Project Natal

In case you haven’t seen it, here’s a link to Microsoft’s Project Natal promo video. Basically, aside from not allowing you to roam around by walking, this is pretty much the “holy grail” of VR — body-based motion sensor, with facial and voice recognition as well.

Penny Arcades Take
Penny Arcade's Take

Already some “journalists” are suggesting this will beat Nintendo’s Wii at its own game. Well, d’uh. If all this stuff were delivered and worked as shown, it would crush the Wii like a bug. The point is, it’s just a “concept video” — much like John Sculley’s infamous Knowledge Navigator. Beating Nintendo at its own game would involve making sensible compromises to deliver an actual viable product, not dreaming up pie-in-the-sky fantasies and then hopelessly failing to deliver.

It’s a great idea. (It’s an obvious idea too — it’s the idea most VR people come up with when trying to dream up the ideal control system, before laughing and switching to more practical ideas.) I’d line up to buy one. Heck if they can do reasonably decent motion capture for one person with a fairly clean background with good lighting working I’d buy one. Remember, Sony released EyeTV something like five years ago — it was pretty entertaining for five minutes and then we all forgot about it.

One thing that really irks hardcore gamers — and this is why the Wii has essentially failed as a hardcore gaming platform — is imprecise controls. A martial arts game that has a 30% error rate is going to drive you completely nuts. (Again, as Tycho at Penny Arcade puts it — the first time it fails to recognise Brenna’s voice is the last time she’ll use it. Trivial Pursuit has ended in fistfights over the interpretation of answers — how do you think people will like it when the outcome hinges on vaguely reliable voice or motion recognition?)

The thing is, Microsoft (like Google and Apple, and maybe even Sony) is the kind of company that has so many smart people working for it in various nooks and crannies that it seems just possible they could pull it off (or near enough). It does kind of tie in with some of the other imaging work they’ve shown off (cough — more unreleased products), but a lot of the stuff in the video is just stupidly hard. Hard as in “mathematician hard”.

Still, I’d love to be proven wrong.