'Wii hacker' part of Microsoft's Natal effort

The former Carnegie Mellon researcher, who joined Microsoft and went quiet, says he has been working on the motion-sensing project unveiled on Monday.

Johnny Chung Lee, the former Carnegie Mellon researcher known for finding creative ways to adapt the Wiimote , has revealed himself as one of the minions behind Project Natal, Microsoft's effort to add motion-sensing capabilities into the Xbox 360.

Lee, who is now a researcher at Microsoft, said in a blog posting that he has been working on the motion-sensing project.

"Now, I should preface by saying I don't deserve credit for anything that you saw at E3," Lee said in the blog, which he posted on Monday night. "A large team of very smart, very hard-working people were involved in building the demos you saw on stage. The part I am working on has much more to do with making sure this can transition from the E3 stage to your living room - for which there is an even larger team of very smart, very hard-working people involved."

Microsoft demoed Project Natal on Monday as part of its press conference at the E3 trade show . The technology allows a person to act as their own remote, with a depth-sensing camera capturing their motion, and software then translating it into actions.

Lee notes that he can't reveal anything beyond what Microsoft shared, but does talk a little about the technology that underlies Natal.

"The 3D sensor itself is a pretty incredible piece of equipment providing detailed 3D information about the environment similar to very expensive laser range finding systems but at a tiny fraction of the cost," Lee wrote. "Depth cameras provide you with a point cloud of the surface of objects that is fairly insensitive to various lighting conditions allowing you to do things that are simply impossible with a normal camera."

The hard work, he said, is then converting that cloud of points into human actions, something which requires some pretty sophisticated algorithms. That said, the work could lead in some even cooler directions.

"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," Lee wrote. "We would all love to one day have our own personal holodeck. This is a pretty measurable step in that direction."

Before joining Microsoft, Lee gained attention for his projects using the sensor bar and remote of the Nintendo Wii to work as head-tracking devices, a multitouch user interface and more.

Lee has continued showing off his Wiimote projects since joining Microsoft, presenting at this year's Mix09 event in Las Vegas. (There's a video below, but it requires Silverlight.)

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Update 2:25 p.m. I had a chance to chat with Lee briefly by phone.

For his part, Lee said he thinks Microsoft doesn't get the credit it deserves in the consumer arena.

"It's sort of a bummer that Microsoft gets kinds of a bad rap," Lee said. "It's a lot of very ambitious groups trying to do big things. Not everything makes it out the door."

Lee, who works in an applied science group that sits between the research and product arms at Microsoft, says that the company is working on some very cool stuff, though he could not go into a lot of details.

"I played a little bit with the depth cameras before Microsoft," he said. "The technology I have been able to play with since coming to Microsoft is a lot better."

 

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