Hands, arms and legs on with Microsoft's Natal

Microsoft brings its prototype gaming system to Tokyo and we get a chance to play

The man jumping around and wildly waving his arms and kicking his legs on the Microsoft booth at the Tokyo Game Show isn't crazy. He's gaming.

Kudo Tsunoda, creative director for Microsoft's immersive gaming system, Project Natal, brought the latest prototype of the system to Japan and on Friday I had a chance to try it out.

Microsoft is developing Natal to be launched in 2010. A camera tracks gamers and matches their real-life movements to those of an on-screen character. It works in the infrared range so is quite accurate and doesn't require a complicated set-up, special lighting or backdrop. The system also includes a microphone for audio feedback into games, though that wasn't demonstrated in Tokyo.

"It's simple and approachable and anyone can get in right away and have fun," said Tsunoda.

That sounds like my cue.

The game loaded into the demo system is a simple one where a character faces a wall of nine cubes. Balls fly towards the character and they have to be punched, kicked or somehow bounced back so that they hit other balls and shatter the wall before the time runs out.

Stepping in front of the camera provided the first demonstration of Natal's sensor technology: it matched the sex of the on-screen figure to the sex of the gamer. And the second demonstration came quickly. No set-up or configuration is required. I just stood in front of the camera and the game was underway.

Hitting the balls wasn't too difficult at first. A high right-hander sent the first ball shooting towards the wall and shattering one of the other balls, but then it got more complicated as subsequent balls started missing and bouncing back towards me. Some would come in high, some low, some right and some left and reaching even half of them required quite a bit of effort.

Perhaps it's my lack of recent gaming but I missed several because I was just too slow to get there.

"Remember you can move around," called Tsunoda at one point, leading me to realize I'd been standing in pretty much the same spot for the first half of the game. Indeed, gaming with Natal requires a bit of practice to get your head about this new way of interacting with the console.

Sadly as I expanded my reach by bouncing back and forth I didn't hit many more balls. At one point my enthusiasm had me hitting the back wall of the Microsoft booth -- the wall remained intact, robbing me of my place in history with the first Natal-related damage.

It's easy to work up a sweat bouncing back and forth on front of the screen. In fact, later when I observed Tsunoda, it struck me how much the Natal gaming experience resembles an aerobic workout. If regular use of the Wii could push down gamers' weight, just wait until they try Natal.

All in all I really liked the experience. It's a completely new form of gaming and much more immersive than the Wii but also something that might be good in little bursts -- at least for the game I was playing. But not all games need be quite so frenetic.

From the limited demonstrations on offer it's hard to draw any conclusions on how successful the system will become but the technology is very impressive. A lot of the success will likely depend on the imagination of game developers and just what they dream up to do with the technology.

A host of big-name developers are working on Natal games including: Activision Blizzard, Bethesda Softworks, Capcom, Disney, EA, Konami, MTV Games, Namco Bandai, Sega, Square Enix, THQ and Ubisoft.

Natal is promised for next year but there's no word on when it will be out or the system's price. This is one technology gamers will want to keep an eye on.

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Martyn Williams

IDG News Service
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