was third-place in a competition for the hardcore gamers, the Wii is selling ridiculous amounts to more casual gamers. By making the controller more user-friendly and appealing to the masses, they easily overtook Microsoft and Sony.

Now Microsoft is copying their entire business model, which is a sensible move. The project doesn't have a real name yet because it's still in relatively early stages of development. I'm guessing they'll be ready for release in 2011, by which point the XBox 360 will be old technology and the market will support a new one. And that's what this is: a new game system which has full-body motion control as a standard feature.

As with the Wii before it, Project Natal opens up many opportunities for gamists. You can communicate with NPCs through body motions like waving and nodding and shrugging, not to mention talking. You can play movement games with actual movement in an abstract context. You can reach out to pick things up and throw them or move them around. Being able to move the camera just by moving your head a little (a natural instinct for anyone) should now be easy to implement without any extra hardware. (I wonder if it can track your eye movements, to realistically adjust the focus based on what you're looking at. It probably isn't fast or precise enough.) Action can be more visceral when you're actually hitting things. Puzzles can be more relaxing without the need for a conventional interface.

What Microsoft is really planning is simpler than all that, though. They want the casual gamers that the Wii has pulled into the market. Project Natal is exactly the sort of thing Nintendo wishes they had. They've been trying to make games that everyone can and will play, and this is just about as close as you can get to that short of inventing the holodeck. Not needing buttons means games could be more accessible than a DVD player. Invite over all your friends, get 'em to stand around, and just start playing- that's the idea. Which means that much like we've seen with the Wii, I don't expect many particularly deep experiences with this technology. It'll mostly be easy and simplistic mini-games, especially with multiplayer. I'm not even sure if Project Natal can handle more than that- it doesn't seem particularly precise. But regardless of how good it is, it increases the audience size for games even more than the Wii did.

This game system will never be in our house, for the obvious reason that it wouldn't work here. If kicking a ball in-game is done by making a full kicking motion in the real world, then we just don't have enough space for it. You'd need to be pretty far back from the TV anyway, so that the cameras can see you clearly. So I'm guessing they're going to be selling more of these to those enormous American houses than to tiny Japanese apartments. And the room our TV is in is cramped.

Beyond that, I'm not sure I'd want this thing in our house. At this point I no longer have any illusions about my family: they're not going to play games. If the greatest minds in gamism got together with unlimited resources for making specialized hardware and said "Let's make a videogame that the Buckman family would play together!", they wouldn't succeed. So it doesn't matter if this machine has full-body motion control or full-mind telepathy, its main purpose -getting new gamers- is not going to work here.

This system is still going to need some sort of controllers, unless Microsoft is planning on abandoning all gamers who like to play their games for more than five hours total. The motion-control doesn't seem precise enough to sustain a good single-player game for longer than that. You still need something to aim with, something to push around. Whether these will be conventional controllers, I don't know. Maybe a game could be bundled with a cheap specially-shaped piece of plastic, and the camera would see how you're interacting with that. It seems doable, though I don't know if anyone will think of it. More likely there will still be games designed for XBox 360 controllers, but where every now and then you move around a bit. I should probably keep in mind that potential and implementation are worlds apart. How much of the Wii's potential has been used? Heck, how much of the DS's potential has even been used?

In their press conference, Microsoft was heavily playing up the potential. (Same as Nintendo does.) They had a demonstration of a person interacting with a very human-seeming NPC. It's a mind-blowing video, but on reflection it doesn't seem feasible to me, at least not for a lengthy game. There are too many possible interactions, between body motions and voice interaction, for any human gamists to be able to deal with on a large scale. (And since "Microsoft SkyNet" hasn't been announced yet, you still need humans programming this stuff.) I suppose if you had twenty years and the budget of a medium-sized country you could do it.

But for all this pessimism, I am really excited about what Project Natal means. Here's another barrier between the Real World and the game world getting knocked down. If this is the shape of progress, then where will gamism be in ten years? How about fifty years? The mind boggles.

Now, Project Natal -as I've said- is probably two years away. Nintendo's high-ups responded to this announcement by joking that they like to test things out and make sure they work before announcing them to the public. But regardless, Microsoft has made the Wii seem pretty obsolete. The Wii remote is a joke, at least in how it's been used up to this point. The much-hyped motion control is implemented just by having you make a flicking motion every now and then instead of pressing a button.

This Monday, Nintendo releases their precision attachment for the Wii remote, which I mentioned after last year's E3. (They're also releasing yet another add-on, this time something that checks your pulse! No, seriously. I can't imagine what they're thinking.) I think it's called "MotionPlus" or something silly like that. Now, it's definitely more precise than anything Microsoft has planned. I read an interview with some developers of a sports game for this thing who said that it was too precise, and they had to "dilute" the input a bit to make the game playable. That's good to hear. I don't expect many games to use this thing properly, though. Red Steel 2 looks cool, a guns-and-swords action game that uses the precise movement to control all sword swipes. Beyond that, I don't know if there will be any games at all I'm interested in with the peripheral.

Sony's got their own motion controller in development too. It seems pretty far along, so I'm guessing they'll release it next year to boost sales of the PS3. And seeing as how -like the MotionPlus- it's a "sold separately" sort of peripheral, I don't expect many games to use that either. But it seems to be the most precise of the three technologies, which is cool. There's definitely stuff you could do with that.

These are all huge steps, making games more real in the minds of the player and getting closer to the dream of believable fantasies. But I see very little evidence that gamists' mindsets are changing along with the times. When games are able to connect directly to our brains, will gamism still be in the same primitive position it's in now?



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