'Hands-Off' Reviews of Microsoft's Project Natal Emerge

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Project Natal

'Hands-on' with Microsoft's upcoming Xbox 360 motion detection gizmo? Impossible, since your hands touch nothing, nor your arms, elbows, legs, knees, or feet. Still, Project Natal, as the mechanism is called, can reportedly do a full-body scan instantaneously as you approach its tube-like webcam, mapping your "arms and elbows, hips, legs and feet" and "replicating your entire body in an on-screen avatar," according to Irish tech site Silicon Republic.

How do they know? Because Microsoft demonstrated Natal to a handful of people in London last night, offering a chance to try out the dodgeball game demonstrated at last year's E3. Sadly that's all they demonstrated, but it gave skeptical gamers a chance to gauge the accuracy of the technology two quarters in advance of its planned 2010 holiday release.

For starters, while Natal's camera can map an impressive array of spatial activity, it suffers from slight lag.

MTV's Russ Frushtick timed the lag at one-tenth of a second...or tried to. I'm not sure human reflexes and synaptic processes work fast enough to reliably hand-clock in increments of tenths of seconds.

Still, accurate or no, the consensus seems to be that there is some delay, though there's disagreement about whether that spells trouble for the tech rolling forward.

Kotaku's Brian Crecente is one who thinks there may be. Whether he's right or not, he makes the wrong analogy, comparing the input-response lag to the visuals-related "uncanny valley," the sense of repulsion we seem to feel toward simulated humans as they approach high fidelity, presumably wiped clean only once they achieve perfect fidelity and become indistinguishable from the real McCoy.

The analogy doesn't work for several reasons, among them the fact that we've yet to experience perfectly simulated humans, whereas we have experienced perfect motion control. ("Perfect," that is, in terms of what an application promises and delivers.)

But the bigger problem issue is that Crecente's analogy conflates something identification-based and indeterministic with something that's mechanics-driven and deterministic.

Synchronizing physiological input with a motion detection system--controller-based or no--hinges on mathematically quantifiable variables, no different in terms of experiencing, gauging, and reflecting on their inadequacies than bemoaning controller lag in an input peripheral introduced by something like an overtaxed broadband connection or geographical distances.

Lag in a motion control interface doesn't function in terms of subjecive adjectives like "uncanny" or "believable," but rather in terms of deterministic indices like "detectable" or "undetectable." If lag is "detectable," we register annoyance or frustration, not repulsion. Motion-control lag in a first-person roleplaying game may impair my "sense of immersion," but it's more like a slipping clutch or dragging transmission than the sense of being "creeped out" when I'm asked to identify with almost-but-not-quite-realistic artificial humans.

Microsoft's challenge is no different than anyone else's in terms of control interfaces. They either eliminate the lag, or--if Natal isn't powerful enough to do so--work around it by avoiding games that demand ultra-precision timing. Most games we call "casual" don't (require precise timing), as evidenced by anything that's ever come out for the Nintendo Wii. I had to review the Wii versions of Dancing With The Stars for another site some years back and managed to enjoy it despite the Wii's inability to measure every hand twist and arm jab accurately.

What's more, in games like that, your brain eventually compensates, and you tend to forget there's lag at all.

Connect with Matt on Twitter (@game_on)

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