One of the big darlings of this year's E3 was Microsoft's new motion-sensing and voice-activated technology, code-named Natal. And since this is the 21st century and any idiot with a blog can post their opinion on anything whatsoever, here is this idiot's opinion on Project Natal.
It's a gimmick.
Granted, it's a very cool piece of tech. The ability to track a person's body in three-dimensional space is very cool. And from what I've read, it does compensate beautifully for low light (and even for someone walking in the camera's field of view trying to "distract" it) beautifully.
But is it really "the future of gaming"? Is it really the end of the controller as we know it?
The idea of motion-controlled gaming isn't new, obviously. The Wii has been doing this for a couple years now. And obviously, it's a pretty marketable gimmick — they've sold a few hundred billion of these things. However, the thing I've noticed is, everyone I know who has one, doesn't use it. It's the modern equivalent of a board game — it sits on the shelf collecting dust, except for the couple times a month (or less) that company comes over, when you dust it off and gather around and play. Granted, you have a lot of fun playing; but at the end of the night, it gets put back on the shelf, never to be seen or heard from again until the next party.
Now, my impressions may be skewed by my sample set. The people I know are either "hardcore" gamers (i.e. people who grew up on consoles, who play racers or shooters as a hobby, who have a line item in their budget for games, etc.) or non-gamers (people who don't even spend time playing Peggle in a browser; for whom videogames aren't even an afterthought, but so far beyond thought as to cause them to mistake their game console for a toaster on occasion; but they have a Wii because their family or friends convinced them or it was legally required in their district). I know very few of the in-betweens (the "casual" gamers, those that do spend hours on end playing Peggle from their MySpace pages), and none well enough to know what their console gaming habits might be. These may be the ones who play the Wii day in and day out that I'm missing.
Even so, it really doesn't change the fact that it's my opinion, and my gaming style and habits, and that a Wii doesn't exactly fit.
So what is Natal doing that's different? Well, the biggest difference is, there's no controller. Instead of tracking a single point in space that you're holding, Natal is going to track all of you. So, no remotes flying off their straps, no controllers (theoretically) to lose, and no issues with batteries going dead in the middle of a game or having to calibrate or align with a sensor bar.
So is this going to be good for gaming? Well, as someone who's purchased the Live Vision camera, I haven't seen how. The camera came with a download of Totemball, which you play by moving your arms up and down to control the speed of your left and right side — move forward by raising both arms, turn right by raising your left arm and lowering your right, etc. Assuming for a moment that Natal eliminates the issues with the camera not always tracking your hands properly (and from all reports, it does quite well), playing a game like this is exhausting. There's a reason Totemball has an achievement called "Fit Player" that is described as "Play a level for 20 minutes without resting (or your arms falling off)."
Plus, it just can't possibly work to completely replace a controller. While the marketing video shows an interesting demo of a skateboarding kid doing tricks in front of the camera and having that translated into the game, I'm picturing playing Tony Hawk, where the moves you could do in the game included flipping upside down and doing one-armed handstands. Does that mean if you aren't atheletic enough to do a headstand, you won't be able to play the game? And how is this going to extend to things like Halo or Call of Duty that involves a lot of running and jumping around? Or Street Fighter or Dead or Alive, where your character's fighting moves include acrobatic flips and jumps and unrealistic manoeuvers like turning upside-down and spinning, using your legs like a heliopter to fly across the screen?
What about navigation? Wouldn't it be cool to page through movie and game listings by waving your hand? Again, I think it's going to be more tiring to go through pages of items by crossing your hand back and forth across your body, as opposed to the current method of pressing a button on a controller — a controller which has buttons for moving a single item at a time (the D-pad), moving a page at a time (the bumpers), and to move continuously with minimal effort (holding a button down). While there is a convenience factor to not needing to keep track of a controller or remote, it's much more effort to use for any length of time.
To have the option to interact with the machine without a controller in a pinch, however, is very appealing. I definitely like the idea of being able to use a free hand if I misplace the remote, or if the remote is out of reach and I'm otherwise incapacitated (either due to injury, pure laziness, or feeding/rocking a newborn baby). But that's only if it works, if the convenience of this "backup plan" isn't outweighed by the frustration and fatigue brought on by having to do repeated, exaggerated gestures to positively signal my intent.
Basically, it comes down to throw, or the amount of movement you need to push in order to trigger a reaction in the game. The camera is good, but it cannot rival the millimeters required to depress a button. Scale that movement difference up to hundreds or thousands of repetitions a night, and you can see how tired you'll get how quickly. For that matter, one of the reasons I don't spend as much time with the 360 racing wheel in racing games and just use the controller is because of the throw issue. To make a hard right turn, the difference between turning a wheel ¾ of a turn and pushing a stick an inch to the right is substantial.
And I'm still not convinced it's going to be 100% perfect. To move several pages of items from left to right, you're going to have to pass your hand from the left to the right multiple times, and in between each pass, you need to bring your hand from the right back to the left. Is the camera going to be able to determine the difference between a movement back to the left preparatory to another pass to the right, versus a deliberate movement to the left to push the list backwards?
There's also voice control and recognition. I'm not nearly as confident in this technology as I am in the motion control. My experience with Microsoft's voice recognition has been dubious at best. Will it be perfect by the time Natal is released? I wouldn't get my hopes up.
Facial recognition is another feature that is demonstrated in the video. A person walks up to the console, and Natal recognizes the user and signs them in. This, too, sounds neat, but it makes me wonder how this will work in our family of 5½. Whose face will it scan and log in when we're all sitting in our little family room?
That brings up another concern I have, thinking of my family in particular. How does it constrain input to the correct user? When you have boys who want to cause problems for each other, how do you tell Natal to ignore user A and not user B? It must be possible, as one of the E3 articles I read commented on the presenter walking in front of the reviewer on purpose to demonstrate that Natal, once "locked on" to a player, would focus on that player and ignore the distractions. But how do you tell it who is what?
I freely admit that a lot of this boils down to uncertainty in a real-world environment. "Wait and see," some might say, "and you'll see just how well it works." And that is true. One thing my wife and I agreed on as we watched the videos was that our kids are going to love this. I imagine I'll be getting this close to launch, as long as it's not too expensive. (Priced too high, and I'll be waiting for the software support and peer reviews in other homes first.) At this early preview stage, though, I'd have to say I'm "cautiously pessimistic".