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

Bill Loguidice's picture

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.

Comments

Rowdy Rob
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Too much fantasy to cope with, Mark?
Mark Vergeer wrote:

Milo is exactly what blows me away, but most of all the interaction between an AI and an OI (organic intelligence).

Mark, I, too, have dreamed of AI, but not in the gaming sense. I arrogantly thought I could crack AI where no one else has, and brainstormed several years on the subject. The best I could come up with was a vague "artificial intelligence operating system," and my own notes on the subject are now indecipherable to me years later. I think I came close to insanity over the project.... the human mind is STAGGERINGLY complex!

As a psychologist, do you see any inherent psychological dangers to such technology as what MILO presented, Mark? If you could create a startlingly-real AI "playmate," would it not cross some lines as to what humans perceive as real? If, instead of MILO, what if my "playmate" was a supermodel? Why would I leave my house and do productive things? And could a REAL human live up to such fake, ideal standards?

Such questions would have just been interesting conjecture a year ago, but the MILO demo seems to show that such questions are not too far removed from reality in the modern world, and WILL soon be mainstream questions.

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Mark Vergeer
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Dangers are clear

Of course the dangers are clear - there will no doubt be individuals with certain personality traits and/or addictive tendencies that will fall prey to the 'I like my virtual Milo friend way better then the real world friends I have....'-trap just like there are individuals who tend to get addicted to the internet, games, alcohol, cigarettes for that matter.

If AI becomes indistinguishable from a human intelligence - there is a test for it by the way - and shows signs of a free will etc than we come to an ethical discussion whether or not the AI should have the same rights as an OI has. Perhaps in the future this will be the case or it won't be the case and in 200 years time we will have some sort of Matrix/Terminator-like AI revolution on our hands. ;-)

I am not under the impression that I could 'crack' the ultimate AI problem and suddenly conjure up this great artificial intelligent mind that we - in the end - need to fight because it strives for world-domination. But as a psychiatrist I do have an extensive knowledge of how the brain works on a neurological level as well as a neuropsychiatric/psychological level and I do clearly see where the gaps are in current AI solutions. The thing is that the human brain/mind combination still pretty much is a black-box for a large part. But for me personally and on a professional level this type of programs/computer intelligence is very very interesting and I would actually enjoy working on such a project.

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Matt Barton
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Just saw this: Natal’s

Just saw this: Natal’s technology a revelation to amputees and the disabled.

The disabled get brought up a lot whenever there's some new controller technology, and of course it's an important niche market that is well worth supporting for moral as well as economic reasons.

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Bill Loguidice
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Sort of updated story on the

Sort of updated story on the image sensors for this stuff: http://www.siliconvalley.com/opinion/ci_12744887?nclick_check=1

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Bill Loguidice
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My thoughts on both the PS3

My thoughts on both the PS3 and Xbox 360 devices are that these are primarily the companies laying the groundwork for their next generation systems. They both surely must know that no add-on can have the ubiquity of a console bundled product, but it's important for both the PS3 and Xbox 360 (and the Wii, truth be told) to continue to keep their platforms fresh and steal the occasional headline. With that said, as the third biggest selling game of all time, the original Wii Fit bundle has proven that - though it's a long shot - you can have tremendous success with the RIGHT add-on if the software is compelling enough. Certainly not every game has Balance Board support, but if it wasn't a hit, far fewer than do now would support it. Now it's no longer a question of does it make sense to support the Balance Board, just does it make sense for the particular game to support it from a design standpoint. That's as good of a position to be in for ANY add-on as you can hope for, and ultimately that's what both Sony and Microsoft will be after THIS generation, along with helping them decide how to shape their next console iterations.

As for the products themselves, each one has promise and is exciting in its own way, though looking at it from a "no sides" standpoint, certainly Natal seems to hold more potential, but also has more technological hurdles to overcome. I don't even consider Wii's MotionPlus add-on a complete success, as it has that weird calibration issue. That will definitely have to be addressed in the Wii2, which may even incorporate some type of camera, a la "Your Shape", though that's just pure speculation on my part. It seems like the next generation is heading towards the holy trinity of standard controller, motion controls and body/device tracking. Hopefully that means better gaming rather than more gimmicky gaming, but we all know that its always slow going transitioning to new game designs...

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Mark Vergeer
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Add-ons

Introducing system-add-ons later in the life-span of a device has never faired well. Only a portion of the user-base will obtain such an add-on and software developers want to have a market as broad as possible. So in the past these devices were largely ignored by 3rd party developers. As Nintendo does a lot of in-house development, the new addition to the motion-controller with the new sports game, will probably be optionally supported in other titles coming out. Project Natal will perhaps share a different faith....

The market is saturated as it is and I think that introducing yet another generation of consoles - the ps4 and the xbox advanced/natal - will fraction the market even more. We see this already happening with the PS2 that is still going strong. So strong in fact that Sony doesn't want to compete with the still successful console that it will-fully removed PS2 backwards compatibility from later PS3 models whilst saying to the public that it was just a way to make the PS3 more affordable.... Well it is less affordable to buy 2 consoles to play PS2 and 3 games than it is to buy one.

PS3: MarkVergeer | Xbox 360: Lactobacillus P | Wii: 8151 3435 8469 3138
Armchair arcade Editor | Pixellator | www.markvergeer.nl

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Bill Loguidice
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Cycles and the golden age of modern gaming?

Oh, I think this will the longest console cycle - perhaps ever - for a variety of reasons, so I don't think Wii 2, Xbox 720 or PS4 will be coming any time within the next three or four years--at least. This in turn should have an interesting effect on the PC side of things as well, since that may retard PC developers from really pushing the envelope as they try to continue to do more with the 360 and PS3 for longer than they normally would have. Frankly, I think that will be a GOOD thing for PC gamers, because it should mean less games that overly tax their systems. Perhaps - just maybe - this can usher in a type of golden age for modern gaming, where developers once again have to "make do" with "limited" hardware rather than always having the latest and greatest, and have to focus more and more on creativity and quality. We'll see...

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Mark Vergeer
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I think it will be a good thing for gamers sec....

I will be good if current consoles were really put to the test and developers were really trying to get the most out of the machines. The PS2 really gets squeezed for all its power and it is surprising to see that level of quality some of the later titles can achieve. The original Xbox was shelved way before the full potential was reached, so was the DC - especially in PAL country were it lasted about 1 year and a half or so.... perhaps even less than a year.

PS3: MarkVergeer | Xbox 360: Lactobacillus P | Wii: 8151 3435 8469 3138
Armchair arcade Editor | Pixellator | www.markvergeer.nl

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davyK
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The full motion detection is

The full motion detection is interesting but many complain about gesturing with the Wii for long game sessions - this is even worse. Given the sparsity of real uses for the Wii controller what makes us think there will be many for full body motion detection over the usual sports game?

Nice as a demo in a booth though - no doubt it would something wheeled out at home for parties much as Wii Sports is now. But would this add anything to Wii Sports resort bowling and TW10 Golf? Maybe more accurate stance but it moves away from being a game to a sim which drains the fun away. Yet again - distinct lack of imagination from Microsoft.

The Turing test fodder is nice but a bit yawnsome.

clap clap "Great Job" - get over yourselves Microsoft.

Bill Loguidice
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I don't think anyone is

I don't think anyone is saying it's necessarily a better way to control games, Davy. I certainly am in the camp of standard controllers with "guaranteed" 1:1 detection, meaning when I press a button I know it does something. What it does enable is an alternate way to control games and possible, just possibly, a better way to control CERTAIN games, or at least a way to enhance the experience. Again, I'm in the camp where I want to sit on my ass and play games, but I am also intrigued by the "holodeck" concept of full body interaction. There are a lot of possibilities for interesting interactive experiences, with the Milo demo being just one example.

As for the lack of imagination from Microsoft? I disagree. For once, unlike Sony or Nintendo, when they've decided to go with a concept, they decided to go all out with the maximum that modern technology can offer. Theirs is the only one that apparently needs nothing other than you. That in and of itself seems to me to be highly imaginative. Whether Nintendo, Sony or Microsoft is unimaginative with their motion control since it was all done before seems irrelevant to me, as the more something is refined, the better it generally is. Society is built on iterative developments as much as it is on unique breakthroughs.

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Bill Loguidice, Managing Director | Armchair Arcade, Inc.
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