E3: What's Wrong with Microsoft's Xbox 360 Motion-Control Approach?

Don't get me wrong, Microsoft's E3 Xbox 360 no-controller motion-sensing bolt from the blue dubbed "Project Natal" was impressive stuff, but Sony's wand-based motion-control response the following day got me thinking (as it did my colleague, Ian Paul, who has five questions for Microsoft).

A few years ago, I interviewed Dr. Richard Marks, i.e. the guy who talked us through Sony's PS3 wand-with-a-glow-bulb motion control demo at E3 on Tuesday. Marks is the guy who designed Sony's Eye Toy, and I was at the time working on a games interface story to coincide with the release of Nintendo's Wii. I asked Marks why Sony didn't just turn up the Eye Toy's capture resolution and challenge Nintendo with a hands-free alternative. In other words, why didn't Sony just debut their own "Project Natal" years ago? They had the essential tech--Microsoft's approach is essentially just the Eye Toy Plus, after all.

Marks' thoughts were telling, perhaps even predictive of what we saw from Sony on Tuesday.

"The trick is matching what you want to measure with what you want to accomplish," he told me. "Do you want to track distance? Location? Angle? Speed? They all have different functions, and things start to get really exciting when you can mix and match sampling tools to create feedback synergies. Say the Sixaxis controller for speed and angle with a camera checking location."

Complementary augmentation, in other words, not--as might have seemed logical given the Eye Toy's approach--an entirely peripheral-free experience. Or at least that's how I read him.

Which leads to my--I wouldn't say concern, so much as curiosity--in light of the week's events. When you take the controller away for an "untethered" experience, you introduce a brand new issue: What about feedback?

An athletic gamer demonstrates the peripheral-free power of Microsoft's Project Natal at E3 2009.

I'm not just talking about the rumbly vibrations that pulse through our battery-juiced gamepads, but the simple--in game terms atavistic--tactile response you get from hefting a slim, slightly weighted piece of plastic covered in dials and buttons and levers.

In gamer parlance, we occasionally invoke the term "button-mashing." Take away the controller and there's nothing to mash. You grip nothing. The smooth plastic contours you're so accustomed to pressing against simply don't exist.

Think it through with me. Why don't guns fire with shallow buttons (or god forbid, simple "touch" sensors, like the power button on the PS3) instead of tension triggers? Easy: Because our brains need touch-based indexes. Clunky as it sounds, we depend on the interaction of our finger with that tensile, deterministic trigger, to pull off subtle, sophisticated maneuvers. How hard do you need to pull on the trigger (gun or gamepad) to fire? The trigger's resistance lets your finger (and therefore, your brain) know.

The other advantage of controllers, is that they offer that tactile relationship while at the same time minimizing the amount of activity being physically simulated onscreen. If you want to pound something with a bat, say, the gamepad's designed to let you do so without the gestural complexities and physical intensity of the actual motion.

Sony demonstrates the ultra-precision of its wand-based PlayStation 3 motion-control approach at E3 2009.

Try something with me. Take your index finger, whatever hand you favor, then tap as fast as you can on a flat surface. Now try holding that same hand out in the air and seeing if you can tap as quickly, or with as relatively little effort. Not as easy as it sounds, right? Part of the body's ability to make precise motions depends on spatial rules about objects it's been trained to follow since birth.

I'm a classically trained pianist. Let's talk about the differences between playing on an 88-key weighted action versus the unweighted keys on a synth, or just tapping a facsimile of a keyboard etched flat on a surface. It's tough enough switching from weighted to unweighted. Going to no-weighted would utterly destroy your ability to articulate just about anything.

I'm not saying Natal won't make a splash. The Eye Toy certainly had its place, and to be fair, Natal hasn't been positioned as the be-all, end-all of game control. Read that again, lest you think I've overplayed Natal's gaming role. More likely, it'll be a complementary technology in Microsoft's "lifestyle" lineup, focused more on abstract, physically oriented gaming experiences like the ones you saw demoed. Besides, who's to say Microsoft couldn't eventually pull a Sony and add their own 3D motion wand?

And I don't doubt Microsoft's Larry "Major Nelson" Hryb's sincerity when he twitters stuff like "I got a few folks in to see Project Natal today...They LOVED IT." Or "The look on everyone's face when they see it actually works is priceless...Pure joy."

Just as long as we agree that we don't see Natal as Epic's control scheme for Gears of War 3, or a better way to play Halo 4. When it comes to precision gaming, i.e. the kind of gaming I'm into, I think games are informed just as much by what we're pressing against in the physical world, as what we're mapping onto that physical interface, mentally, in the virtual one.

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