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“When I saw what was going on with Natal, the gamer in me went out of my mind. I think what Microsoft is doing is not simply a case of re-inventing the wheel. It’s a case of no wheel at all.”
These were the rousing words of film and video-game director Steven Spielberg, speaking at E3 last year at the announcement of Project Natal, Microsoft’s latest development for the Xbox 360 franchise.
It’s more than a coincidence that Spielberg is a close personal friend of Don Mattrick, former president of EA games and current creative genius behind the latest genre-busting innovation from Microsoft, but it’s not something either party has seen the need to hide.
Spielberg is genuinely excited about the potential of Natal, and for good reason. It has the potential to completely change home entertainment as we know it.
Last night in London, a handful of journalists and a few celebrities were amongst the first in Europe to experience Natal up close.
In June of last year, gamers and the world’s media alike were invited to ponder an intriguing conceptual video released by Microsoft, which claimed to offer an entirely new way of gaming, controller-free.
The problem was that without actual proof, nobody was quite sure whether or not Microsoft could make good on its ambitious promise. That is, until now.
To the naked eye, Natal is simply a hardware accessory for the Xbox 360, and the prototype on display last night looked much like an elongated webcam. Microsoft proprietary software harnesses three integrated components: a RGB camera, depth sensor and array microphone which together yields a device which not only recognises the user’s physical shape, capturing individual motion, but also maps that shape in a three-dimensional space.
Walk up to the Natal sensor and it instantly recognises not just your body, but your arms and elbows, hips, legs and feet, replicating your entire body in an on-screen avatar.
Having no controller means there’s nothing to learn and no buttons to press. Kick or wave your arm and the ghost-like avatar does the same. Each of your movements is mimicked in near real-time (there is a slight delay) with impressive accuracy.
The motion detection isn’t perfect, but it’s very close – probably as close as it needs to be at this stage. Natal knows when you are moving forwards, backwards or even turning around in a full circle, revealing a detailed understanding of the dynamics and makeup of the human body.
Unfortunately, our hands on (or should that be body-on?) demonstration was limited to just one game, a sort of single-player version of dodgeball. The aim of the game is to use your body to bounce balls against a bricks in a wall to break it down.
Considering the state-of-the-art capabilities of Microsoft’s new add-on, it was somewhat bemusing to realise that the first real application of the software is strikingly familiar to one of the oldest console titles in living memory: Breakout for the Atari (1976).
Unsurprisingly, Microsoft was keen to point out that the aim of the exercise was merely to show that the technology works.
The biggest difficulty playing Natal? Having enough physical stamina to play for longer than four or five minutes at a time. The demo game forces you to jump, punch and kick almost non-stop for around a minute – we found even five rounds exhausting.
While parents may rejoice at the health benefits of such active play, it’s difficult to imagine the stereotypical Halo player jumping off his Lay Z Boy to do jumping jacks. It’s fun, but it’s tiring both physically and mentally: the novelty wears off quickly enough due to the limited scope of the demo.
Yet the potential for Microsoft’s new toy can’t be underestimated. Consider this: before Natal, the closest game developers have come to recreating the experience of a football has been by pressing buttons with fingers and thumbs. Now you can run, kick or head the ball as you would in real life.
It’s probably not 100pc there yet, but in a very short space of time users could find themselves perfecting real-world skills in their home.
Need help with a golf swing? Want to learn a martial art or a dance routine to perfection? These are genuine possibilities that reduce the motion-sensing Nunchuck of the Wii to the status of cutesy gimmick.
“What you see here is just the beginning, this game is about 12 months old, but we do see the first titles for being very similar in design: fun, simple and family orientated,” says Erin Hofto, Xbox 360 product manager.
Pressed for specifics, Hofto remained vague, but it’s clear that Microsoft have charted a collision course with the Nintendo Wii this Christmas.
This will be no surprise to those who’ve watched Nintendo’s meteoric rise in the console-gaming market, currently estimated to be worth around US$20 billion in total revenue.
In 2007, the Japanese giant had a 37pc market share. Rather than compete in the muscle flexing of its competitors, Nintendo took a gamble on pitching at non-traditional sectors of the market with innovative and family-friendly gaming on a less powerful platform.
Thanks to the universal appeal of the Wii and Nintendo DS handheld console, Nintendo stole from both Microsoft and the flagging Sony to reach a 50pc share in just two years: as much as both its main rivals combined.
Hofto is quick to point out that Natal has the potential to offer so much more than mere video games.
“It’s not just about games for us, it’s about entertainment. For example, with Natal, a simple wave of the hand can control menus (just like in Minority Report, except you won’t need Tom Cruise’s glove). Voice control will allow you to pause and play videos and music by voice recognition; it’s completely unlike anything out there in the market right now.”
So what titles can we expect when Natal reaches our stores, as early as Christmas this year? Again, details are sketchy, but one gets the impression that Hofto has been briefed very carefully about what information to make public and what to keep under wraps for the time being.
“We’re actually really not sure what games will be available yet. EA, Ubisoft, MTV Games and our other major software partners have had the technology since June so it will be really interesting to see what they come up with.”
Despite persistent nagging, Xbox representatives were also tight-lipped about the expected retail price of Natal last night, inevitably leaving journalists to speculate wildly: the general consensus was that the add-on might cost anywhere from €100 to €200, but that’s just an educated guess.
The good news is that current Xbox 360 owners will not have to upgrade their hardware for Natal to work, all models from the Arcade version of the console to the Elite are compatible.
For Microsoft, last night’s proof-of-concept demo fulfilled its purpose, but didn’t exceed it: we know it works, but not much more than that. The true test will be in December, when the first suite of Natal titles and applications are unveiled, and the most important critic - the consumer - delivers its verdict.
From what we’ve seen though, 2010 will be an exciting year for Xbox fans and gamers and Stephen Spielberg alike.
By Jonathan McCrea
Photo: A look at Project Natal, Microsoft’s latest development for the Xbox 360 franchise