Microsoft’s Project Natal and the 10-year cycle of Xbox 360

If you paid any attention to the gigantic Electronic Entertainment Expo 2009 (E3 2009) this year, you may have already been privy to the fact that there were a lot of really awesome things being showed off there, despite the economic downturn. Gaming has been pretty resistant to the fallout from Wall Street and it seems that the big three console developers, Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo, are aggressively investing into their respective flagship console systems in order to maximize the profits they can make.

Project Natal

Microsoft’s Project Natal

The most interesting technology to come out of E3 this year is no doubt Microsoft’s Project Natal. Project Natal is a name for a new type of motion sensing device which will be sold as an extension to the Xbox 360 providing a bevy of interesting, powerful and unique capabilities that augment the traditional notions of gaming and elevates it to the next level of awesomeness.

The Nintendo Wii is undoubtedly the leader when it comes to motion sensing controllers, and it has proven to be a wild success, selling anywhere up to 10 times as many consoles as the Xbox 360 and PS3 combined. It brought casual gaming to everybody, literally everybody as the controller’s are based on motion sensors which makes gaming an intuitive experience without the need to figure out that which button does what on a traditional gamepad controller.

World’s first controller-free gaming experience

Microsoft claims to have been working on a similar project at Microsoft Research for a “very long time” and they finally revealed it to the public during E3 a few weeks ago and it’s the birth of three things; an RGB camera (the motion sensor), a 3D depth sensor and also an array of microphones. These three combine into a homogeneous platform collectively dubbed Project Natal and they claim it will be the world’s first controller-free gaming experience.

They demonstrated the technology by having a person stand in front of the device (not sure what they will call it yet, beyond the term Project Natal) and they have to deflect oncoming projectiles with their body. The sensor automatically senses and recreates the person on screen and her whole body becomes the controller. Microsoft says the device is so powerful as it has to crunch a huge amount of data in real time, using the microphones to do voice identification and allow for voice-activated controls and commands possible while the depth sensor and motion sensor is used to accurately scan and interpret data so that the device knows exactly how your body is postured and the data can be sent to games to be used.

Project Natal

Lionhead Studios also demonstrated a short video of something they call “Milo”, where a gamer interacts with an on screen character called Milo. The ‘gasp’ factor came when Milo asks the player to draw something and once the picture is drawn, it is ‘passed’ to the camera sensor which automatically takes a picture and digitizes it for Milo to use, all in one seamless movement. However, I doubt the authenticity of the video, as it smells like a planned segment designed to show off the ‘spirit’ of the technology rather than its actual limitations, similar to what PS3 did when they launched stunning videos of purported ‘real-time’ gameplay which are nothing more than pre-rendered 3D cut-scenes.

Microsoft refuses to give a timeline for Project Natal, falling back to saying “it won’t be out in 2009”. They also revealed that the Xbox360 has enough power to last until 2015, giving the console a 10-year lifecycle. This proposition is certainly welcome given the uncertain global economic conditions, but I doubt Microsoft will be sticking to an aging hardware especially when so many developers have already maxed out the console’s power and would like more, please.