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Five things I want to know about Microsoft Natal

GamingAt E3 2009, Microsoft blew the media away with Project Natal, a motion-sensing device that allows you to control video games and Xbox 360 menus with your body instead of a peripheral controller. But the demonstration left some crucial unanswered questions about Microsoft Natal and its future under the Xbox brand.

What we do know is that Natal gives you voice and full-body motion control over your on-screen avatar using an RGB camera, depth sensor, multi-array microphone, and custom processor running proprietary software, and Project Natal will work with current XBox 360 systems. Microsoft also released the Project Natal software development kit (SDK) to game makers who want to incorporate Natal functionality into their products.

Based on what Microsoft was showing off at E3, Natal promises to open up a new world of gaming, and bring us one step closer to a Minority Report-style future - Microsoft's Natal demo included an appearance by Minority Report director Steven Spielberg. But Microsoft is making some big claims with Project Natal.

When will Project Natal be available?

Since Microsoft has released a Project Natal SDK, the motion-control system should be far along in the development process. But when will we see the device in shops? So far, Microsoft isn't saying, and you can bet the company won't release the hardware until you've got several games to use it with. So it's likely we're at least a year away from seeing Natal-specific software and hardware on store shelves, and it could be much longer - especially if the technology encounters any unanticipated difficulties.

Will Project Natal work as advertised?

The Natal-specific games Microsoft showed off at E3 were very Nintendo Wii-like in their look and feel. One was a futuristic variation of Pong called Ricochet, where you would smack bouncing balls with your legs and arms against a wall; the other was something called Paint Party, where you use your avatar to create murals against a virtual canvas. Both games used very basic graphics and the movements required to play them were not particularly advanced. That may be due to the fact that both games were prototypes used as proof-of-concept software rather than commercially available games, but it wouldn't surprise me if earlier versions of Natal were rather limited in what they could do.

However, Microsoft also provided a video showing off other uses for Natal including a martial-arts fighting game, a Pole Position-style racing game and some kind of Godzilla-meets-Pokemon rampage fantasy. But in the Natal demo video Microsoft was quick to state that the games shown were a product vision and that actual features and functions may vary.

Microsoft is famous for these types of product vision videos where it shows off what it thinks the future will look like. Those videos always look cool and are almost never accurate. The difference here is that Microsoft has a physical prototype accompanying its vision. But those disclaimers from Microsoft make me wonder how functional Project Natal really is.

Next page: Cost, complexity and compatibility >>

See also:

Microsoft's Natal gaming concept wows E3

PlayStation 3 review

Microsoft Xbox 360 Elite review

Nintendo Wii review

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