If you needed any reassurance that the videogame industry is doing just fine, thank you very much, then Microsoft's E3 press conference Monday morning provided it. Hundreds of journalists and industry members crammed into the Galen Center in Los Angeles, creating an unending sea of Twittering laptops and iPhones. The fellow next to me had journeyed all the way from Sweden to be here. Luckily for him, and us, Microsoft delivered. It was a splashy presentation with surprising star voltage – look, it's Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr! And what's this? Steven Spielberg at a video game show? But all the razzle-dazzle didn't overshadow the fact that Microsoft had some pretty substantial products to show off.
The coolest, by far, is a motion-capture camera for the Xbox 360 that Microsoft is currently calling Project Natal. This is what's making Spielberg so excited. Natal, which looks like a rectangular bar that sits above or below your TV, can track your body's movements in three dimensions. Thus, there's no need for a game controller, or as Don Mattrick, the senior VP of Xbox, puts it, “We're using the best controller ever invented: you.”
Natal is Microsoft's response to Nintendo's extremely successful Wii, and it promises to trump the Wii in a couple of ways. First off, Natal utilizes face recognition – simply stand in front of your TV, and Natal will figure out who you are and sign you in. Second, Natal features voice recognition, so you can use verbal commands to do everything from playing a movie (simply say “play movie”) to having a conversation with a virtual character. The latter is where we enter groundbreaking (and potentially unnerving) territory. Developer Lionhead Studios showed off a Natal project in which players can interact with a virtual boy named Milo, who responds to your voice, movements, and facial expressions. It's best to check out the demo video yourself, embedded below:
With inventions such as Natal, we're quickly approaching a future in which humans can partake in a virtual experience that's nearly indistinguishable from the real thing. And then we'll be faced with intriguing decisions: If a skateboarding video game requires the same body movements as actual skateboarding, why not simply go outside and ride a skateboard? If you can have authentic conversations with a virtual person, will you choose to do so – possibly at the expense of your true relationships? For now, let's admit that Microsoft's Natal made quite an impression. There's no word yet on when the device will be available or how much it'll cost, but it will be compatible with every Xbox 360 system.
PopWatchers, what do you make of Natal? Think it'll be the death of the Nintendo Wii? Or are you not convinced? And who here thinks Milo is a bit too charming for his own good? I think the little guy may be up to something…Skynet, anyone?