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Look Ma! No Controller: Microsoft’s Natal Genius

Natal uses "you" as an input device.

Natal uses "you" as an input device.

You’ve probably heard about Project Natal by now. It’s Microsoft’s “secret” project that lets you use your body as the input device for the Xbox Live. No controllers, no wires, no headgear or gloves. If you liked using Nintendo Wii’s controller to play games you’ll love the freedom and increased capability of using your body.

I recently got to experience Project Natal first hand. Timely because today sources report that we’ll find out all at the E3 Conference this June. A few observations:

First: This IS going to be a really cool step forward in gaming/entertainment and the future of humans as input devices.

Second: Don’t even think about using your tennis lessons. On a cold New York evening a few weeks ago, my colleagues were invited by Microsoft to come over to a nearby loft and play a game called Ricochet. It’s sort of a cross between table tennis and soccer. As balls are heaved at you on the screen (often multiple balls at once) you could swat, kick, or head butt them back at the screen. Natal–which was an add-on peripheral to an Xbox when we saw it demo’ed–tracks your movements and the balls respond to your thwacks. Ricochet showed my body as a shadow silhouetted on the screen (thankfully not true to real body proportions–everyone looks identical). It turns out that Natal was much better at responding when I faced the screen and moved my arms and legs to the side.

While it appears to know about backhands and tennis’ side stance, playing it sideways is not likely to win you as many points. Another game speculated for release includes an interactive story about a boy, Milo, and his camera.

Third: Clear the Area

Reyne Rice, a toy trends expert, got more points than me during our demo session (she faced forward) but she had other, arguably more serious, problems. Rice’s shoe (no laces) flew off her foot in a serious kick and came inches from smashing the screen. While Natal is said to be less dangerous than Wii, which suffers from occasional flying controllers (even with a wristband), it’s best to dress appropriately. No flying clothing.

Fourth: Beyond Blue Screen

Those who’ve followed gaming, animation, and filmmaking know about bluescreen technology where background images are projected onto a blue screen and the actor or weatherman interacts with the graphic. There were many early attempts to use bluescreen technology involving a player interacting with a game image on the computer screen. Natal is much more nuanced, recognizing all sorts of gestures, and reportedly it will recognize voice inputs as well.

Observation Five What the Tech!

As any good geek would, I asked the Microsoft PR folks a few tech questions and got very little in the way of satisfying answers. The Natal unit is currently shown as an add-on peripheral. It’s a horizontal box smaller than a DVD player. Clearly, the box holds a combination of digital camera and motion sensors. As best I could tell, there was a green camera light and a red one in the unit, which suggests two cameras that do some sort of 3D magic. Intrigued, I discovered that the cameras probably work together, one to capture the image and the second to give it depth.

Once a 3D picture is compiled, software magic takes over. Basically, Natal knows about various skeletal systems (height and body type) and knows about the kind of movements its games cause people to make. At PixelSumo, geeks can get a more in-depth explanation. And, at PopSci, you’ll get a good sense of the amount of processing power it takes for you to thwack a ball with your head. Staggering.