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Bill Loguidice's picture

Thoughts on Project Natal, Milo and the coming Motion Tracking Videogame and Technological Revolution

Amidst all of the usual software-centric sequels and somewhat tired continuations of long running series at E3 was a clear, present and somewhat surprising focus on hardware accessories, and, more specifically and perhaps most exciting, next generation motion tracking and control systems. This wasn't just an attempt to copy Nintendo's almost-there original Wii Remote technology, but rather an attempt to redefine the technology once and for all and influence videogames and the technological world at large for generations to come (think integrated touch and motion controls in your 2015 laptop).

Of course Nintendo's approach was already made known and will be out shortly - the Wii Motion Plus - which is a small snap-on attachment for their present Wii Remote that offers pretty much 1:1 tracking, enhancing the precision of the sometimes hit-or-miss controller to a very high degree. I'll take a more detailed look at the add-on after its release.

Sony's PlayStation Eye-powered motion technology aims to turn a light emitting wand controller into any virtual item imaginable on-screen (suggestions included swords, tennis raquets, whips, whiskey bottle, etc.). Of course the PlayStation Eye is their pre-existing camera - which I have - and which already can work with real-world objects, a la the Eye of Judgment, which I also have, but have yet to put through its paces (Microsoft has a camera of their own for the Xbox 360, but it's not quite as sophisticated). Anyway, the unnamed light emitting wand controller is expected to see release some time in the spring of 2010, so expect it to go through some refinements between now and then assuming Microsoft's stuff (also a 2010 release) - discussed in the next paragraph - continues to take shape like it is.

As for Microsoft, in regards to at least this type of technology, they went above and beyond and stole the show with Project Natal. As they say, "no controller required". Essentially using a smallish bar that sits above your TV, you and all of your movements are tracked in real time. It also naturally has camera and audio (microphone) technology, making it a complete real-time tracking and control system. Based on the demos and comments from developers who have early dev kits, this actually works, and has lots of people excited, including videogame enthusiast Steven Spielberg, who most recently dabbled in the videogame world on the Wii with the excellent Boom Blox.

Perhaps most intriguing and showing Natal to its best effect was the Lionhead demo for Milo, essentially a virtual boy/playmate type of thing, though practically to the level of science fiction. You really have to see the demo to really appreciate all this has to offer. What's so big about this is that I've been watching for years how university researchers have been dabbling in this type of technology, both virtually and through "emotional" robots, meaning robots that can show human-like facial expressions. What's so interesting about Milo is that it looks like it one-ups all of that type of stuff, meaning we've taken that next generational step in the research, allowing for goodness-knows-what future possibilities, and all this in the mainstream rather than academia, where it can actually reach people in a reasonable timeframe.

Lionhead's Milo Project (the beginning of this is the tail end of the general Project Natal demo, so just be patient before the Milo part begins):

Unlike the past, these things have a real chance of becoming integral to our gaming (and even general computing) experiences, an inextricable companion to our well worn and proven controller methods. Why do these things have a chance this time versus the past? Well, in the past, these have been all one off not-quite-there-technology, a la Broderbund's U-Force or Mattel's Power Glove, but this time the technology is to a highly usable point - and, more importantly - the big three - Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft with their vast resources - are behind it all. These are three of only a handful of companies on the planet that can successfully launch a mainstream videogame console, and they're certainly more than capable of reimagining the industry itself.

As for Milo and the other stuff being just a fad, gimmick or unnecessary, just remember that the same thing was said about e-mail - why send an electronic letter to someone when you can just as easily pick up the phone? Sometimes the application of this stuff can take on an unexpected utility and become integral to society itself. Don't count out the latter as a strong possibility.

One final thought and something I think will have to be addressed at some point is the lack of real-time, physical feedback. At some point, assuming partial body suits or gloves and the like are not a realistic option (and they're probably not), some type of practical audio projection system will have to be developed, one that hits you with sound waves where you can feel when you're touching or hitting an object (or you are in turn "hit" in a game or receiving a hug from a friend). While the "phantom limb" effect is somewhat there when playing controllerless games, a la Sony's Eye Toy for the PlayStation 2 and the karate mini-game where you punch on-screen enemies - you somewhat "feel" the impact through clever use of visual clues and bass heavy sounds - it's not enough for truly profound feedback. Something does need to actually touch you or at least FEEL like it's touching you to complete the effect.

Anyway, I'd love to hear your thoughts on all this. I certainly think since there's a brief "the future" section in our in-development feature film documentary, that this will be worthy of a mention or two, as I really think this is a big part of that future.

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