Games in Science and Technology

Microsoft and Project Natal Seek to Broaden Access to Video Games

The Project Natal CameraBy now, most of you have probably heard about Microsoft and its plan to introduce innovative hands-free controls to the Xbox 360. With Project Natal, Microsoft aims to open up the world of video games to anyone who has ever felt daunted by a traditional controller.

First previewed during Microsoft’s E3 2009 press conference, Project Natal has already demonstrated great potential in recognizing body movements in a 3D space. It can even be programmed to react to facial expressions and voice intonations, as displayed with the ambitious Milo project in development at newly-appointed European creative director of Microsoft Game Studios Peter Molyneux’s Lionhead Studios. Read More...

Project Natal works by using a combination of a 3D depth sensor, an RGB camera and a microphone array. The colour-reading camera allows the system to recognize facial features with remarkable accuracy, while the microphone can differentiate sounds coming from various directions. The system runs using a custom processor and a proprietary software layer which allows the technology to run these multiple processes in real-time.

The system camera was based on the ZCam developed by 3DV Systems, a company which Microsoft acquired in early 2009. In developing the Project Natal technology, Microsoft has also sought the support  of Johnny Chung Lee, a Ph.D. graduate student from Carnegie Mellon University. Lee is known for having developed a virtual reality head tracking device and software using the Wii Remote.

Rare (Viva Piňata, Banjo-Kazooie), who designed the New Xbox Experience (NXE), is another branch of Microsoft intimately involved with Project Natal and the team is working on several projects, according to Shane Kim, corporate vice president of strategy and business development for Microsoft.

Even with numerous parties involved in the development Project Natal, it is still a while away from reaching retail. “We have a lot to do on the hardware and software itself, but we won’t ship it until we’re confident we have a minimum number of incredible experiences with it,” said Kim. “We’d love for that to be as soon as possible. But we’re not going to ship it too early.”

Veteran filmmaker and special effects pioneer Steven Spielberg made an appearance at the Microsoft E3 press conference to publicly endorse Project Natal, although he did not indicate that he was working on a project related to it. Having such an influential person in the entertainment industry praising Project Natal suggests that the lines between film and video games will be blurred even further as home entertainment approaches its next generation.