Play Stuff Blog

Alternate Interfaces and Project Natal  

PlaymotionThe first time I played a video game without holding or stomping on a controller was at a 2002 traveling museum exhibit.  There was no joystick, no steering wheel, no pads to stomp on--simply  cameras that sensed my body movements.  The interactive graphics were fairly primitive, but they allowed me to transform into a soccer goalie using my arms and legs to defend my goal from an onslaught of soccer balls.  In another instance, I was able  to snowboard around obstacles by leaning my body in different directions.  This unique museum experience is one of the reasons I fell in love with exhibit technologies.

 PlaymotionOver the next several years I saw various additional iterations of this technology, including equipment  that sensed the shadows of bodies rather than the bodies themselves.  Each new iteration offered superior control and demonstrated how video game physics and interfaces were evolving rapidly.

With the introduction of the Wii to home console gamers in 2006, these previously unique museum interactives lost some of their luster.  Controlling a video game through body movements was no longer novel.  The Wii affordably brought this ability to the masses,  in their own homes.

The museum interactives still have have a significant advantage over the Wii, as they do not require a controller. However, they remain expensive, and  consumers are more than willing to accept a small, unobtrusive controller that is as close as one could come to having no controller. In fact, sales of alternate Wii controllers such as steering wheels, guitars, faux golf clubs, a myriad of light guns, dance pads, and nunchuks actually illustrate a movement away from controller minimalism.

Wii ControllersAlternate controls for video games have existed for a long time, and with great diversity.  Perusing the NCHEG collections one encounters a variety of console and arcade controls that rekindle fond memories for those of us who grew up in this golden age.  DK Bongos of Donkey Konga; the Sony EyeToy; bicycle pedal controls for arcade games; various dance pads; and several iterations of light guns dating back to the Magnavox Odyssey (for which Ralph Baer also originally designed a golf ball alternate controller - hit from atop a joystick) are but a few examples of the diversity of alternate game interfaces, and all still required a wired connector of some sort.  Now, even though the Wii has introduced us to the wireless world of alternate interfaces, so far nothing has offered the same controller-less experience for home gaming that I first experienced several years ago on that museum exhibit floor.

Perhaps the closest experience to date is the Sony EyeToy, first sold in 2003, which utilizes a basic webcam to capture natural body movement.  Anyone who used the early models of the Sony EyeToy can attest to the limitations of the technology, especially in low-light circumstances.  Sony answered this limitation by introducing an LED wand, which is more readily recognized by the camera.  In 2009 Electronic Entertainment Expo, Sony built on this concept and although a demonstration of the latest EyeToy technology proves to be more responsive and graphically slick than its ancestor, the more responsive and interesting applications still require a handheld wand controller.

Another emerging technology announced at the 2009 Electronic Entertainment Expo may bring true natural user control to the home console. Microsoft’s Project Natal promises a full-body motion controller that strips the player of even the minimal handheld controller and responds not just to body movement, but also to voice recognition, and biometric subtleties such as face recognition.  Microsoft claims backwards compatibility with all Xbox models and I hope the promise is true.

I’ve been waiting almost a decade to see this controller-less interfacing brought to the home console.  Video demonstrations available on the Project Natal web site and YouTube (like the ones below) illustrate a fairly responsive interface.  If this technology works as advertised, it will be a true quantum leap in home console gaming, but skeptics question the feasibility of that claim.  Microsoft has still not announced a product release date, leading many to wonder if the technical challenges of making such an affordable and reliable interface is still a bit out of reach, even for them.  As great as the demos look, they are simply that – controlled, often enhanced, marketing demonstrations. (Note the disclaimer on the Microsoft video that this is a “Product vision: actual features and functionality may vary.”)

I am at least optimistic that controller-less interfaces are being developed by the bigger players in the market, even if this technology doesn’t reach the home market for a couple of years.  The possibilities of game play are endless, and these opportunities will accelerate the time it takes for the public to realize that video games are not a sedentary pastime.

My Wii seldom causes me to break a sweat anymore, but Project Natal might.