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What Use Is A Baby? Part 1: Post-Natal

by Noah Falstein on 06/05/09 03:47:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


I'm a little surprised by the degree of negative reaction to Microsoft's new announcement about their motion-sensing, voice recognizing Project Natal.  Sure, this is the company that brought us Microsoft Bob and Vista, but this is one of their good ideas.  Full disclosure - I haven't actually tried a Natal demo myself, and didn't even go to E3.  

But I did spend time last year working with a game studio that is developing games using the same kind of 3D infrared cameras that are at the heart of the Natal motion recognition system.  The company is Omek Interactive  and although they initially used a different 3D camera system (that Microsoft bought out, in an apparent bid to become a monopoly - what a surprise!) the basic technology is very similar.  

Omek is doing some fun exergames, and although they have yet to announce the details publically, they look great.  So I'm speculating on Natal based on that, but with good confidence that the similarities are sound.  The voice recognition aspect of Natal presents other opportunities, but I'll save that for another post.

When I first saw Omek's early demos I was very skeptical.  The demo was set up off a laptop in a coffee shop, and when I saw them set up the camera pointing towards the line of people waiting to order their lattes and step in front of it, I was sure it would never be able to pick the player out of the background clutter.  

I have made a bit of a study of exergaming titles and have lectured about them, and I knew how finicky the Sony Eyetoy had been in their Eyetoy Kinetic title, require precise lighting and focus and even then losing track of my image repeatedly.  But the Omek early prototype picked the player out of the background flawlessly.

These cameras aren't perfect.  There is a bit of a lag problem - no worse than with other motion controllers like the Wiimote, and I expect it will get better quickly with revisions.  They can also be confused by certain clothing or jewelry that reflect infrared better or worse than average, but these are fairly minor points.  

Playing the game, particularly when I came to Omek's offices and saw the more advanced versions, I was instantly reminded of the movie Minority Report, where Tom Cruise's character controls a screen by waving his hands in the air (Microsoft's Natal demo reel shows very similar functionality).

 In the movie Cruise wears a data glove, and in fact I expect that something similar will be popular, perhaps with special IR-reflective beads - but no wires, no power necessary, and it will only be really critical for some fine-motion sensing.

So what does this mean for game designers?  First, a lot more active games.  Exergaming got its first big boost with DDR, then the Wii Sports title, and now Wii Fit is showing it wasn't a passing fad.  But this sort of motion-sensing camera can take it to a new level.  That will be yet more good news for putting an end to those complaints about kids playing video games instead of getting physically active (I'm thinking of you, President Obama!)

I've already heard concerns from people that they don't want to have to get up and jump around to play games.  That's valid.  Some of the demos I've actually tried involving things like virtual steering wheels are fun novelties, but your arms get tired fast held out in front of you.  And although I'm a proponent of exergames, they're just a sub-genre.  

This tech won't replace hand-held controllers.  And yet, being able to walk up to a screen and just interact without donning special gear or even picking up a controller is quite magical.  I expect that this technology might come into its own not as exergaming, but as couch-potato extreme - none of that strenuous searching for a remote control, just sit there and wave your hands to change channels, select movies, control your home from your living room.  Eventually maybe twitching an eyebrow will be enough.  So you exercise-phobes can find something to rejoice in too!

But the bottom line is, this technology and the games for it are in their infancy.  I've seen a lot of new technology and controller schemes come and go, and I've been fooled before, but this is the real deal.   From a design viewpoint, it's particularly exciting because it allows us to design games that respond to players' body language, and to finally free ourselves from requiring physical controllers.  

The dance game possibilities alone are exciting - and consider the body language involved in really good Air Guitar performances and how that would translate into competitive online Guitar Hero/Rock Band titles.  I fully expect that the best applications using this technology have yet to come - but will seem so natural and important we'll wonder how we got by without them.

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