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E3: Microsoft's No-Controller "Natal" Steals the Show

Bend like an elephant with Microsoft's Project Natal, a motion-tracking system in which you're the controller.

"You are the controller," teased Microsoft at their E3 conference today, firing the shot heard round the blogosphere: a no-controls-whatsoever motion-sensing device.

"Can we make you the controller?" they asked, before answering with an Obama-like "Yes we can." Forget Steve Austin, it's The Six Million Dollar Design Grail: Gentlemen, we can rebuild you...we have the technology...better, stronger, faster...and did we mention without an external controller?

Like a nerdy gladiator swaggering onstage to do battle with breathlessly expectant fans and naysayers alike, Microsoft utterly wowed with "Project Natal." I mean really wowed. Yeah, it's kind of a dumb name, but it may turn out to be the most impressive show item any company's crowed about in years. It's Nintendo's Wii without the gangly Wii-remote, Sony's Eye Toy with dramatically better vision. The promise of interaction without wires or widgets. The future you'd been thinking was still a year or three away.

What we saw today was unprecedented: True 1-to-1 motion tracking. Wave your arm and your onscreen avatar follows you precisely. Bend, yoga-like, to form cute animal shadow-shapes and a silhouetted image on a virtual canvas curls and contorts picture-perfectly. Shift toe-to-toe, tennis-like, anticipating objects hurled your way and whatever algorithms are intelligently sorting behind the scenes recognize your intentions, filtering out flailing limbs or ignoring unnecessary maneuvers.

And then there's Milo. the innocent little boy who seemed to react viscerally to the human asking him questions. Peter Molyneux (Fable 2) claimed it wasn't staged or scripted. At one point Milo tossed a pair of goggles at the screen and the player demoing the game reached down, instinctively, to catch them. Molyneux pointed out that "every player reaches down," highlighting the almost autonomic response a character like Milo engenders. Molyneux's enthusiasm was palpable, even contagious -- a guy who's probably been anticipating this sort of interactive naturalism longer than any of us, now perched center-stage with his fingers on a product that might just deliver it.

Now think beyond games for a moment, which is where trotting out a filmmaker of Steven Spielberg's stature factors more than superficially. Natal isn't new technology — it's been anticipated for years — but it's part of more than just Microsoft's gaming lineup. Think about walking into a room to play a game that already knows precisely where your hands and feet are. A system that already knows whether you're grumpy or melancholy, smiling or frowning, how many fingers you're holding up, or how curled or extended each one is.

Think, in short, about a system that gets to know you from every angle, eerie as that sounds...and inevitable as it's always been.

Will it deliver the experience the demos seemed to promise? Wait and see. For now, Microsoft's just enjoying the buzz, and for a change, deservedly so.

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