It’s hard to call the Beatles an opening act. But if the Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr assisted demonstration of the Beatles Rock Band game was the warm up, than Microsoft’s demonstration of new motion control technology was the headlining main event at the company’s E3 Press Briefing.
Monday morning, Microsoft showcased what it’s calling Project Natal. The subject of years of rumors, and longstanding speculation, it’s a technology that takes the unfulfilled dream of Sony’s Eye Toy and makes it real. It’s cameras and computer interaction in ways we’ve only seen in movies. It’s nothing short (in potential) of spectacular. (see video embedded below for demonstration)
To quote Steven Spielberg who was on hand to help with the reveal, “This is a pivotal moment that will carry with it a wave of change, the ripples of which will reach far beyond video games”
To put it to imagery, picture the gaming interface of Nintendo’s Wii, without the need of a controller. Picture a user interface that recognizes and responds to a person’s movement and environment. It’s a computer with sight (and ears).
Want to fight Sugar Ray Leonard or Muhammed Ali in a boxing game? Test your mettle against an Ultimate Fighter without the bruising and bone breaks? Make a fist and swing your hands through the air. Anyone for tennis? Grab a real racket and take a swing, or just move your arms. Need a helper in a role playing game? Let a virtual sidekick recognize your gestures and offer you tools that suit the scenario. How about fitness game that offers real resistance training? Forget going to the gym. Grap a pair of dumbbells and turn on the TV. Let the game recognize the objects and guide your movements – your own personal trainer.
Along with included speech recognition abilities, the user interface promised begins to approach a very real virtual reality. The vision and display may not be totally immersive (though 3D display technology may change that) but it’s still a dramatic step down the evolution road.
Sure, there could be some safety issues, (that baseball bat slipping out of your hand and into your new flat screen TV), but that’s a different point. So too is the theoretical threat posed to traditional game controllers (and those accustomed to them). Interface innovation doesn’t mean the old immediately becomes antiquated or discarded. It signals only opportunity. There is room for both pushing buttons and swinging a hand through the air.
What Natal offers is a new type of immersive gaming experience. And for Microsoft that is a key to expanding the company’s reach to non-core gamers or taking the traditional to an entirely new level.
Natal is about potential, and Microsoft promises it will work with the existing Xbox 360 consoles.
So far, there’s no delivery date, and there’s not a lot of explanatory information about underlying technology powering the Natal concept, but one thing is almost assured: the technology is evolved from products developed by a company called 3DV Systems.
3DV Systems (3DV) builds image sensing camera technology that can be reduced to the size of a chip. In techno-speak, these are cameras that generate distance (depth) information and attach it to each pixel or object captured by the camera in the video stream. In plain English, they can tell the difference between you and the wall three feet behind you and they store that in the digital picture file.
3DV System’s white papers’ explains, their technology is based on the Time-Of-Flight (TOF) principle, the same concept used to power laser range finders:
“Depth information is captured by emitting pulses of infra-red light to all objects in the scene and sensing the reflected light from the surface of each object. All objects in the scene are then arranged in layers according to the distance information sensed by the D pixels in the camera.”
Depth information is measured in real time as part of a standard black and white video stream where the grey-level “correlates to relative distance.” Color data is captured with a normal color imaging sensor.
It’s all simple enough in theory: bounce a light off objects and measure the resulting information to create a map.
According to 3DV, their technology can sense depth to a resolution of millimeters in real-time (60 fps or more) using little or no CPU. (CPU and software add the ability to interpret the information and recognize objects). 3DV has filed more than 22 patents relating to its inventions.
Last year, in 2008, a camera based on the 3DV technology was a show stealer at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Going back even further, uses for it were evolving inside Microsoft’s labs. In one example, dating from 2006, engineers demonstrated its use as a “surface computer” by creating a virtual replica of a real environment for a virtual car to drive through. That may sound confusing but the video stream (here) is impressive.
Natal and other similar technology conceptions underscored Bill Gates CES Keynote in 2008. Then, in his final toast to that show, he forecast coming changes in the ways we interact with computers; gestures, sounds and other more natural queries. It wasn’t a hard forecast to make, the technologies were already in development, but maybe, his vision is even closer than he realized.
3DV System’s technology has been on “watch lists” for years but it was never clear when, where, or how, Microsoft would first deploy it commercially (Surface Computing? Windows? Mobile? Xbox? Security Software? Medical?) … until now.
Amazing possibilities aside, like all things, promise only matters if execution delivers results. Natal will need to be right from the start. Moreover, game developers will have to match the hardware’s prowess with something equally compelling in game play. To that end, development kits are on their way.
The aim is high and so are the expectations.
(A YouTube trailer for Natal is embedded below)
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