Project Natal Won E3, and Maybe the Motion Control Wars

Wii MotionPlus will make the Wii better. Sony's very impressive motion control demo will be better than Wii MotionPlus. But Microsoft stole E3 and may have already won the motion control wars with the announcement of Project Natal.

Keep in mind, the name "Natal"—referring to a city in Brazil—doesn't really do the platform's infancy any justice. It should really be called "Project Prenatal," as the peripheral's dev kits just shipped to the first set of developers this week.

But after testing the system and getting a good look at what makes its motion tracking tick, I'm going to fanboy out a bit on the platform, as responsibly and logically as I can. Here's why I think Natal is a watershed in motion controls.

For a Motion System It Facilitates Passive Entertainment
People are lazy. If we can use a remote instead of changing a channel on the television five feet away, we'll use a remote. And I'd argue that if we can login to our preferred entertainment by just sitting on the couch (through Natal's facial recognition), we'll do that next. Is talking or gesturing more simple than channel surfing on a remote? Not necessarily, but...

Voice Recognition Is Still Promising Technology
Just because we haven't managed to perfect voice recognition doesn't mean we should write it off in every product into the future. It's getting better all the time, helped by increased processing power, and once you integrate voice into a system, it allows you to jump deeper into any tree of menus than most UIs allow. For instance, on an iPod, you have to navigate through a handful of separate screens to get to a particular artist. With voice recognition, you'd just say that artist's name.

Natal Can Support Peripherals Too, You Stupid, Stupid Idiots
If there was one thing I couldn't stand hearing again and again at E3, it was that Natal would force all gamers to mime controls in every game. Not true—at least, not for any reason made clear to me. Programmers would be free to include all kinds of controllers should they chose to. And if Natal's cameras are tracking 48 points on your body in 3D space, and its software can distinguish you from various non-human objects, I find it hard to believe that you couldn't hold an actual steering wheel to play a racing game, if you wanted to. Personally, I've grown a bit sick of tripping over plastic controllers in my living room, but I'm sure that third-party devs and hardware manufacturers will be happy to integrate and sell all the acrylic modular baseball bats you can stand.

Natal Can't Cost More Than a Party's Worth of Wiimotes
No one knows what Natal will cost. But you know what? I doubt it will cost more than $242, the amount a Wii owner needs to spend to outfit their console with controllers for four people. Microsoft was not specific as to the number of gamers supported simultaneously in Natal's multiplayer (to be fair, we haven't seen the system fully tracking wireframes beyond two people at a time). But a future in which a console's price isn't doubled by its peripherals sounds pretty appealing to us.

Natal Tracks 48 Points, Nintendo and Sony Track 1, Maybe 2 Points
Sony's Wiimote-like demo was the best physically-based motion tracking I'd ever seen. It was pretty freaking impressive to watch augmented reality replaced Sony's controller with a sword, whip and even bow and arrow. But even with two controllers, Sony and Nintendo's systems are really only tracking two single objects (perfectly) in space. So when you are swinging that sword with so much flourish, the human figure is just an arbitrary placeholder. How will you dodge? Or should I say, how will you feel like you're dodging? The D-pad, I can almost guarantee. OK...so how will you kick?

Natal Would Be Too Good To Be True...In Nintendo or Sony's Hands
Other companies could (and have) made infrared body-tracking cameras. Why are we so confident in Natal? Aside from our positive hands-on experience, Natal has Microsoft middleware/dev tools behind it. Where few third parties have wielded the Wiimote with as much finesse as Nintendo, and Sony is traditionally mute on how companies can unlock the power of their complicated hardware architecture, Microsoft launches Xbox products with the software necessary to make them work. Oh, and Microsoft is approaching Natal with 100% earnestness, calling the platform "the endgame." Sony's motion control, according to Sony, is less important.

The Coolest Mind In Motion Controls Says It Exceeds Anything He's Seen
Johnny Chung Lee, the same guy behind those crazy-awesome Wiimote mods, is working on the project. And he says this about it:

The human tracking algorithms that the teams have developed are well ahead of the state of the art in computer vision in this domain. The sophistication and performance of the algorithms rival or exceed anything that I've seen in academic research, never mind a consumer product. At times, working on this project has felt like a miniature "Manhattan project" with developers and researchers from around the world coming together to make this happen.

That quote's more than just hype—it's educated hype.

Also, if you haven't seen Lee's video showing off the potential of headtracking in displays, do so right now. Why? Because I'm all but positive that headtracking is one of many unannounced features in Natal that will change the way we think of 3D, without a 3D display.

I don't know that Natal will render the PS3's motion controls (or Nintendo's new Wii MotionPlus) completely worthless overnight. I do think there's a level of speed and accuracy (60 fps!) with which Sony will be able to duplicate a good old blunt instrument, possibly even better than Natal. (Then again, no one has actually played Sony's prototype.)

But an idea as bold as Project Natal, in the hands of Microsoft, which has been on its game, so to speak, with the 360...yeah, it took E3 in my book. And next year, when there are some actual games to see on the platform, it damn well might take E3 again. [Project Natal on Gizmodo]