Will Project Natal make "next-gen" obsolete?

From here on out Microsoft are making their play for the masses, and it has all kicked off with a New Scientist feature on how Natal actually works. Natal senses motion by flooding your gaming room with infrared light while monochrome cameras record just how much light is being bounced back. Natal’s software evaluates the position of your body 30 times every second and translates it into something your 360 can understand. 

Natal understands that hands are connected to arms and that your feet are usually at the end of your legs, and can effectively guess at the positions of those parts even if your hand is behind your back or if someone walks in front of the camera. According to New Scientist it can place the position of an object to within four centimeters, which is less precise than real motion capture but accurate enough for swinging golf clubs and head tracking.

The cost to your console is just 50 Meg on your hard drive but around 15% of the 360’s processor time. It’s more costly than we had expected – our sources informed us shortly before E3 that Natal would have its own built-in processor, but following CES those same sources revealed the dedicated processor was out and that Natal would place the entire workload on the 360’s CPU. It lowers the price of the add-on, and should let Microsoft sell it for under $75/£50 or bundle it free with a newer, slimmer 360, but it means the 100ms lag time which we’ve encountered in our playtests is still apparent.

It’s what led Jon Burton from LEGO game-makers Traveller’s Tales to complain to industry mag Develop about Natal’s potential for gaming. Burton considers the lag a critical problem and is more impressed by Sony’s fast and millimeter-perfect pointer than Natal, though he reckons the software behind Natal “stunned him”. Sony’s pointer is old technology perfected while Microsoft’s system is the first to track an entire body. It’s an amazing first for any home technology, even if we do eventually wind up just ignoring all the kicky punchy games and play near-motionless with a controller in our hands while Natal tracks our head movements to let us peek around corners.

Above: Tiger Woods would be Natal-friendly, but here's hoping he doesn't cheat on it

According to Microsoft, 80% of the world’s publishers are working on Natal. It’s a list which includes Activision, Ubisoft, Square, Bethesda, EA, Konami, and now Capcom. Capcom’s (breathe) Vice President of Strategic Planning and Business Development Christian Svensson announced during CES that Capcom is working on several projects, including the resurrection of a “brand we haven’t seen in a while”.

Given Svensson’s suggestion that Capcom aren’t treating Natal as a gimmick and that they’re making a ‘gamer’s game’, speculation is leaning towards the likes of Power Stone, Strider, and Ghouls ‘N’ Ghosts, but we’re betting on something more Xboxy – how about a next generation Steel Battalion? Skip the story ahead 30 years or so and we could replace the huge twin-stick controller with an all-new ‘holographic’ on-screen touch-controlled interface and full-body motion controls like Quaritch’s robosuit whatchamacallit from Avatar.

It’s all led to Microsoft shifting the end of the generation back half a decade, and making the Xbox 360/PS3 generation the longest in console history. “The Xbox 360 is the console of the long future for us,” MS’ David Hufford told The Guardian. “We’re able to give this console new life either with software upgrades or hardware upgrades like Project Natal. The Xbox 360 was designed for a long life, and I don’t even know if we’re at the midpoint yet.” By 2015 the 360’s tech will cost peanuts and fit in a box the size of a hardback book, and as our recent story on Crysis 2 proves – there’s a lot of potential in Microsoft’s big white box even if it lasts long enough to become Microsoft’s little white box.

Above: Will Vanquish make use of Natal?

Since Natal chews up a chunk of your processor’s time you can forget about seeing old games patched to support Natal, but from the end of this year onwards you can bet on almost every new game supporting it in some fashion. The increasingly stagnant Tiger Woods games are long overdue for an overhaul, and a Natal-powered game in 2011 would let EA cling on to their old engine for a few more years. Meanwhile, even the likes of Halo Reach, Crysis, Doom 4, and maybe Shinji Mikami’s next big game Vanquish could use it for head tracking and other in-game interactions.

Start comparing Microsoft’s public plans and patents and you start to see the picture Microsoft are painting for the future of gaming. Between Natal, their system for creating an in-game avatar - which is exactly like you right down to health and physical fitness, and their electromyographic control scheme, it’s nothing short of the first step toward Star Trek holodecks and The Matrix.

The latest futuristic development from Microsoft’s labs is – in their words – an “interaction methodology which senses and decodes muscular activity rather than relying on visible actuations”. In short, the EMG sensor reads every motion you make with whichever muscles it’s hooked up to and translates it to something in a computer program. It’s a system designed to allow people to operate computers even with their hands full – squeezing thumb and forefinger together to skip MP3 tracks while cycling, for instance – but it has been demoed with a modified Guitar Hero. With sensors attached to your arm, the system can sense thumb and finger movements and turn it into fret presses even without the plastic guitar. Just pray you don’t get an itch when playing.

Above: Another MS tech advance

Microsoft’s tech heads are already turning the wired tech into a wireless armband, which probably puts us within 15 years or so of a Microsoft-branded full-body condom thing which senses everything from a flex of our biceps to a wobble of our by-then distinctly rounded middle-aged bellies. Natal will certainly be the stepping stone for reaching that lofty goal.

Mar 2, 2010

8 great uses for Microsoft's Project Natal system
A Photoshopped vision of the future for the 360's motion-capture controller

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  • CLEIP - March 7, 2010 2:02 p.m.

    All i really want from motion controllers is the ability to point and shoot, It makes for a more intense feeling than moving an analog stick, thats the only thing the wii really does well ( sometimes). Natal just looks dumb...
  • Clickshark - March 5, 2010 2:56 a.m.

    Keeping an eye on this one. Need to see some more examples of how this technology could be applied because it could be a great platform to develop. It might have a shot, hopefully they can keep the gimmick saturation levels relatively low. Didn't see a release date so hopefully some concrete badassery is announced in the future.
  • dante1924 - March 3, 2010 11:15 p.m.

    Ugh, I'll pass.It seems to me that you can't really do much with Natal. How will you be able o play shooters? By running in place? And how would you turn around? And what about racing games? How the hell would the game know if you are stepping on the gas or the brake? And just what the hell do you do for RPGS? The whole idea seems really stupid. The only games I can really think of that will work on natal are party games, and that weird Milo game. Now, do we really want another console buried under shovelware?
  • Pocotron - March 3, 2010 9:10 p.m.

    I never did like motion control, and it's overhyped shit like this that make me feel bad for calling myself a "gamer".
  • Kenzo - March 3, 2010 5:06 p.m.

    personally, I'm not a huge fan of motion controls, they take what could be a very precise control scheme and turn it into a clumsy arm waving, friend slapping fiasco in an attempt to throw a grenade. thats why buttons are good, because you don't have to get the motion just right, you just hit the button, and it obeys. not to mention hitting a button is much faster than swinging whatever appendage is necessary at the moment, allowing for much shorter reaction time so you aren't a sitting duck. I own a wii and I can tell you that by far the best wii games are the ones that use motion controls minimally, not relying on a perfect motion to decide your fate. it can be easy to miss the perfect gesture, but how often do you miss a button? and if you do how long does it take to hit it on the second try? no time. gestures are big and take very precious time to make, especially two or three times. What I'm trying to say is that they slow down otherwise fast paced gameplay, just so the player can pretend they're inside thier TV reCAPTCHA: cibranio histadrut wtf?
  • oryandymackie - March 3, 2010 5:04 p.m.

    Microsoft are promising this won't be a Wii-gate, right? Well, try as I might, I can't get my head round how Natal will work with an FPS such as Halo. Either they're going to come up with a huge, new way of gaming, or we WILL have Wii Mark II. Natal is either going to be a major success or the funniest joke since Leona Lewis soundtracking Final Fantasy Thirteen? They're not really going to get her to do it, are they? Please, God, no...
  • AggressiveMold - March 3, 2010 4:52 p.m.

    As far as HD goes, I remember reading something that said that our eyes won't really see much of a difference on any higher definitions. I guess the graphics argument will come down to processing power, but then there's another trend to counteract that: it's too damn expensive. While it's getting easier to make games with fantastic graphics (Unreal Engine, thankyouverymuch) XBL, PSN, and almost every good game on the Wii have shown that graphics isn't what makes a game great; it's originality and innovation. Natal will stave off the next gen systems because it gives developers that much more room to maneuver.
  • miningguyx360 - March 3, 2010 3:55 p.m.

    nice i live in Bethpage
  • philipshaw - March 3, 2010 3:49 p.m.

    This sounds a lot like eyetoy which Sony did 7 years ago. Microsoft, 2003 called and Sony want their idea back
  • sleepy92ismypsn - March 3, 2010 2:25 p.m.

    i dont even want to think about next gen for another 5 years what could they maybe a blu ray xbox 720 but what could they possibly make better than blu ray
  • crumbdunky - March 3, 2010 2:04 p.m.

    We'll see. However, some things-like gesturing to change TV channel or navigate a menu seems totally redundant before it begind when pressing a button is already as movement and time and energy efficient as any gestutre will ever be even IF Natal can pick up tiny movements. Simply-what gesture is smaller than pressing a friggin button? If they get the game applications right and we don't get a ton of lazy devs forcing shovelware on us(and we know a lot will even if some do push the boundaries)then it could be exciting but, so far, Sony has the more impressive tech demos doing the rounds and have already shown a way to work with existing software with RE5 and LBP(but if they continue with using the DS3 as it's analogue solution they may as well stop now-it's uncomfy in one hand and when they tried neither my wife nor my kids could even push the stick fully in all directions let alone press a button or two as well-least of all a shoulder button)-I'm interested as to how, if Natal remains comntroller free MS intend us to nabvigate game worlds without an analog stick replacement/alternative and none of the demos they, laggily, showed so far have even hinted at it being possible with the one most commonly seen being a dodgeball sim very similar to Eyetoy games of the past. Tons is up in the air no matter hw clever the tech may be. If it doesn't improve what we already have and allow us to play all kinds and genres of games why bother? It has to ADD something and full body movement just sounds like MORE motion to me and the better Wii games really AREN'T about that. Interesting to see how this pans out but we'll need to see something a lot more impressive than the l;aggy crap they managed so far! Even the other week with "Wossy" playing Dodgeball the latency was astoundingly bad and it HAs to be instant and 1:1 to pick up many followers who will stick with it and actually continue buying software, no? A lot of questions and problems with only some clever thought behind it as of now-I'll wait to see what actually comes to my 360 with all this before even starting to feel convinced there's anything in it. Not saying there isn't or won't be but what have we seen that was in any way that impressive so far? Lots of fuss about nothing MS-show me magic or eff off.
  • Migglez - March 3, 2010 5:09 a.m.

    haha Microsoft's body condom idea reminds me of how the people controlled the Gundams in G Gundam in like black skin tight latex suits
  • TURbo - March 3, 2010 3:51 a.m.

    One thing I don't like about this generation of consoles is instead of having cheaper consoles its still a console at $200 or $300 but there is a bigger hard drive.
  • ultimatepunchrod - March 3, 2010 3:28 a.m.

    no. in short it will not make the next gen obsolete. even if this thing made ridiculous leaps in technology, it still wouldnt make the next gen obsolete because people will always be about graphics first. i think that this and PS's new motion control will be loads of fun, but i really think that no matter how technologically advanced it is, devs will just make massive amounts of games because motion control is "in" right now.
  • solidsnake_5552000 - March 3, 2010 2:53 a.m.

    I don't own an xbox but I can say that natal looks fun. Either casual or hardcore gamers could have a good time. I just hope that microsoft is serious about the amount of developers and games behind the project and that it won't end up being another expensive fad which soonly dies because of lack of suppport.
  • D0CCON - March 3, 2010 1:30 a.m.

    Hope it makes next-gen obselete (well, maybe just delayed for several more years). This is the first time I've had access to all three systems in a console generation (notice I didn't say war). Don't want it to end just yet.
  • Metroidhunter32 - March 3, 2010 12:32 a.m.

    Flip of a coin to me whether it succeeds or fails. And of course you know if it works nintendo and sony go into overdrive to match it. Never going to be just one console, always must be three.
  • Samuel71 - March 3, 2010 12:14 a.m.

    Haha, is this a joke? Did the Nintendo Wii make next-gen obsolete? Of course not. Natal's just another motion-control gimmick... when a console with vastly superior graphics is released, we'll see if it's ignored in favour of something like Natal.
  • nadrewod999 - March 2, 2010 11:07 p.m.

    Natal is the anti-"Next-generation". Look at the tech demos. The technology here is worse than the "Eye-toy" on the PS2, even if it extends to your full body instead of just your face. However, there is hope on the horizon in the form of a black angel, the PS3. Compare Natal with the upcoming PS3 controllers. They have already shown how you can use that controller in existing games, while almost every Natal game would be specially made for it. That one little move, making the controller fit the game instead of vice versa is why I actually want the "glowing wand", even though I mostly play 360.
  • lovinmyps3 - March 2, 2010 11:05 p.m.

    I still think this will fall flat and become buried in casual shit. So will Sony's. Nintendo's charm and skill in their games like Zelda and Mario are the only thing that saved the Wii for hardcore gamers. I don't think this or Sony's motion controls will be worth picking up for hardcore gamers. Unless those gamers have an infinite amount of money.

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