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Brier Dudley's Blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

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November 4, 2010 11:05 AM

Xbox Kinect review: fun, futuristic, a little creepy

Posted by Brier Dudley

Today's column in the paper is a review of Microsoft's Kinect. It follows a Monday story focused on project lead Alex Kipman, the Brazilian who code-named the system Project Natal after the city where he used to spend summers.

kinect sensor.jpg
(The stories were staggered in part because Microsoft, as part of its hyper structured launch program, wouldn't provide test gear to news organizations unless they promised to hold reviews until 9 p.m. Wednesday or midnight eastern time, when the consoles first went on sale. Oprah and Ellen didn't count.)

The review, with some photos added:

Sometimes the intense sights and sounds of modern video games stay with you, like scenes from a great movie.

Microsoft's radical new Kinect controller for the Xbox 360 stays with you, as well.

After you're done hopping and waving in front of the TV screen, long-forgotten muscles will remind you of the fun you had with the $150 gadget.

Continue reading this post ...


Comments | Category: Gadgets & products , Games & entertainment , Kinect , Microsoft , Project Natal , Review , Video games , Xbox |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

October 29, 2010 12:45 PM

Microsoft's giant Kinect countdown clock

Posted by Brier Dudley

Check out the three-story Kinect countdown clock in Microsoft's Studio A building.

Just in case anyone there can't remember when the Xbox 360 motion controller goes on sale. (bonus puzzle: when was this picture taken?)

kinectklock.jpg

Comments | Category: Kinect , Microsoft , Project Natal , Xbox |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

June 13, 2010 10:20 PM

E3: Goodbye Project Natal, hello Xbox "Kinect"

Posted by Brier Dudley

LOS ANGELES -- So much for the mysterious "Project Natal" code name. It's given way to Kinect, the official name for the new motion tracking controller and camera system coming to the Xbox in November.

Kinect is a combination of kinetic and connect, representing the controller's dual purpose - giving the console motion control plus new communication capabilities such as video chatting and sharing in-game photos captured with the device.

product_001.jpg

Microsoft managed to keep the name secret until just before an elaborate Cirque du Soleil production tonight that the company commissioned for the Kinect launch.

But USA Today - which had worked with Microsoft on a Kinect story to be published after the event - briefly posted the story earlier Sunday. Game and gadget blogs pounced before the story was taken down, and the word was out an hour or so before the Cirque production began.

It was awkward because most of the reporters covering the game business were working their way through Microsoft's elaborate entry system for the Cirque showing, during which they were barred from using phones or other electronic devices.

The show is being staged for two nights only, at Galen Center, the University of Southern California's basketball arena. It's completely different than the Cirque show now being put on in Microsoft's backyard in Redmond.

For Kinect, Cirque created a specatacle with a tropical islandish theme that faded into a series of Kinect demonstrations done by a pretend family in a rotating living room that at times had the family upside down, sitting in a couch on the ceiling, with a performer walking upside down across the ceiling.

Attending were 3,000 Microsoft employees, industry partners and reporters who had to don white ponchos with shoulder pads that glowed and changed colors during the finale.

A boy in safari clothes rode in on a mechanized elephant and climbed a rock mountain as drums and chanting grew more intense. Then the uppermost rock turned into a huge ball with the Xbox logo, with the boy on top. (Here's a picture provided by Microsoft)

world-premiere_002.jpg

He asked for a name and letters on a giant screen unscrambled to read "Kinect."

The production was Microsoft's most extravagent launch since the Rolling Stones were tapped for Windows 95's theme song. It's going to be broadcast on MTV, Nickelodeon and other channels Tuesday.

Mike Delman, vice president for the interactive entertainment business, wouldn't say how much the show cost but said that the broad exposure it's going to receive through TV broadcasts "make it an exceptional bargain for us."

"I think of it as a massive awareness-builder," he said.

Yasmine Khalil, events director for Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil, said they "wanted to create a legend" with the show by performing it only twice this week, once for Microsoft and its partners and a second show for the public.

"We don't do commercials, we are storytellers,'' she said.

Cirque was excited to work with Kinect, which it sees as more than just a gadget. "We don't see it as a product, we see it as something else," she said.

So will Cirque now produce its own Kinect game for the Xbox?

"Maybe," Khalil said. "You never know."

Games shown during the performance included brief glimpses of a "Star Wars" title with gesture-controlled light sabers, sports games such as beach volleyball, hurdles and javelin, and the clearest hit in the bunch: A pet game with a cute tiger cub that approached the player, who could "pet" the animal using Kinect.

Microsoft's apparently going to take on Webkins with the tiger game. Guests were given stuffed animals with special coded tags for the game. USA Today's story said the game is called "Kinectimals" and it will let players train and play with 20 different kinds of virtual cats.

Hard-core gamers attending the show may smirk at the Kinect name and the family orientation of the games shown during the Cirque production.

But as Stephen Tolouse, Xbox Live director of policy and enforcement, noted in a blog post tonight, a lot of people also made fun of Nintendo for choosing the name Wii.

"And yet look at how many units it's sold. The trick is in the magic of the experience," he wrote.

Tolouse also talked about the challenge of replacing the "Project Natal" name:

It's really hard when you have a cool "code name" that lasts for so long to replace it with its true name, a name that it really deserves to communicate why it's desirable. Code names are meant to be cool, as code names. True product and technology names are far more difficult. Marketing people get a really bad rap when they face a challenge like that and there's often a lot of eye rolling and "what were they thinking" that goes on. Coming up with these things is a high wire act with no net.

Tolouse, at least, believes Kinect is "a perfect name for this technology" and said the marketing team "nailed it."

We'll see how things go this holiday season. Either way, I want to buy my kids that tiger game.

Comments | Category: Games & entertainment , Kinect , Microsoft , Project Natal , Xbox |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

June 10, 2010 2:01 PM

Microsoft files for gesture patents: Project Natal + Minority Report

Posted by Brier Dudley

Just ahead of next week's public unveiling of its Project Natal motion control system for the Xbox 360, Microsoft has filed for several patents covering technology for controlling PCs and game systems with gestures and motion tracking.

The patent applications reiterate that Microsoft's work on gesture input systems predate Natal and go far beyond the game console. They also makes it clear that this technology is no longer the realm of science fiction as in the movie "Minority Report."

gesture system3.jpg

The applications don't mention Natal specifically but describe related technology for controlling systems with depth-sensing cameras and voice commands that serve as interfaces to control computers with large visual displays.

They describe a system that could also use a wireless sensor along with the 3-D sensors and voice control.

"MSR [Microsoft Research] has been working on this for a long, long time,'' said Andy Wilson, a Microsoft researcher named on the applications. "Now that the buzz has been turned up a couple notches around Natal, it's good to keep in mind that we've been doing this stuff for a long time."

Blogger Manan Kakkar called out the application for a PC control system that was published today.

When I looked into it, I found a related application for a "system and method for executing a game process" published June 3. It involves "a 3-D imaging system for recognition and interpretation of gestures to control a computer. The system includes a 3-D imaging system that performs gesture recognition and interpretation based on a previous mapping of a plurality of hand poses and orientations to user commands for a given user."

Natal captures all sorts of motion by tracking players' skeletons and overlaying voice commands. It also draws on the vast library of research Microsoft has done over the years.

The patent applications describe a standard set of gestures that can be combined with voice control and the use of a remote sensing device. It also hints at what could be one of the challenges with Natal -- remembering particular control gestures, and the complexity of recognizing and processing such inputs.

The computer application is for a "perceptual user interface" architecture that "comprises alternative modalities for controlling computer application programs and manipulating on-screen objects through hand gestures or a combination of hand gestures and verbal commands. The perceptual user interface system includes a tracking component that detects object characteristics of at least one of a plurality of objects within a scene, and tracks the respective object."

From the application:

"A small set of very simple gestures can offer significant bits of functionality where they are needed most. For example, dismissing a notification window can be accomplished by a quick gesture to the one side or the other, as in shooing a fly. Another example is gestures for 'next' and 'back' functionality found in web browsers, presentation programs (e.g., PowerPoint) and other applications.

Note that in many cases the surface forms of these various gestures can remain the same throughout these examples, while the semantics of the gestures depends on the application at hand. Providing a small set of standard gestures eases problems users have in recalling how gestures are performed, and also allows for simpler and more robust signal processing and recognition processes."

A few images from the applications:

gestures.jpg

gesture flow.jpg

Comments | Category: Microsoft , Project Natal , Research |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

June 2, 2010 9:54 AM

D8: Project Natal demo, with video

Posted by Brier Dudley

RANCHO PALOS VERDES, Calif. -- Microsoft didn't provide any new details of its Xbox Project Natal control system at the D8 conference, beyond showing its latest hardware publicly.

Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher -- and her enthusiastic son, Louie =- tried the dodgeball game that Microsoft's been using to demonstrate the system. At the end, Mossberg also triggered a feature that displays shareable Polaroid-type snapshots taken of players as they play.

Molly O'Donnell from the Xbox team first gave a technical demo, showing how the system tracks users' skeletons.

She declined to provide the products' final name or other details ahead of product's launch at the E3 game conference in two weeks, saying that's when "the future of fun" will be revealed.

"The future of fun? Because that's what we think of when we think of Microsoft," Mossberg cracked.

The big surprise was that the chief executives and others attending the show - from Steve Jobs to Martha Stewart - will all be sent a free Project Natal controller when it goes on sale later this year.

"There's nothing rich people like better than free stuff," Mossberg said.

A video I took of the technical demo:

Here's Kara Swisher and her son trying it out:

Comments | Category: Project Natal |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

June 1, 2010 1:57 PM

D: All Things Digital: Project Natal vs the iPhone 4G?

Posted by Brier Dudley

RANCHO PALOS VERDES, Calif. -- They aren't scheduled to be on stage together, but Steve Jobs and Steve Ballmer are both appearing this week at the D8: All Things Digital conference, organized by the Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher.

I'll be blogging from the event starting with the Jobs appearance at 6 p.m. today. As if Jobs wasn't interesting enough, the session also includes News Corp. Chief Executive Rupert Murdoch.

Jobs could shake it up by demonstrating the upcoming version of the iPhone. I'll also keep an eye on barstools at the Terranea Resort just in case.

Microsoft's show begins Wednesday morning when Mossberg and Swisher will demonstrate the Project Natal controller that's coming to the Xbox this holiday season. It's a relatively public appearance for the motion/voice controller, which Microsoft's been showing behind closed doors for more than a year and will formally launch on June 13 and 14 at the E3 game conference up the road in Los Angeles.

IMG00189-20100601-1357.jpg

The Natal demo follows appearances by Comcast President Steve Burke, DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg and Dow Jones CEO Les Hinton.

Others appearing Wednesday include FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs and movie director James Cameron.

Ballmer is highlighting a session Thursday with Ray Ozzie, Microsoft's chief software architect, before sessions with Microsoft allies, HTC Chief Executive Peter Chou and Ford CEO Alan Mulally.

Also appearing at the event are the chief executives of eBay, NPR and AOL (plus AOL co-founder Steve Case).

Tech companies doing formal demos at the event include Kno, a company making a tablet computer for students; Dell, which is apparently going to show its upcoming Streak tablets that I saw in Belltown recently; OnLive, a new on-demand game service; and Wordnik, an online dictionary.

Comments | Category: Apple , Billionaire techies , D conference , Microsoft , Project Natal , Steve Ballmer , iPhone |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

May 20, 2010 10:13 AM

Army may use Xbox Project Natal, via Microsoft research

Posted by Brier Dudley

The Army's getting early access to Microsoft's Project Natal motion and voice recognition system for the Xbox as part of an expanded military partnership with Microsoft Research.

Natal could be used to add "Minority Report" style controls to military systems, according to an Information Week report.

There was no word on any plans to militarize Nintendo's Wiimote.

The Army is Microsoft's biggest single customer, the story notes, and has a partnership giving it early access to Microsoft research and collaboration with the company's researchers.

Microsoft's been demonstrating Natal and showing its potential beyond the Xbox to wow other big customers recently, including bigwigs attending the company's CEO Summit this week.

Natal's going on sale later this year. Microsoft's expected to reveal its price and other details next month.

An excerpt from Information Week's story:

The partnership began last year as with multi-touch research, which further developed a project called Command and Control Multitouch Enabled Technologies (COMET) by enabling the Army to leverage Microsoft Surface and Microsoft Research's multi-touch expertise. Last month, the effort was given a multi-year extension and tacked on a number of additional Microsoft products.

According to command and control directorate computer scientist Nick Palmer, one of the broader goals of the effort, in addition to increasing usability and productivity, is to decrease costly technology training requirements by relying more heavily on natural, intuitive user interfaces.

Here's an Army video showing possible use of a Microsoft Surface computer.

Comments | Category: Microsoft , Project Natal , Xbox |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

April 19, 2010 9:40 AM

Video: Sony PS3 Move demo, plus Q&A Zipper's SOCOM 4

Posted by Brier Dudley

Here's a video from Sony's event in Seattle showcasing the PlayStation 3 Move system and SOCOM 4, followed by today's column - a Q&A with Brian Soderberg, president of SOCOM developer Zipper Interactive.

For its noisy shootout with Microsoft this fall, Sony is turning to one of its big guns in Redmond.

Sony is counting on Zipper Interactive to produce a blockbuster game for the PlayStation 3 this fall, when it's releasing a new version of its hit "SOCOM" military-action franchise.

The game will help showcase a new PS3 motion-control system called Move that's expected to cost about $100.

Move is going head-to-head with Microsoft's Project Natal control system for the Xbox 360 in the crucial holiday season.

Both companies are hoping these exotic new control systems will refresh their maturing consoles as the economic recovery takes hold.

They're also hoping for the kind of success that Nintendo has enjoyed with the Wii, attracting players turned off by complicated control systems, while also inspiring game studios to create new forms of immersive entertainment.

Zipper and "SOCOM" helped Sony leap ahead in the past.

When the PlayStation 2 introduced a network adapter enabling online play in 2002, the first "SOCOM" game was released to showcase this capability. The "SOCOM" franchise went on to be one of the PS2's biggest hits, selling more than 10 million copies, and Sony bought Zipper in 2006.

"SOCOM 4" is still early in development, with no price or release date set yet, but Sony has been showing it to fans and reporters in events across the country, including one in Seattle earlier this month.

During that session, I caught up with Zipper President Brian Soderberg, who co-founded the studio in 1995 after working on military-simulation systems. Here is an edited excerpt of the interview:

Q: What was it like to make a game with Sony's Move motion-control system?

A: Well, it actually was quite easy. I was a little skeptical after playing the Wii because it's very casual game and "SOCOM 4" is more of a core game. Although really, we're shooting for a more accessible game. I think the Move does that for us â€" it's much easier than trying to get both thumbs going.

Q: I'm curious about how physical the game will be, like with physical attacks?

A: We're still researching additional gestures. I know we're going to do some close-quarters moves like rifle butts and maybe bayonet style. Other things you can investigate is grenade throw and things like that.

Q: I wonder how people will feel about intense games like this and motion controls. When you start killing characters with your motions instead of just your thumbs, is it going to be a different psychological experience?

A: I think it will. It's interesting, when you walk by our offices and you see people playing with it, they actually seem a little more immersed, because it is more like a gun.

I think it actually opens the door for more immersion and obviously when you start doing gestures you're getting more physical and more into the game.

Q: How far can you go this direction? Is there some kind of boundary you don't want to cross, having people do these things physically?

A: I don't know about boundaries. It feels like there are really no boundaries that you have now. You have full 3-D motion and such accuracy and precision; you can pretty much do anything. Anything you can do with two hands, you can start to make that the interface to your game.

Q: It's like we're at a crossroads with entertainment, with these new systems taking us into the next realm.

A: I think this really is. It's just what are the developers going to do to take us to that next level.

Q: How will Sony's motion system do compared with other motion systems coming out this year?

A: Sony took their time and they did some really neat things. Their thing was to be super comprehensive with the full 3-D space recognition, plus the full three axis recognition, plus the precision and very low latency. It makes it possible to play all these core games, besides casual games, with such precision. I think the core game players are maybe going to embrace this as well.

Q: Do you think Microsoft's Natal system is sharp enough for aiming and motion in core games, or do you think they might just have minigames that show off Natal capabilities?

A: The minigames, casual games, are the obvious things that would be easy to do with that system. I'm not sure how you start doing guns in it. Maybe they're going to have add-on controllers, additional peripherals, added into it.

Q: Is it hard to keep your team motivated to build the fourth edition of something?

A: I always think that. I always think they're going to get tired of it. But when I actually check around the team a lot of them are really rabid "SOCOM" fans too, so they get really excited about it.

Q: I hear this version's going to be more cinematic.

A: Definitely. Besides the usual emphasis on AI [artificial intelligence] and replayability and being able to do things from different directions, the single-player will have a very cinematic story. As you play through you'll actually learn things about what's going on with your enemies and your teammates. There will be some cool surprises, that sort of thing.

We did some really cool things with the cinematics. Rather than just doing motion capture where you hook up the guys and capture the motion, at the same time we also captured the voice so we did dialogue and motion together. ...

Q: So they basically acted it out?

A: They basically were actors, yeah. We capture everything. We even did some digitization of the camera moves as well, so we had a handheld camera and a professional cameraman to actually do the motion. It really makes a difference; it makes it really feel like a movie.

Q: I understand this material will appear not just in cinematic sequences but during game play as well?

A: Absolutely. As much as we can. First of all, it's going to run in the actual game engine, so it's not like movies [playing at certain points during the game]. As much as we can, we will not take the camera away from the player. You'll be going through the environment and you'll just experience these cinematic events. ...

Q: How is business? We heard dreary reports about the game industry over the past year and now all sorts of interesting new things are coming to market. Are we into a new cycle?

A: It seems like it's turned around to me. Sony's really bullish on the future and we have some really big titles ... just came out. There are some big titles coming out and I think Sony's really doing well so I think the business is turning around.

Q: Do you think people have money to buy these new games and motion systems?

A: I think so. These new games that have been coming out recently have some pretty big numbers with what they sold. I think things really are turning around.

Comments | Category: Games & entertainment , Nintendo , PlayStation , Project Natal , Sony , Video games , Xbox |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

March 11, 2010 11:11 AM

Video: Sony's PS3 Move, with a Wiimote

Posted by Brier Dudley

Sony finally shared details of the new PlayStation 3 motion control system that's going to battle it out with Microsoft's Project Natal (and the Wii) this holiday season.

The word from San Francisco, where it was shown last night at the Game Developers Conference, is that it's fun to play.

But it sure looks familar -- just like Wii controllers, including a primary controller topped with a ball that reminds me of the Jack in the Box antenna globes. A secondary controller is pretty close to the Wii nunchuck, but with Bluetooth wireless instead of a cable.

Starter kits with a sensor and a game will cost less than $100.

Here's a Sony video with game demonstrations via Joystiq, which has a big roundup on the gadget.

Comments | Category: Games & entertainment , Nintendo , Project Natal , Sony , Xbox |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

February 3, 2010 11:05 AM

Report: New iPhone, Xbox Natal to be made in same factory

Posted by Brier Dudley

Taiwanese manufacturer Pegatron Technology was chosen by Apple to build the next-generation iPhone coming out later this year, according to a report in Taipei-based DigiTimes.

It noted that Microsoft has also hired Pegatron to build the "Project Natal" controllers for the Xbox 360 that will go on sale later this year.

Imagine if they jumbled things up and shipped motion-sensing iPhones or Natal controllers that synced to iTunes.

Pegatron "has reportedly landed a contract to undertake OEM production of the next-generation iPhone scheduled for launch later in the year, joining Foxconn Electronics which manufactures current iPhones for Apple, according to industry sources," the report said.

Not much was said about the Natal device, which has been kept largely under wraps. Here's an image I took of one of the prototypes that Microsoft has provided to studios developing Natal games; this one's mounted on a camera tripod:

nataldev2.JPG

Comments | Category: Apple , Microsoft , Project Natal , Xbox , iPhone |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

November 11, 2009 12:26 PM

Leaked details of Microsoft's Project Natal: $50 to $80

Posted by Brier Dudley

A British game magazine has details of Microsoft's highly anticipated Project Natal accessory for the Xbox, leaked apparently by British game developers and studios who were briefed by the company.

They passed on that Microsoft plans to release the motion-sensing input device and Xbox controller in November 2010, with an initial shipment of 5 million units. There will be 14 games available at launch, and Microsoft is pricing it as an impulse buy in the range of $50 to $80.

The report said the price will be under 50 pounds, or $82, and as low as 30 pounds, or $50.

Either way it's amazingly cheap for a device that recognizes and tracks voices, skeletons and gestures with depth-sensing imagery.

An excerpt:

This and other details have emerged following a behind-closed-doors Microsoft tour of U.K. publishers and studios -- the format-holder has been demoing the tech and detailing its 2010 plans in order to spur more development support.

Microsoft is planning to manufacture 5m units for day one release, with a mix of console and camera plus solo SKUs expected.

This is probably a preview of what Steve Ballmer and Robbie Bach will disclose at the Consumer Electronics Show in January.

I'll bet the 14 Natal games will trickle out starting in January, on through the E3 game conference next summer. Likely blockbusters on the card include Bungie's "Halo Reach," sports games from EA and perhaps "Guitar Hero 6."

A Microsoft spokesman gave the usual statement: "We cannot comment on rumors and speculation."

Comments | Category: Microsoft , Project Natal , Xbox |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

June 18, 2009 3:32 PM

Ballmer: Microsoft's Project Natal coming to Xbox in 2010

Posted by Brier Dudley

Apparently Microsoft's made enough progress on its Project Natal motion-sensing controller since E3 to narrow the release date.

From "we're not saying" to "sometime in 2010."

Speaking in Chicago today, Chief Executive Steve Ballmer said Natal will be on sale next year.

Comments | Category: Microsoft , Project Natal |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

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.

Continue reading this post ...


Comments | Category: E3 , Microsoft , Project Natal |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

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Gadgets and games | Fun stuff I've written about lately includes Apple's iPhone, Hewlett-Packard's HDX laptop and Microsoft's Halo3. Also on the radar are new digital video boxes such as the Tivo HD and the Vudu.