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The future 360: Project Natal takes shot at Wii

After a bunch of (mostly) expected games, Microsoft's E3 press conference finally revealed something of greater interest and scope: Project Natal, the code-name for their well-rumored motion-sensing bar.

We love the smell of Natal in the morning.

After a bunch of (mostly) expected games, Microsoft's E3 press conference finally revealed something of greater interest and scope: Project Natal, the code name for the company's well-rumored motion-sensing bar.

Taking a direct shot at Wii users who "sit on the sofa using some kind of preset waggle commands," Natal is controller-free, using what looks like a TV-mounted camera/microphone bar to sense motion, sound, and even 3D movement, suggesting that the technology involved is far beyond that of products like Sony's PlayStation Eye.

Project Natal is going to work with all current, past, and future versions of the Xbox 360, according to the press event. While the wide-open excitement of the initiative was refreshing, the fact that Natal has no official name, price, or release date was disappointing. In fact, it was called a concept for the future.

As if the legitimacy of Microsoft's move had not been validated yet, on came Steven Spielberg to rave about this future direction for game technology, claiming that "people are too intimidated to pick up game controllers." This makes sense, but it's already been proven with the Nintendo Wii and the iPhone. Microsoft is a latecomer to this party, but Spielberg did announce that he's currently working on games for this platform, although no more details were given.

Now playing: Watch this: E3 2009: Microsoft introduces Project Natal

Demoed at the press event were a Breakout-like game called Ricochet, which involved hitting a ball across a room to destroy bricks, and a paint program called Paint Party. Paint Party's gestural vocabulary seemed to be stuck in Jackson Pollack-land, but the simple splash-to-paint commands seemed to be relatively responsive.

Accuracy, however, remains a big question mark. Cheap shots at the Wii notwithstanding, Nintendo was smart enough to include old-fashioned buttons for quick interaction. The iPhone, too, has a quick-response tapping system. Will punches or swipes substitute for button-pressing in future Xbox-land?

The most captivating moment of the demo was Lionhead Studios and Fable designer Peter Molyneux's creation of Milo, an avatar in a game world who interacted with the player by looking in his or her direction, responding to live conversation, and even accepting hand-drawn messages, scanned into the game and "transferred" in real time across the virtual looking glass.

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It's compelling stuff, but every part of Natal still seems to be geared to people standing up to play. At some point, sitting on a couch should also be in Microsoft's equation.

Does this mean that E3 2010 will feature a redesigned Xbox 360 packed in with Project Natal? It seems likely enough to bet on. Until then, we'll just have to wait for more detail trickle-down.