Microsoft's Natal hands-free gaming – gimmick or game-changer?

Fred Prouser/REUTERS
A demonstration on screen is given of the new Xbox Project Natal, new technology that uses Natal’s motion control to let gamers take control of titles using their entire body, at the Microsoft Xbox 360 E3 2009 media briefing in Los Angeles June 1, 2009.

Kiss callused thumbs goodbye?

Microsoft's "Project Natal," a new add-on for its Xbox 360 video gaming system, promises to get gamers off the couch – and more into the game – for good. The peripheral, unveiled Monday, is a combination depth-sensor, camera, microphone array, and custom processor, and lets gamers control onscreen action with full-body movements and voice commands.

Much drooling has been done over the demonstration video of Natal's capabilities (imagine – Wii Bowling without a safety strap!), but without a release date, pricing details, or a list of titles that will make use of the (controller, non-controller) nontroller, it's difficult to get excited about running a living-room karate simulation anytime soon.

As Ian Paul writes for PC World, "Microsoft is famous for these types of product vision videos where it shows off what it thinks the future will look like. Those videos always look cool and are almost never accurate."

Remember Microsoft's Surface concept? The slick touchscreen interface wowed Web viewers and convention-goers in 2007, but failed to materialize as a viable consumer product. It's available today, but only to businesses.

CNET's Ina Fried points readers to the personal blog of Wii-remote hacker and Natal team-member Johnny Chung Lee for a look at just how innovative – and difficult to orchestrate – a project like Natal is:

The human tracking algorithms that the teams have developed are well ahead of the state of the art in computer vision in this domain. The sophistication and performance of the algorithms rival or exceed anything that I've seen in academic research, nevermind a consumer product. At times, working on this project has felt like a miniature “Manhattan project” with developers and researchers from around the world to coming together to make this happen.

When the Nintendo Wii came out, much of its success came from its intuitive nature that got non-gamers playing video games – making gaming an activity for seniors and families. Titles like Guitar Hero and Rock Band have done the same thing. If Microsoft can get Natal out of concept phase (that they have a working prototype is already encouraging) without an astronomical price tag, its intuitive controls and gameplay should write its own ticket to success.

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