Microsoft unveils Project Natal at E3

Yesterday at its Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) press conference, Microsoft unveiled Project Natal (pronounced NAH-tahl), a full-body motion capture & voice recognition system intended to change the way we interact with our Xbox game consoles.

On the hardware side of things, Natal consists of a sensor bar that will attach to any Xbox. Tucked into the sensor bar is an array of cameras and microphones and who knows what other components. Microsoft isn't saying. All the rest of Natal is software.

A variety of demos was shown live. There was a kind of 3D breakout game called Ricochet where the player jumped around 'hitting' balls towards a wall of targets; this didn't look much better than existing products we've seen with hardware like Sony's EyeToy. Next was a quirky painting application where the artist slung buckets of paint at a virtual canvas by waving his arms. Would-be Jackson Pollacks control the choice of paint color and brush via voice, which was fairly impressive given that the demonstrator was talking to the audience at the same time. The software could pick out "dark brown" during his conversation with the audience, and change colors accordingly.

Next up was a canned montage of demos showing people both playing games via Natal, and more interestingly controlling the Xbox dashboard using hand gestures and voice. A couple sits on the couch, the woman waves her hand to scroll through a listing of videos on-screen, and then says "Play Movie" to start the selected film. No more reaching for the remote!

Finally Lionhead Studios head Peter Molyneux took the stage to talk about some work his team has been doing with Project Natal. He rolled a film showing a woman interacting with a virtual young boy named Milo. As the demo begins, the boy is on a swing, and when he 'sees' the woman approach the TV, he jumps off and runs up to the screen, calling her by name. She then has a natural language conversation with the boy in which he reacts realistically to what she has to say. When she asks if he's done his homework, he looks at the ground, avoiding her eyes. Things like that. At one point she draws a picture on a piece of paper and raises it to the top of the TV (where the Natal sensor bar sits) and Milo reaches up and takes it, pulling it down from out of frame into his virtual world. You can see the whole interaction in the video embedded below.

It is quite impressive, even knowing that it has to be at least 50% smoke and mirrors. If 'Milo' was as smart as this video makes him out to be, he'd be the first bit of software that could pass a Turing Test. I just find it very hard to believe that a game studio, even one with Microsoft's backing, could crack the A-Life problem to this extent. But even given that caveat, it's a pretty impressive demo. Have a look and decide for yourself:

Microsoft hasn't given a release date for Project Natal beyond "not in 2009" so we'll have to wait to see how much of this demo is real.

Besides Project Natal, Microsoft impressed the E3 crowds with a nice selection of games (of course) as well as announcements that Last.fm, Facebook and Twitter are all being integrated into the XBox Live service. Unlike Natal, these additions will be ready before the end of the year.

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