REDMOND, Wash.--One of the reasons that Microsoft got such buzz for Project Natal is because it is so easy to see how the technology could change the face of gaming.
But it's even easier to appreciate once you get a chance to try the gesture recognition technology yourself. When I was in Redmond, Wash., last week, I got a chance to do just that.
Playing Ricochet, a 3D breakout-like game, I found myself wanting to do whatever I could to stop the balls from passing me. It felt less like a traditional video game and more like I was a soccer goalie and an entire team was firing shots at me. (For a firsthand look, check out the embedded video below.)
It was both a lot of fun and a bit of a workout. Apparently, I'm not the only one who has noticed that.
"Since I started working on this project, I've lost almost like 10 pounds," said Kudo Tsunoda, general manager of Microsoft Game Studios and the creative director for Project Natal. "We're going to have the most in-shape development team you've ever seen."
The effort is important to more than just the waistlines in Redmond. Microsoft is counting on Natal to give an important bump to the Xbox 360, which Microsoft has said is only mid-way through its lifecycle, even though it has been on the market since 2005.
After Ricochet, I tried my hand at an existing driving game that had been connected to the Natal interface. And while my steering hasn't gotten any better than when I checked out a set-up from GestureTek earlier this year, Microsoft's technology is quite impressive. The steering and other controls were both intuitive and responsive.
I moved my foot forward to accelerate and backward to slow down, brake, and eventually reverse the car. To steer, I simply used my hands like a steering wheel.
Although Microsoft demonstrated Natal at this year's E3 trade show, the software maker hasn't said when the technology will be available. The company has said that Natal, which incorporates face, voice, and gesture recognition technologies, will be sold as an add-on to the current Xbox 360 console.
The effort to turn Natal from concept to shipping product has been something of a mini Manhattan Project inside Microsoft, according to former Carnegie Mellon researcher Johnny Chung Lee, who is among those working on the effort.
And while smashing bricks and cars are some of the first ideas on how to use Natal, the vision clearly goes a lot further.
Inside Xbox, Tsunoda noted that Natal can be useful for more than gaming. He noted that for many first-time console users, the controller itself can be intimidating, even when trying to do things like navigate through menus. Oftentimes people get their first experience with the Xbox when they are at the house of a friend or family member who has an Xbox and they are handed a controller with lots of buttons.
"For a lot of people that can be intimidating," Tsunoda said. "You don't really know what to do and you're starting to feel stupid and everyone is looking at you and you are not being successful. That's really not a good first way to interact with our console."
Tsunoda and Entertainment Unit President Robbie Bach both said they are confident that Natal will also have great appeal for the core gamers already spending hours a week playing on the Xbox.
"Even the folks who are hard-core Halo or Splinter Cell players, they are also going to want to play Natal games," Bach said in an interview.
"I think the value is as great for if you're in the home, as you want to manage your movies, music, home system type stuff, it's very cool there," he said. "And I think there's incredible value as we use that in the office connected to a Windows PC. So Microsoft research and the product groups have a lot going on there, because you can use the cost reduction that will take place over the years to say, 'Why shouldn't that be in most office environments?'"
At last week's analyst meeting, Bach and Craig Mundie, chief research and strategy officer, also outlined the broad appeal of being able to interact more directly with computer interfaces. After Bach tried his hand at some Natal gaming, Mundie offered a demonstration of how gesture recognition might function in a work setting, saying that the desktop PC of the future could in fact encompass the entire office.