Get ready for the Next Big Thing in videogames

20 Jul

July 20, 2009

By Geoff Meeker

The Nintendo Wii is the current king of videogame consoles, with total sales surpassing 50 million since launching late in 2006.

Driving the Wii’s success is its motion sensitive controller, and the variety of games and activities – including the Wii Fit peripheral – which directly involve the player in the game action. To hit a tennis ball, you have to make the sweeping motion with your arm. For the first time in history, children broke a sweat playing video games.

However, the motions were gentle and the exertion not what I consider strenuous.

That’s about to change in a big way, when Microsoft launches ‘Project Natal’ for the Xbox.

The system has no handheld controller at all, a first for the game industry and major news in itself.

Players will control game play by becoming, quite literally, a part of it. The device uses a camera, depth sensor, microphone, facial and voice recognition software, and other proprietary technology, to actually place you in the game.

Based on the promotional videos I’ve watched, it scans your body shape into the game’s memory, creating an avatar that looks much like you. When you stand in front of the unit, it senses movement of every joint, every limb – even changes in facial expression – and replicates them on the screen.

The result: players are fully immersed in the game itself, watching themselves fight enemies, drive cars, play sports and more, with every movement mirrored in real time on the screen.

Up to now, the Nintendo Wii has been considered leading edge technology.  Already, Project Natal is starting to make it look clunky and old. The implications for the entertainment industry are enormous.

Not surprisingly, there’s been a lot of buzz about this development, since it was unveiled early in June at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles.

“Microsoft’s E3 press conference started out as a parade of games most people either knew or strongly suspected were happening,” wrote one online critic. “Then, towards the end, they dropped the bombshell to end all bombshells. Project Natal, a sky-high ambitious body/face/voice recognition add-on for the Xbox 360 that, if it works as promised, changes not just the 360, not just gaming, but how humankind interfaces with technology.”

Heady words, and, based on what I’ve seen, not too far-fetched. If you are doubtful, go to youtube.com and search for Project Natal. You will find a dedicated channel with, at last count, 26 videos showing the technology in action, demonstrating its potential and explaining how it works. It really is “all that.”

However, Microsoft still has hurdles to cross before living up to the hype. Although a working model was shown in videos and at the E3 show, there must be bugs yet to work out before the product can go to market. The company still hasn’t announced a release date, though many are speculating on late 2010.

I am not an avid videogamer. It’s too much of a time sink, and I confess to having some issues with fine motor skills – I keep tripping over all those buttons on the controller.

Project Natal will eliminate the controller altogether, allowing me to play by flailing my arms and legs about, actions for which I am eminently qualified. I am particularly interested in games that involve real exertion, such as kick-boxing or tennis. Imagine it – a videogame that is great fun to play, but also provides a rigorous physical workout.

Which raises an important question: will a generation of couch potatoes, raised on hand-held controllers, be able to muster the endurance these games will require? For many of today’s youngsters, ‘physical activity’ means walking to the pantry to get another snack. Are they truly ready for a game that expects them to perform like athletes?

Perhaps not, but it will be a delight to watch them try.

Geoff Meeker is a communications consultant with a soft spot for technology. He also writes a blog about the local media scene, which is hosted at http://www.thetelegram.com.

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