Microsoft's magic box does a lot more than you might think.
January 14, 2010 -
Oh great. Just what we need. Another motion control scheme. Such were our collective thoughts at the 2009 Electronic Entertainment Expo, when Microsoft officially announced Project Natal. Rumors had been percolating for months that the Xbox 360 had some sort of 3D-capable motion tracking device in the works. But Microsoft made it official with private demonstrations of the new technology at the Los Angeles Convention Center that year. We were skeptical, to say the least.
But when the demo was over, we were all believers in Natal. It was so different, so engaging, that we couldn't ignore its potential. It was (and still is) far too early to say whether Natal will live up to that potential. But since its E3 debut, we've had multiple opportunities to see the upcoming Xbox 360 peripheral in action. And each time, our interest has grown.
Despite the wealth of information Microsoft has released about Project Natal, the new technology is still often misunderstood (no, it's not just a camera). So we thought we'd gather all the facts in one spot. What's in that rectangular box, anyway? How does it work? Why does Kudo Tsunoda always wear sunglasses? It's all here, in our handy guide.
What Natal Is
First off, Natal is still just a code name for Microsoft's new technology. Expect it to get an official name by E3. Natal is a city on the northeastern coast of Brazil whose name means "to be born" in Latin. Fun, eh? We're pushing for Microsoft to name the new technology Dr. Awesome's Magical Motionarium, but we haven't had any emails returned on that yet.
Natal is based on high-concept research that Microsoft's been working on for years. As Popular Science magazine put it in a recent article, Natal is the byproduct of Microsoft's attempt to solve a particularly complicated problem in artificial intelligence.
Prior to Natal, cameras have been relatively dumb. They can capture images, but they largely don't know what they're seeing. Microsoft has taught Natal's brain how to interpret the data its 3D video camera and near-infrared beam receive. After presenting the system with multiple terabytes of data on motion-captured human movement, Microsoft engineers were able to teach Natal how to recognize, remember and interpret the motions of the human body. Yeah, it's a little more advanced than the Wiimote.
Natal is not just a camera. Although it's processing your image 30 times a second, the built-in image sensors (one black-and-white, the other color) are only part of the system. There's also a near-infrared sensor that's gauging depth and an array of microphones picking up sounds.
Natalis not a controller. Microsoft's shorthand for Natal has been "Your body is the controller." But it's actually even more sophisticated than that. Because Natal acquires a 3D image of the room and has a real-time understanding of the player's body within that room, the system actually turns the entire gaming environment (sound and all) into a control system.
Natal is not a new Xbox 360. Microsoft has long said it views the Xbox 360 as a 10-year console. Project Natal is a way for the company to extend the life of its machine in order to meet that goal. Microsoft has repeatedly said that Natal will work with every Xbox 360 sold to date. As long as it's not flashing three red lights…
How it Works
Project Natal has a fully featured sensory array, according to Microsoft's spec sheet. For starters, it has a standard digital video camera. That will do everything you expect it to, from scanning in pictures of objects to recognizing patterns to letting Milo know what color shirt you're wearing.
But Natal is much more than a simple digital camera. It also has a CMOS infrared projector. This is what allows Project Natal to see in the dark and complete the three dimensional view of the player, including his or her distance from the TV. According to the magazine New Scientist, a person standing in front of a Natal unit is painted with infrared light, and a black-and-white camera measures how much of that light is reflected back to the device to determine depth and distance.
The last bit of the sensory array is a set of multiple microphones. This takes in the room's sounds multiple times, which gives Natal and your Xbox 360 enough data to locate where the sounds are coming from, separate them from other people in the room, and cut out the background noise. The end result is improved voice recognition.
Even with this set of sensors, Project Natal wouldn't work without some sophisticated software to run it. Popular Science recently ran an article outlining this software. In short, it uses a form of artificial intelligence to recognize the human body and recognize each part of the body and create a digital skeleton. Because Natal has been "trained" to recognize human faces, body parts and movement, it uses that information to keep track of a player's limbs (even when they stray out of range or behind an obstacle).It does this entire process 30 times a second.
Natal lead developer Alex Kipman says the system uses 10 to 15 percent of the Xbox 360's computing resources, and recognizing new figures and new poses takes less than a second. Although not as precise as professional motion capture systems, Natal is able to locate a part of the body to within a 4 cm cubes. That's pretty precise, and you don't even have to wear a black bodysuit bristling with electrodes.
Who It's For
Microsoft is promoting Project Natal as something everyone can enjoy. Usually, we'd recommend taking a statement like that with a grain or two of Marketing Salt©. But it Natal's case, it could actually be true. Even playing something as simple as Ricochet (slapping at spheres with your hands) using Natal brought out the kid in us. Five-year-olds will have a blast jumping around playing with imaginary beach balls. But grown-up gamers could theoretically have just as much fun with whatever Peter Molyneux and friends turn Milo into. There are fascinating possibilities for puzzle games, driving games, party games and even horror games Think Fatal Frame 2 was creepy on the original Xbox? What if ghosts appeared behind you? OK, need to stop now. Too scared.
Who's Making Natal Games?
Microsoft hasn't released a complete list of all the developers working on Natal-specific titles. But we do know that the company is encouraging game creators to work on projects that make specific use of the system's technology. It's an encouraging sign that we won't be flooded with shovelware on launch day. The last thing the Xbox 360 library needs is an avalanche of Carnival Games Wii ports. Here are the developers we know are working on Natal games:
- Activision Blizzard
- Bethesda Softworks
- Disney Interactive
- Electronic Arts
- Microsoft Game Studios
- MTV Games
- Namco Bandai
- Square Enix
- THQ Inc.