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GDC 2010: PlayStation Move vs. Project Natal, we go hands-on with both

As Microsoft demoed Project Natal for us in New York recently, and we've just had a chance to play with the PlayStation Move, we can now bring you our initial hands-on impressions of both systems.

Now playing: Watch this: Sony announces PlayStation Move

As we predicted before the start of the annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Sony used its press conference to formally announce the PS3 motion controller. Officially called the PlayStation Move, this wand-and-cam system, briefly demoed at the Electronic Entertainment Expo last year, is the latest move by a video game console maker into the realm of motion control.

While the Nintendo Wii has had this segment of the market cornered for some time, Microsoft is developing a camera-only motion control system for the Xbox 360 called Project Natal (still a working title), and is now officially joined by Sony in the console gesture control arms race.

As Microsoft demoed Project Natal for us in New York recently, and we've just had a chance to play with the PlayStation Move, we can now bring you our initial hands-on impressions of both systems.

PlayStation Move
The PlayStation Move requires a combination of a Sony PlayStation Eye Web cam (an existing peripheral), plus one or more PlayStation Move wands. A secondary controller similar to the Nintendo Wii nunchuck, with the unfortunate name of the "subcontroller," is an optional accessory for some games.

We tried several games using the main Move controller (see the video above), and the experience was generally very close to what we're used to from the Nintendo Wii, albeit with a much greater sense of precision--even better than using the Wii Motion Plus. There was much less of the jittery movement to the onscreen cursor we're used to from the Wii.

Playing 'Move Party' with the PlayStation Move controller. Libe Goad

At the same time, the experience was clearly a work in progress. We played a rail shooter called The Shoot, and while the aiming and shooting worked fairly well, we kept accidentally resetting the level because of overly sensitive pop-up menus. We also played Move Party, a collection of competitive mini-games for up to four players. Most of the mini-games worked well, from swatting flies to painting shapes on the screen, but the entire package felt too much like a retread of the original PlayStation EyeToy Webcam peripheral and games. A fighting game, using two Move controllers, had just enough input lag to feel sluggish.

Of course, these were all early demo versions of games, and they can be expected to undergo additional polishing before release. Our biggest concern is actually the hardware and how it will be sold. It seems like any serious gaming would require either a pair of Move controllers (or maybe four controllers for party games), or else the Move controller and subcontroller, in addition to the PlayStation Eye Webcam. If you wanted to play several different kinds of Move games, that could require a hefty hardware purchase (a standard bundle will include the Webcam and one Move controller).

A closer look at the Move controller. Dan Ackerman

Microsoft's Project Natal
We first saw Project Natal, the Xbox 360 gesture control system, at the 2009 Electronic Entertainment Expo. Our most recent look was mere weeks ago and included a chance to actually test drive the system. Yet, despite the intervening eight months, we saw exactly the same demo game in New York in February 2010 as we saw in Los Angeles in June 2009. This is either a sign of slow progress, or else Microsoft is playing its Natal cards very close to the vest, especially for the system aiming to go on sale in time for the holiday 2010 season.

Unlike the Nintendo Wii and PlayStation Move systems, Natal uses only a Web cam, and no handheld wand or control stick. We stepped in front of the camera, at a recommended distance from the screen, and the Natal Web camera detected our presence and created an onscreen skeletal armature to mimic our movements. Its most impressive feature was how the onscreen animated figure seemed to lock onto the movement of our joints in a real-time way.

We only got to test one demo app with Project Natal, a simple 3D exercise that combined handball with a Breakout-style game. By hitting a bouncing ball back at the screen, we broke boxes in the distance and scored points. The game was simple enough, and we got the hang of using our hands, legs and even head to block the ball, but seeing our 3D movements rendered in 2D on top of a 3D game space gave our depth perception a run for its money at times. This was especially true when trying to figure out where our hands were in relation to the Z-axis and the rapidly approaching ball.

We were, however, impressed that once the Natal camera locked onto us, it could ignore another person passing right behind us and through its line of sight. And we're eager to see more of Microsoft's claim that the very menus of the Xbox 360 itself can be controlled with the Natal camera and a flick of the wrist.

For right now, Nintendo is still the undisputed champion of motion-controlled gaming. Microsoft's Project Natal seems to work well but has only been demoed in a handful of highly controlled situations. Sony's PlayStation Move was at least demoed with several games being freely played by dozens of gamers--a trial by fire that showed the system as stable, if in need of some tweaking.

Of course, both of these new projects presuppose that the Wii's success with motion control indicates a deep demand for similar hardware, rather than just being a byproduct of the Wii's lower price and family-friendly reputation. It's a risky assumption to make, and we'll be hearing plenty more about the chances for both these new systems as the year progresses.