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For a couple of years its been known as Project Natal – Microsoft’s bid to do away with the game controller and usher in an era of more naturalistic video game playing.

A few hours ago on the eve of the the E3 video game expo in Los Angeles, Project Natal received its official debut – with a clunker of a name – it will now be known as Kinect.

Microsoft, in typically extravagant fashion, had a Cirque Du Soleil show designed around its new game control system which uses motion detection to mimic the game player’s actions within the environment of the game. It is designed to work with Microsoft’s Xbox 360 game console, which has really been needing a refresh since the Nintendo Wii came along with an innovative way of controlling games with the Wii remote.

Micrsoft’s other rival Sony has for years had a primitive form of motion capture game control in the market in the form of the Eye Toy – one rather lame game I remember involved you franticallywavingyour arms around in front of your TV screen to mimic washing windows. It was pretty exhausting, if fleetingly amusing. Microsoft wants to take that a giant leap forward,incorporating the types of gestures you’d make in an energetic session of Wii tennis but also detecting movements of the entire body.

What’s wrong with the good old Xbox controller you’ve clutched on numerous occasions through those all-night sessions of Halo 3. As USA Today explains:

The 4-year-old Xbox 360 has long seemed targeted at hard-core gamers, with a controller that could be intimidating.

“For lots of people, that controller is a barrier,” says [Kinect] creative director Kudo Tsunoda. “We set out to make a new control paradigm where anybody can get in and play, without having to read the instructions or learn a complicated set of controls.”

The problem game console developers have faced is that while the powerful processors in the Xbox and PS3 consoles have becoming capable of deliveringly increasingly impressive graphics, the controller has still been a distractingly tactile fixture in the gaming set-up, a plastic, molded remote bristling with buttons. Sure you can replace it with Wii remote for the Nintendo or steering wheel or gun for the PS3 and Xbox 360, but the limitations and intrusions on realityremain great.

Going through the motions

Kinect – and Sony’s rival which will likely see the light of day at E3 will seek to overcome that using gesture recognition, speech recognition and motion analysis.

This interview with Microsoft games executive Shane Kim gives an insight into what’s involved in Kinect:

VB: What technology does it use?

SK: It uses an RGB camera (image sensor), a 3-D depth camera (which determines how far away an object is from the camera), and a multi-array microphone.

VB: The depth cameras are a key technology?

SK: To me, the magic is more software. You’re talking about an extraordinary amount of data that has to be processed in real time. You saw the latency was very good yesterday. You can parse voices, recognize faces. It’s complex hardware, even more sophisticated software, and simplified for developers to use it immediately. All of that so that consumers can have the most simplistic and easy experience to get into gaming.

Is this the next big thing in gaming? The initial reviews to appear over the next few days will indicate if that’s the case. The beauty is that Kinect can be added to an existing piece of hardware at a reasonable cost (it is suggested it will debut for US$150). If the experience is convincing in the confines of the lounge room on a TV set, Microsoft could be onto something. After all, that bulky Xbox controller really is a bit of a handful…

Some of the early titles to see release on Kinect, which will come as an add-on for the Xbox 360 and be available in time for Christmas include:

- Kinectimals train and play with 20 different virtual cats – a lion, cheetah and tiger included.

- Joyride, you hold an imaginary steering wheel – pull your hands toward you and push back out for an acceleration boost – and their bodies to execute jumps and tricks.

- Kinect Sports boxing, bowling, beach volleyball, track and field, soccer and table tennis. To serve a volleyball, you mimic the real motion; in soccer, kick the ball or do a header.

- Kinect Adventures includes a river-raft time trial and obstacle course, playable by up to four players. On the raft, playing as a duo, you and a partner must lean one way or another to steer. Jumping helps the raft reach special areas for extra points.

- Dance Central, in development by MTV Games, brings a So You Think You Can Dance experience home.

- Star Wars characters and iconic Disney favorites will be featured in separate new games being developed at Microsoft in conjunction with LucasArts and Disney.

And to finish off, some photos from the glitzy launch of Kinect at the University of Southern California…

Source: Microsoft

Source: Microsoft

Source: Microsoft

Source: Microsoft

Source: Microsoft

Source: Microsoft