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E3 2009: No shortage of hardware hype

Looking beyond the hype of new hardware from Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo.

Whether it's hardware, software, or vaporware, there's no shortage of intense hype for new products and technologies at E3. But beyond the breathless product demonstrations, the reality doesn't always live up to the promise (not that this is all that different from any other part of the tech industry). Even having gotten a close-up, in-person look at some of these big buzz-worthy introductions at E3, it's hard to separate fact from hype, although one thing is obvious: only a handful of these hardware developments are even close to actually being released.

An idealized view of Project Natal

Project Natal, the Xbox 360's motion-sensing camera add-on, certainly has potential, but the promo video for it Microsoft showed off was purely a work of science fiction. In it, a happy family enjoys multimedia content, chats with friends, and plays complex interactive games without a controller, just using their bodies. The actual playable demos were a few generations behind that, more reminiscent of the Sony Eye Toy accessory for the PS2--the main example was a simple game where players bat a ball back at the screen by swatting at the air, with just enough lag to be annoying. We're very excited about the potential of this new motion-sensing, face-and-voice-recognizing, camera add-on, but for now the gulf between the reality and prerendered video is sizable.

Any joke you've got about Milo the virtual boy--we've heard it 10 times already this week.

A much-hyped software package that uses the Project Natal hardware, Milo was presented as a virtual onscreen boy who could recognize you and carry on an intelligent conversation. The demo video was impressive, but obviously shot in a tightly controlled environment with clearly scripted responses. Talking to several people who got a chance to try out talking to Milo in person behind closed doors, the responses were uniformly disappointed, describing the supposedly realistic Milo similar to a Tamagotchi virtual pet, with only very basic interactivity. Milo was created by Peter Molyneux, a game designer infamous for over-promising and under-delivering, with ambitious but flawed projects such as Fable and Black & White.

Wii Motion Plus, an add-on that snaps onto the end of your Wiimote for more accurate tracking, seems like an odd admission that the Wii's original motion-sensing capabilities never worked quite right in the first place. An awkward dongle for your Wiimote, we see this being a tough sell to casual Wii gamers, and confusing for anyone trying to figure out which games require the new peripheral, which offer it as an option, and which don't support it at all. On the plus side, the Wii Motion Plus is close to consumer release, and, it actually seems to work, providing a new level of fine control on new Wii games such as Wii Sports Resort.

The Wii Vitality Sensor

One unexpected new announcement was the Wii Vitality Sensor--which, despite a lack of details, price, or availability date, looks to us like a small biometric finger sensor for the Wii. Nintendo describes the device enigmatically, saying, "It will initially sense the user's pulse and a number of other signals being transmitted by their bodies, and will then provide information to the users about the body's inner world." We've seen similar technology used before--notably in a simple tabletop game demo a couple of years ago, where pulse sensors measured which player was calmer, and pushed a ball toward their opponent's goal.

Another surprise was Sony's brief demo of a new motion-sensing wand-like controller, which works with an Eye Toy style Webcam. The demo, while clearly stage-managed, was freewheeling enough to be impressive, with a Sony employee wielding two of the wands, which apparently use a lighted section at the end for tracking, and subbing in different overlay graphics in real-time (tennis racket, sword, etc.). Another example of early development of a new video game accessory, it was emphasized that what we saw were early engineering samples, and that the actual hardware wouldn't be available until at least spring 2010.

More concrete are plans for the PSP Go, the revamped new version of Sony's handheld game console. The details and specs have previously been covered extensively, but new was the retail price--a somewhat surprising $249.99--prompting some significant grumbling from the crowd at Sony's E3 press conference from those who noted it cost as much as a Wii, and more than a basic Xbox 360. That aside, like the Wii Motion Plus, the PSP Go is actually close to getting into consumers' hands, so at least these two new tech products will get a full trial in the court of public opinion before next year's E3.