Quite some time ago I stumbled upon this video from Nokia about a phone device that would be using nano technology. However on it’s own it didn’t feel like enough to write about, especially as it was just a concept. Then some time later Microsoft released their videos – the future is now. And again impressive vision, but still just a proof of concept.

I have been meaning to write something about my attitude towards “Minority Report” like interfaces, but it kept slipping away on the schedule. Probably easy to notice considering the age of the two above mentioned videos. However with the recent announcement of Project Natal things are finally looking a lot more real.

Why the Minority Report style controls would not work

Before talking about Project Natal though I would like to stop for a moment and go back to the futuristic visions from the movies. One of my biggest concerns with such novel methods of interacting with technology is its effectiveness. We are not built to keep our arms raised for prolonged periods of time. I have been an owner of a tablet pc and using the pen without some elbow support becomes really strenuous very quickly.

This basically means that such interfaces would have limited application when it comes to activities like continuous data entry, and the simple tasks we do daily with our computers. They are great for maps, presentations, etc, when they are used more like a giant interactive white-board, but even just imagining typing on a virtual keyboard that floats in the air makes my wrists hurt…

This is probably something that good voice recognition could aid. Well at least to a degree, because most of us that do typing often would probably find themselves typing faster than speaking anyway. And this obviously is ignoring the fact that voice recognition so far is, well let’s just say, not perfect.

Project Natal revealed

With all these doubts in my mind I was quite sceptical when I first heard about Project Natal. However after watching the videos I was impressed. But there still was a nagging question – can this really be? Some of the things just look a bit too good to be true.

I like my Wii, but let’s be honest the experience is not as glorious as the hyped ads made it out to be. And the machine does rely on you actually wanting to take full swings in tennis for example, rather than requiring them. It’s well known that most of the moves can be performed just by using wrist movements rather than your full body.

Thus in the same spirit, how much of the demo will turn out to be only hype? How good will the voice recognition be? And this one I’m really curious about. How well would it deal with say a Chav trying to command it. So many accents and voice variations to deal with. Would it need some special training? It is funny to think, that in some ways the facial recognition feature is probably easier to achieve, based on matching unique facial points.

There were a lot of concerns about how much of the interactive demo – Meet Milo – was staged. I do have to agree that some recent games have not lived up to the hype – Black & White 2 was way too short and dumbed down for my taste… Will the Project Natal games suffer similar fate? With the expectations set so high it might prove to be a tough challenge.

Casual vs Core gamers

After Project Natal was unveiled comments have spread across the Internet with opinions varying from fanboyish love to how it’s going to fail, and that it’s only good for kids and casual players. Besides the doubts and accusations of the demos being procured the other major concern is that they are no use to core gamers.

I think most people voicing such opinions are missing the point. This article has some nice points against such comments, I especially agree with the “Natal Can Support Peripherals Too, You Stupid, Stupid Idiots”.

Anyone who can think straight will quickly realize that obviously you wouldn’t have every single game navigated purely by your body. It’s great for certain types of games, and I’d personally enjoy a martial arts game where you actually block, kick and perform the moves. Similarly a well executed fitness game would be well appreciated – some of my gripes with the Wii workout games are actually due to their lack of awareness of your actual position, they only provide a crude approximation.

The games that do utilise the full body extensively even when they have nothing to do with fitness would provide quite a workout and this by itself means they would not be the kind of game you play for hours and hours at a time. However this does not mean there wouldn’t be any other games that maybe focus on more subtle body movements – like hand gestures, head position, voice recognition. Like the racing game these could be just as well played on the couch.

I also love the idea from the comments on the above article – first person shooters, played with a controller, but enhanced by the motion capture abilities. Just because the slogan is “you are the controller” it does not mean you are the only controller. As the system is supposed to be able to recognise different objects, not only humans, there is a whole array of possibilities for actually incorporating controllers into the game play. I guess a lot will be down to the actual game developers to come up with creative ways of utilising the hardware.

Lastly I’m a big RPG fan, and love the potential that “Meet Milo” promises. Being able to interact with all characters in a game in such detailed and personal way would be amazing. Just as literally casting spells yourself while weaving an imaginary sword… It’s obviously hard to say at this point how possibly it is to have a whole game world populated by such unique entities compared to a single boy on screen, but there is definitely room for games like that in the future.

Casual, technophobic and non-gamers

I find it slightly weird that casual gaming is getting such a negative response. What’s wrong in some quick, accessible fun for the whole family. There may be days when you want to just have some fun with your spouse or spend some time with the kids. If it means the barrier to entry will be lowered, I’m all for it.

I really dislike the derogatory attitude towards casual gamers. It’s a bit like saying everyone should either have a sports car or no car at all. But there is nothing wrong in having a family van, and in the same way just because there are simple and easy games, does not mean you hard-core gamers have to play them. Maybe this attitude does come from being jealous of the console use, maybe that’s it – your wife, kids playing might mean less time for you, and maybe it also makes the experience less elitist… But this is most likely a topic for a whole other article…

So far I have been focusing on games, but the beauty of this system is that it is just one of many applications. In the demo there is a scene with a couple browsing movies from the couch. And that’s one of the great little things it could do. I for one would love to get rid of those pesky remotes that constantly get lost (or stolen by the cat), misplaced, run out of batteries or are out of reach when you want to change the channel.

Similarly for navigating through your movie or music collection. Rather than having to go through a million of menus, you could just say the title, or author, etc. I do hope the voice recognition will be all that it is hyped to be.

The benefits for children

One reason I’m really happy to see motion capture controls develop, and that’s not only Project Natal here, is the health of kids these days. With obesity creeping in from every corner and starting younger and younger we definitely need to promote being active in any form possible.

Modern parents do face quite a dilemma. On one hand you can get your child accustomed to technology from an early age, and let’s be honest games as long as they are done in moderation can definitely be educational. In some ways kids that run around the backyard are potentially deprived of crucial skills needed in the modern world. There are exceptions in both worlds, and just as you can have a smart country kid, you can have an ignorant tech-spoiled child that is monosyllabic and knows only how to shoot monsters on screen.

But my point is that if I were a parent I would definitely be worried that my kid might miss out on some skill or general technological awareness which could leave them at a disadvantage later on. How does this relate to the new controllers? Well with the progress toward full body mapping it means that letting your child play games does not have to mean them staring at a screen for hours without moving any muscles.

Especially for young kids combining silly, colourful, educational games with physical activity can give them “the best of both worlds”. Not to mention the benefit of including as many of the family members as possible. Sure you grandmother might not be able to play whatever the newest FPS on the market is. But she might be able to enjoy a fun game with a 5 year old.

Again the topic of dysfunctional modern families is not really the matter of this post, though I can surely see a lot of potential for this new trend in technology. And finding ways of getting families together again in this individual centred world that puts not so technologically savvy users at a disadvantage cannot be a bad thing.

Money and space requirements

Above I did claim that developments like Project Natal might be bridging some gap between less and more technologically oriented groups. Obviously not everyone will be able to afford such a system. Considering some opinions I have encountered I wouldn’t expect it to be released at a ridiculously expensive price. However at the same time, let’s not kid ourselves, it won’t be cheap either. But this is just how things are, some people earn more, some less.

A quite valid point raised in the comments however is the amount of space required to utilise the technology. Sure, not many of us can afford a large and mostly empty living room. But then again you could say the same thing about already existing systems like the Wii. And it doesn’t seem to be stopping it from selling out.

What I found is that even with a limited amount of space you can get creative. Maybe you could only get some of the games, the ones that require less vigorous movement. There will always be guidelines, but I’m sure that even if you have less space you will be able to enjoy it.

So how real is it?

I mentioned before my initial scepticism. And until I get my hands on Project Natal, and read plenty of reviews from real end-users most of this is of course speculation based on videos of prototypes and proofs of concept… But what made me go from “Interesting idea”, to “This might be awesome” is comments from people who actually got to use the system.

It was quite reassuring to see even such an early prototype complimented on responsiveness and actually delivering the experience it premisses, however limited it might be at this stage. Secondly seeing endorsement from actual developers – this really does give Natal a more solid feel.