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Microsoft, Sony set E3 in motion

The big stories from E3 2009 were not about console exclusive titles and freshly revealed games, but rather on just one idea — motion control.

The big stories from E3 2009 were not about console exclusive titles and freshly revealed games, but rather on just one idea — motion control. Both Sony and Microsoft appeared as challengers to Nintendo's motion-sensing throne. While Nintendo did show off more of its Wii Motion Plus, it was Microsoft's Project Natal and Sony's as-yet unnamed device that really grabbed our attention.

Microsoft's Kudo Tsunoda shows Project Natal in action (Credit: GameSpot)

First off to wow us with its long-rumoured but never-confirmed motion control system was Microsoft’s Project Natal. Natal allows a person to act as their own controller, with a depth-perceptive camera capturing the user's movements and then translating them into actions on-screen. Signing into your account with Natal is also easier, with facial recognition allowing the Xbox to recognise you. With his Xbox Avatar mimicking his every movement while browsing through the Xbox 360's Dashboard, Kudo Tsunoda used flicks and stabs of his hand to move between screens and select different items, explaining how Project Natal captured a user's entire body.

Two games were demonstrated at E3 this year for Project Natal: Ricochet, a Breakout style game where the player uses their whole body to hit balls through a wall of bricks down a corridor; and Paint Party, where users throw and splash paint on a virtual canvas to paint their own masterpiece. Whilst the artistic results appear more Jackson Pollock than Michelangelo at the moment (as well as featuring an elephant in Africa in every piece of material Microsoft has released), Paint Party appeared to respond well to Microsoft creative director Darren Bennett's simple gesture and vocal commands.

Similar in concept to Sony's PlayStation EyeToy, Project Natal differentiates itself by how accurate it seemed to be in comparison. Also Natal gives the user the ability to move around freely in any direction, and it can tell the difference between a user striking with their hand and moving forward. Those looking for concrete information on pricing, devices and release dates were disappointed, with Project Natal being described as a "concept of the future", but we're looking forward to some more solid information from Microsoft in the near future.

Meanwhile, Sony's motion control system is more traditional than Project Natal. It incorporates a "wand"-like device for controlling in-game action, with the existing PlayStation Eye camera to record a player's movements. Interestingly, players will be able to use two wands for motion that simulates dual-handed controls, like firing a bow and arrow, or using a sword and shield. Sony's motion control scheme may lack the wow-factor of Microsoft's Project Natal, but it apparently sports amazing accuracy.

It’s also impossible not to draw a comparison with Nintendo's Wii motion system, the leading motion tracking system on the market and the most popular home games console to boot. Microsoft seemed to recognise this too, with Tsunoda making a dig at Nintendo users about how Ricochet "isn't a game where you end up on the sofa just using some kind of preset waggle commands". Microsoft also seems to believe that "the vast majority of people are just too intimidated to pick up a video game controller", according to Steven Spielberg, who also announced he is working on several titles for the new system. Unlike Sony and Nintendo's motion controlling systems, Project Natal is entirely controller free, but we're cautious to see how well this truly translates to any Natal releases.

While Sony and Microsoft both debuted new systems for their assault on Nintendo's domination of the video games market, today Nintendo only showed us more of the Wii Motion Plus attachment, which debuted last year at E3 2008, touting it as "a new sense of realism in gameplay" — obviously the company hadn't seen Sony or Microsoft's press conferences at that point. The Wii Motion Plus is the add-on that plugs into your Wii Remote, or Wiimote, to deliver the kind of accuracy and sensitivity it was believed the Wiimote would originally provide. It was announced today that Wii Motion can be used with Tiger Woods, Grand Slam Tennis and Sega's Virtua Tennis. Nintendo may not have added anything new to the party this year, but it wasn't necessary seeing as the company is already so deeply entrenched in the motion-sensing stake.