The Death Of The Controller? Project Natal Revealed

For a while now we’ve been hearing rumblings about Microsoft’s answer to the Wii. We’ve heard about motion controllers, cameras and all sorts of other doohickeys that would attempt to mimic the success of the Wii. What we didn’t expect was something even more simple than that: Nothing.

Well, not nothing. Project Natal is a camera and a mic that sits atop your TV (just like the Wii sensor bar). The idea is that you’ll be able to control a wide variety of software using just your body, thanks to highly advanced 3D tracking systems built into the device.

On the simplest front, you can browse the Xbox 360 dashboard by just waving your hand up and down, almost like Minority Report. But Project Natal promises much more than that.

A sample video demonstrated what Microsoft hopes to be able to pull off with Natal. For example, you can drive a car simply by turning your hands like you’re turning a wheel. Or you can ride a skateboard by popping ollies right there on your carpet. Imagine playing Wii tennis, but you don’t even have to hold a remote…your hands’ movements are enough to change your swing.

That is, if it works. After the demonstration, Microsoft brought Kudo Tsunoda, the project’s creative director, up on stage to show off some of the features in real time. First up, avatar manipulation. Kudo’s avatar followed his movements as he waved his arms, lifted his feet, etc. Truth be told this was pretty janky and shouldn’t have been shown first, as his avatar skittered and bounced around the screen, arms clipping into his body.

The next demonstration was a bit smoother, though. Ricochet is basically a 3D version of brick breaker, where the player must bat back the ball to clear a row of bricks at the end of a hallway. In this case, the player was able to punch and kick in the air and ’cause a direct translation of movement to the game. While there was a very slight delay, it’s basically the very same 1 to 1 movement that the Wii MotionPlus attachment promises, albeit without the actual controller in your hands.

Next up, a painting demonstration, where players can stand in front of a digital canvas and splatter paint as if they’re hurling invisible buckets at the screen. Just saying the name of a color will change your palate, and you can even make stencils and layers. Again, this wasn’t perfect, as there was some issues with accuracy on the 1 to 1 movement, but it showed promise.

The last demonstration game from Peter Molyneux, the mind behind Fable, Black & White and countless other titles. His presentation featured “Milo,” a digital character who can (in theory) directly interact with the player in incredible new ways. Think Seaman but way more involved. Of all the presentations, this looked the most staged, as a back-and-forth between Milo and a Lionhead employee seemed to be extremely scripted. That being said, Molyneux promised that we’ll be getting a first-hand look at Milo sometime this week, so it’s legitimacy should be confirmed or denied.

So, in short, is this the death of the controller? Probably not anytime soon. First off, Project Natal is probably not going to see the light of day until late 2010 at the earliest. Secondly, at least where it’s at right now, the level of accuracy, while good, is never going to match the fine-tuned preciseness of a controller in your hands. It is, however, a definite challenger to all of the Wii motion-controlled games, which don’t always require such precise handling. That is, if it works and isn’t just a massive ruse. Hopefully I’ll be able to answer that question before the week is out.