Project Natal Deconstructed

The industry was watching. Microsoft had (mostly) kept their secrets well and, although there were rumours, nobody was quite sure what their big announcement would be.

When it came it was presented cleverly, in a way that invited us to be amazed. Steven Spielberg was presented on stage to ambiguously heap praise on nothing more than a concept. They showed a video of actors playing to a sequence of pre-rendered and carefully staged actions on their television. They called it Natal and the industry went wild.

A live demo took place in which a woman flailed in front of a camera array. The big screen showed her actions being represented by an on-screen avatar which deflected balls back against a wall. There was obvious but not prohibitive lag (which has, puzzlingly, been ignored by everyone since the show) between her live actions and those of her on-screen avatar. This is not a damning indictment of the system. At such an early stage of development it is only to be expected that the technology is not yet perfected. Reports from the behind-closed-doors demonstrations indicate that it works reasonably well and that is all that we should expect at this stage.

As with all major corporations though, marketing is key here. Microsoft wants us to believe a number of things about this demonstration which are, on closer inspection, blatantly untrue.

Firstly, they want us to believe that they have invented something new. They have not. The hardware on show was seemingly an amalgam of a commonly available 3D stereoscopic webcam (MS bought Israeli 3D camera manufacturers 3DV Systems earlier this year for somewhere around $35 million) and a microphone array with voice recognition processors (again, readily available to consumers).

The two cameras (stereoscopic) provide depth perception in much the same way as our two eyes do. Basically it instantaneously triangulates the location of an object based on how it appears slightly differently to each lens.

The microphone array (probably more than one microphone to help cut out background noise and locate sound) works as any other collection of microphones would (there is a four mic-array in the PSEye camera). The clever bit is in the voice recognition processing. It is supposed that this is hardware based and probably capable of determining words with minimal or no training.

The second thing Microsoft wants us to believe is that they have used this technology in a new way. Just before Kudo Tsunoda’s avatar-contorting “Bam! There it is” moment (which perfectly illustrated how limited the skeletal tracking technology is) he states that “This type of facial recognition has never been seen in any consumer electronic product”. This might be technically true (with the emphasis being on “this type” meaning precise methods) but it is certainly misleading.

I am genuinely surprised by the number of industry commentators who buy into this falsehood. The most obvious (but not solitary) comparison is with the Sony competitor, the EyeToy (launched in 2003) and its subsequent evolution for the PlayStation 3 – the PlayStation Eye. The latest trailers for a product called “EyePet” (due for release this year) show voice recognition, depth perception, external stimulation of the game environment and gesture-tracking. The original EyeToy even featured character control based on detecting the location of the player’s hands and face in its 2004 title “AntiGrav”. The technology is seemingly more advanced in Microsoft’s projections but it is in no way original or even being utilised in an original way.

The third and final point that Microsoft wants us to believe is a little more debatable. They say that Natal can replace a controller in traditional games. This is a bold claim considering that Sony never managed it with six years of similar technology in the EyeToy and PlayStation Eye peripherals. Nintendo, similarly, are struggling to pitch their flagship console, the Wii, at the so-called “core gamers” (although everyone else on the planet seems to own one) because of the non-traditional control system it employs. So the evidence seems to suggest that this claim, while impossible to call untrue, is certainly without precedent and can be considered highly unlikely.

The behind-closed-doors demonstrations of Project Natal are using an adapted version of Burnout Paradise to show the motion-tracking control. Sources suggest that using your right leg for acceleration and braking and your hand clasping an imaginary steering-wheel for turning does work for controlling the traffic-less tech-demo. This is impressive but functional applications are hard to imagine. Is the system ever going to be precise enough that waving your hands to turn allows you perfect control of that imaginary steering-wheel and keeps you exactly on the racing line? Will your right leg lumbering back and forward ever give you the precision to get your acceleration perfect to shave another one-hundredth of a second off your lap-time?

At the present moment in time Project Natal is an interesting proposition for potential features we might like to see in our future gaming-lives. That, however, does not make it the future of gaming. The proposition that this is what Microsoft would like to be able to do is interesting simply because if a company as big and wealthy as Microsoft want to jump into this existing development cycle (and in April around $35 million said that they did) it might speed the cycle up a bit.

So how would I predict Project Natal’s future? It will probably release within a few months of its schedule (late 2010 is the target so let’s say before E3 2011) with a series of mini-games aimed squarely at the “casual” market. There will be a short series of games (which will most likely be primarily Xbox Live Arcade titles) which either force Natal as a control system and are universally criticised or allow optional use of the Natal control scheme and are universally controlled via the traditional method. I can see Project Natal being responsible for putting an Xbox in millions more living-rooms but only to be used as an affordable platform for playing casual party games. Nintendo beware…