MS Natal Revolutionizes User Controls

Stephen Yagielowicz
There's a breakthrough technology from Microsoft that is gaining momentum and which holds the promise of forming another link in the chain towards haptic Nirvana. It is called "Project Natal," and it is billed as a revolutionary new way to play videogames on the Xbox 360 platform — with no controller required for user interaction.

Traditional videogame console users have eyed the next-level interaction afforded by Nintendo's Wii console with envy, but even the best wireless control mechanisms are about to be upstaged by "no control" mechanisms — such as the impending Natal unit for the Xbox 360, which employs a small horizontal sensor that is positioned along the top or bottom of the video display to detect user movements.

"See a ball? Kick it, hit it, trap it or catch it," says the Xbox Natal website. "If you know how to move your hands, shake your hips or speak you and your friends can jump into the fun — the only experience needed is life experience."

According to Microsoft, "Project Natal" (pronounced "nuh-tall") represents controller-free gaming and entertainment, but the impact of Natal is hard to overestimate, with various observers, including Hollywood maven Steven Spielberg, seeing it as a watershed technology.

"This is a pivotal moment that will carry with it a wave of change, the ripples of which will reach far beyond video games," Spielberg said.

Microsoft claims that Project Natal is "the world's first system to combine an RGB camera, depth sensor, multi-array microphone and custom processor running proprietary software," and that in addition to tracking the user's full body movements in 3D, it also recognizes the user's face and facial expressions and can even detect changes of emotion in the user's voice. It reportedly also remembers a user's face and voice, allowing them to automatically connect to Xbox Live without using a controller.

Natal utilizes a depth sensor comprised of an infrared projector with a monochrome CMOS sensor that reportedly allows the system to image the room in three dimensions (instead of interpreting the room based upon a two dimensional image). Microsoft says that a multi-array microphone locates voices by sound and can extract ambient noise, allowing for headset-free Xbox Live party chat and more. These advanced features are powered by the company's proprietary software and allow Project Natal to effectively perform human body recognition while extracting ambient visual noise.

Forward thinking operators that can combine this high level of motion sensing performance with the intimacy of a haptic device like the RealTouch and the immersive engagement of a virtual world into one seamless sensory experience will open the door to the future of adult entertainment.