We’ve all seen the Microsoft Press Conference, Peter Molyneux’s Milo, and Kudo’s avatar glitching out. So, as the dust settles on what was arguably Microsoft’s biggest E3 announcement – the motion-sensing Project Natal – what’s there to say about it?

It’s certainly an interesting idea. To remove controllers from the equation and have players sit in front of the screen with a pair of cameras and a microphone sensing their visual and aural input and interpreting it for gaming.

Amazingly, after a wave of speculation at the press conference, it seems to really work. What impressed the most at E3?

What Could Work

It’s impossible not to have some optimism for the Natal project. After all, a lot of what they showed worked, and worked quite well. The brick-breaker styled game had players smacking balls with their hands and feet, and the connection between player and game seemed perfectly in sync. Collision detection also seemed mint; that kind of ease of use could be fantastic for some Arcade offerings or more casual, “one screen” games where there is little or no movement in a game world.

The tech demo shown at Microsoft’s Conference was a great example of the device’s capabilities

I also enjoyed the changes they’ve made to the NXE when using Natal. Automatically signing in by simply walking in front of your television looks neat, and navigating the different menus by swiping your hands seems functional if you just want to rent a movie or watch some TV shows, and you have no need to sync up a controller.

Personally, the most notable showing for me was the racing demonstration.  Journalists at E3 were playing Burnout by placing their hands in the air like they were holding a steering wheel and their feet on the floor. With small adjustments to the placement of feet and hands, you can accelerate, brake, and steer. It’s a neat idea, and it’s promising to see that Natal can be that precise in measuring your movements.

There’s certainly much promise in what was shown of Natal at E3. The device itself is slick, and the cameras seem quite capable of tracking one or several people, just like Microsoft boasted.

But what didn’t look as impressive?

What Needs Improvement

For all the good there is in the Project Natal videos and demonstrations out there, a number of things just don’t add up for conventional games. Some of the basics of what makes a video game seem to be neglected.

Movement immediately came to mind as something a pure body-centric control scheme lacks. Natal can track your movements precisely, but all of the demonstrations of the device had the player in a stationery position. Today’s games are about free-roaming and the ability to explore. How would this be possible without a controller? There are probably some solutions Microsoft is working on behind closed doors. Are any of them as simple and as elegant as simply using an analog stick? Probably not.

Peter Molyneux’s “Milo” showed off some impressive features, but controlled promotion videos are hard to trust

Another issue is reliability. Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov, in an interview with Kotaku’s Brian Crecente, noted that, “the reliability of [motion controls] is the key problem.” The vast majority of players and developers probably agree with this sentiment. Many Wii games continue to struggle with this issue of reliability, especially when getting the controllers to register the depth of the motions you make. As Alexey points out, buttons are extremely reliable; when you pull the right trigger in Gears of War, you’re going to shoot, no doubt about it. Although Natal demonstrations seem to have a high level of reliability, they are also supervised, taking place in areas with minimal clutter. Can we expect the same level of responsiveness in our homes when Natal launches? Obviously, that remains to be seen, but if camera-based games of the past are anything to go by, it will be an uphill battle for Microsoft to get Natal working smoothly in the average home.

Other demos just seemed a little lacking. Peter Molyneux’s Milo demonstration feels like one of those. Mind you, it’s an extremely high-concept and impressive demo at first glance, with Milo commenting on the clothes of players and tracking their eyes and facial expressions.

However, upon reading additional coverage of Milo as well as re-watching what they showed at the press conference, hopes begin to sink, most notably when one recalls that artificial intelligence hasn’t really been honed to a high level of coherence yet. As Steven Totilo of Kotaku points out, Milo can tell if you’re asking a question by the tone of your voice, but he can’t tell what you’re saying. So for all of its impressive qualities, I can’t imagine something like Milo being a compelling product in the near-future of technology. It seems too canned to work out as a truly dynamic AI. When I think about Milo, my mind immediately goes to Sega’s interesting but dubious Seaman for the Dreamcast.

You know a device is early in development when one of the highlighting demos involves painting

Finally, there’s the matter of duration. The aforementioned racing demo was very impressive, but do you really want to have your hands hovering in front of you for hours on end? I play quite a bit of Burnout Paradise, and when I do, it’s usually an afternoon’s worth of play time. Under Natal’s control scheme, my weak muscles would quickly become withered and sore after playing. The issue of sustaining positions like this seems at odds with the act of sitting down and relaxing to play a game.

Final Thoughts on Project Natal

Ultimately, I don’t think Natal will be the world shattering experience it’s made out to be. In time, perhaps, but not in the years immediately following its release. Instead, it seems more like a single component in the make-up of a video game, to be used in a conjunction with a more traditional controller.

Then again, my assumptions could be completely wrong. There weren’t many Natal demos to take in at E3. Perhaps Microsoft announced Natal too early. It made sense to go ahead and do so at E3, of course, when the crowds are available (and when the competition announces something similar). This is Microsoft, though. Like Nintendo and Sony, when they have something to say, we all listen. Delaying this announcement a few months and showing some more substantial games may have been a better strategy.

Now, regardless of whether you think Natal is a good direction for Xbox or not, all that’s left to do is wait. If it’s done right, this could very well be a step in the next major industry revision. With a little compromise to Microsoft’s “the controller is the enemy” ideology, Natal could be one of the most significant additions to Xbox.

What sorts of concerns do you have about Natal? What games or features do you think could be done with it? And what do you think it will end up costing when it’s released? Do you expect to see it this time next year, when Sony plans to launch their motion control system? Sound off in the comment box below.

Sources

Microsoft Press Conference
Bam Remix
Testing Molyneux’s Milo
Tetris Creator Skeptical of Project Natal

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