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June 3, 2009 11:56 AM

E3: New info on Microsoft's Natal -- how it works, multiplayer and PC versions

Posted by Brier Dudley

LOS ANGELES -- Microsoft's Project Natal is getting more interesting.

It turns out games are only part of the vision for the motion-sensing Xbox 360 controller that Microsoft unveiled Monday here at the E3 show.

Although Natal is initially going to be a game accessory, Microsoft is thinking about incorporating similar technology into its PC platform so computers could also have advanced gesture controls.

"These are not just the kind of experiences that you're going to see with the 360," said Phil Spencer, general manager of Microsoft Game Studios. "It's a foundational event for the company, to think about how we will evolve our platforms."

Spencer's group created a special unit to develop Natal, the code name for the device, l and games that showcase its capabilities.

During an interview at E3, he hinted that the device will cost less than $200 and offered more details about how the device will work and track multiple players at once.

Natal involves work from Microsoft's Research group and draws heavily on skeletal mapping and facial recognition technology that can identify and remember players in the room. It's also a technological cousin to the Surface tabletop computer that began appearing in stores, hotels and other commercial venues in April 2008.

The technology is mostly software and research that's gone on for years, Spencer said, responding to speculation that Microsoft is basically repackaging technology from 3DV, an Israeli 3-D camera company it recently acquired.

He also said Natal will support fast-paced action games, noting that several of the Natal demonstration games were built on the same game engine powering the combat game "Gears of War."

Here are edited excerpts of the interview:

Q: You have been working on Natal for several years now?

A: A lot of what you see in Natal is software that's been worked on at Microsoft Research for quite awhile -- things like facial recognition, voice recognition, skeletal mapping. Now it's definitely the case that not all of that technology that Research started became Natal, but there are years of research, from Ph.D. levels, that go into what you see as Project Natal. It's not just an off-the-shelf, I bought something and then everything gets labeled,

Q: So you didn't just get it from an Israeli camera company?

A: Exactly. We actually built a software platform that was what we wanted to have as content creators. And then [asked], "OK, are there hardware solutions out there that plug in?" But the amount of software and the quality of software are really the innovation in Natal.

Q: You've apparently drawn on the gesture recognition work that led to Microsoft's Surface computer.

A: I think it's very smart for people to look at Natal and think about natural user input and how it applies in front of your TV, how it might apply sitting in front of a laptop or sitting in front of a PC.

For us as a platform company, this kind of interaction is not just about how I play games. You saw in the video [demo] somebody browsing the UI using gestures, you saw somebody picking a movie, playing a movie, by interacting. These are not just the kind of experiences that you're going to see with the 360. It's a foundational event for the company, to think about how we will evolve our platforms.

Q: Did the Xbox team see the Surface demos a few years ago and think, wow, I want that at home to play games?

A: We were involved in that. As a company -- and specifically where Surface started in the consumer space -- we do a lot of technology sharing, information sharing. [There were] a lot of different inspirations for where we ended up.

Q: Should we think of Natal adding Surface capabilities to a TV?

A: The nice thing that we have is depth, which Surface has a little bit. The depth that we're able to drive really turns your whole body into something that controls what goes on on the screen. I do think there's an evolution that you can draw from something like using my stylus to what I did on Surface.

If you watch the videos you'll see the overlays we do on a skeleton and the number of points we're mapping. It's a very full skeleton mapping that we have that allows you to do things with your arms, your upper torso, your legs. It's beyond what they did with Surface or other devices but there's definitely an evolution.

Q: What about multiplayer games? How does that work? On the demos it seemed like you use voice commands to lock in a particular player.

A: We actually do a full skeletal mapping for more than one person in the scene.

Q: How many people do you map and how many can play at once?

A: It depends on fidelity and other things that you want to bring into the equation -- how many points. We feel we're going to be at the pont where we can have full-room fun experiences. It's not one person, one person's skeleton, one person's voice. We're going to have full skeletal mapping for multiple people in the room.

It's going to be fun. Because we can map your skeleton, we'll know where you are.

Q: Do players have to be in the same plane to be "seen" by the device? What if one is standing behind the other?

A: There's a lot of magic in the technology. Think -- we know what a skeleton looks like. Once we map to you, even if we lose you for a certain amount of time, we can interpolate where you are. It works very well, it's very impressive.

The software and what it's able to track and the interpolation that's able to happen are really where the magic happens. That's why I say it's really about the research that went in to develop the technology we have today.

Q: Is it going to be limited to non-graphics intensive games? I imagine there's a tax on the processor to do this stuff.

A: You will see full resolution games. The paint game and the ball game [demos] were done with the Unreal engine, the same engine "Gears of War" uses.

You will see full resolution games [but] you can imagine that in the beginning we're focused on the experience.

Q: Sony said its research found that you need the precision of a physical trigger for first-person shooting games. Is there enough precision in the skeletal mapping to precisely track the motion of a fingertip, for shooting-type games?

A: We have investigated all the game types that are important to our customers and we feel confident there are solutions there. So, yes, we've thought how you navigate, we've thought about how you might shoot, you might drive. You can go through the list of what people do with games today.

This is why we thought now is the right time to show because we've proven to ourselves that we've seen enough magic on our own that we believe in the technology that we built and these experiences. We know what customers want. They definitely have a line back to us to let us know what they want.

Q: Why didn't you show this at the spring Game Developers Conference? You seem to be speaking to game developers as much as consumers and retailers at E3?

A: What we wanted to show here was not a tech demo, not somebody walking around in a brave world shining a flashlight on a wall or something [Footnote: a sarcastic reference to Sony's motion controller demonstration on Tuesday].

We wanted people to look and see what's fun about that, not just how the camera might track something. We thought that's what E3 is about -- E3 is about entertainment, and we came here to entertain people.

Q: I speculated the device will cost around $200 after talking to [Microsoft Vice President] Shane Kim. He suggested that it will cost more than $100 because of the technology, and also agreed that "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero: World Tour" have proved that people will pay close to $200 for console accessories. So will Natal cost around $200?

A: We're not discussing pricing. Some of it is just how will hardware and other things evolve between now and when we actually go to market. But I wouldn't get too hung up on the high end of that price range.

Q: You don't want to sell an accessory that costs more than an entry-level, $199 console.

A: We look at our lineup today -- we have the lowest price next-gen console on the market today -- and we understand that in this economic climate affordability is important. We didn't want people to have to go buy a new console for something that we think is a next-generation experience. With this device, you plug in to something you most likely already own, then you end up with a new experience.

Q: Will Natal come bundled with games?

A: We haven't figured out what we will pack in or not pack in. We will definitely have a concerted launch strategy, a lineup of games, games across multiple experiences. We think about it as a platform launch. We want to have that full lineup of games.

Q: Will it be ready to launch by next year's E3?

A: We're not going to launch until we know we have solid experiences for people that will clearly define our vision and show our vision.

Q: Will Natal technology be built into the next version of the Xbox?

A: Consumers will come to expect that functionality. That's why we want to make the investment the right way. We want to launch at the right time, with the right experiences.

This is something that, like Xbox Live, raises the bar for home entertainment.

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