Microsoft announcing new camera peripheral at E3?

As E3 (the Electronic Entertainment Expo) draws near, we're bound to see lots of video game related rumors cropping up. One that is gaining a lot of traction this week has to do with Microsoft announcing some kind of new camera peripheral at the show. If the rumors are true, this camera will track a player's body, letting them interact with a game without using any kind of handheld controller. Among the sites reporting this rumor is the Wall Street Journal, giving the rumor that scent of credibility. However it was Engadget and Ars Technica who broke the story first and between the two reports a convincing argument emerges.

Engadget lists some of the neat features of this rumored Microsoft technology, including controlling game play via the camera (which isn't anything new), but also touch-screen like gestures ("It also picks up small hand gestures like pinching, grabbing and scrolling.") being made in mid-air and being translated to the screen. Ars' Ben Kuchera jumped on this list of features as being very similar to technology he's already seen in action at CES 2008, from a company called 3DV (here is Ars Technica's 2008 post on 3DV). And guess what? Reuters reported back in February that Microsoft was in talks to buy 3DV.

Well, just reporting on rumors is no fun, so let's add our own speculation to the mix. I'm finding it interesting that so many of the posts I'm reading say the new technology "won't require users to hold any hardware". They don't say it doesn't use any hardware, just that the user doesn't hold anything. Now this just could refer to the use of the camera itself, but what if the user had to wear something? This isn't all that far-fetched for Microsoft; every XBox Live user has a headset that they wear.

Now let's talk about Johnny Chung Lee. Lee works for Microsoft in their Applied Sciences division. And Mr. Lee has done some really compelling things with the Nintendo Wii, specifically using it to do head tracking for Desktop VR displays. So what does the Wii have to do with any of this? Lee turns the Wii around. He places the Wii Remote on the TV, and wears the Wii Sensor bar. Why? Because in the end of the Wii Remote is an infrared camera.

Here's a video of Lee demonstrating this pretty amazing technology:

So could this be what Microsoft is getting ready to roll out at E3? Or part of it? The only fly in my rumor ointment is that Microsoft seems to be driving hard for the 'casual gamer' audience that Nintendo performs so well with, and a Desktop VR system is only usable by a single person at a time. It isn't really something for the whole family to sit down and enjoy together.

The idea of attaching a camera to your game console and having it read your gestures isn't new. The Playstation 2 had the EyeToy, and both the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 already have cameras that do this. The fidelity isn't great and the systems are fussy about background textures and lighting, so its possible Microsoft is just rolling out a better system than it already has. But Microsoft's Don Mattrick is widely quoted as saying “Microsoft is gearing up for a big presence at E3 which will completely transform how people think about home entertainment," and just coupling that statement with a camera that reads body movement brings back uncomfortable memories of the cringe-worthy "You're in the Movies" demo from the Microsoft press conference at E3 2008.

It has to be something more, something with more sizzle. Combining body tracking with desktop VR could really wow the gaming public. The E3 2009 Microsoft Press Conference is on June 1st, so all should be revealed soon!

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