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Originally published June 2, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 2, 2009 at 12:06 AM

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A challenger for Wii, new Xbox controls use voice and gesture

A haze of skepticism was in the air Monday as Microsoft unveiled a new gadget for the Xbox 360, a device code-named "Project Natal" that...

Seattle Times senior technology reporter

LOS ANGELES — A haze of skepticism was in the air Monday as Microsoft unveiled a new gadget for the Xbox 360, a device code-named "Project Natal" that lets people manipulate the console using only voice and body movements.

There were 2,500 jaded game journalists, analysts and retailers gathered for Microsoft's high-octane publicity event at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3).

The crowd was still feeling the rush from heart-pounding demonstrations of this fall's action-game lineup on the Xbox, not to mention Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr personally pitching "The Beatles: Rock Band" game coming in September, when Xbox Senior Vice President Don Mattrick started an Obamaesque talk about Natal and "the opportunity to dream the next dream."

"For far too many people, the controller is a barrier separating video-game players from everyone else," Mattrick told the sea of hard-core gamers. "With this in mind, we asked ourselves a new set of questions: Can we go beyond the controller? Can we deliver games and entertainment that everyone can instantly enjoy? Can we make you the controller? We can."

The haze cleared about the time Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg appeared alongside Mattrick, standing up for the geeks in Redmond, saying they truly have something revolutionary.

What Microsoft is doing is "not about reinventing the wheel, it's about no wheel at all," Spielberg said.

The legendary director who now develops games for Electronic Arts said the interactivity promised by Project Natal will "make it possible to change the paradigm of storytelling."

If it works as promised, the device also could broaden the appeal of console video games by removing the complexity of their button-studded controllers.

Project Natal could help Microsoft stretch the life span of the Xbox 360 to perhaps 2015, using external accessories to freshen the system without a costly redesign.

A must-have device also may bolster Microsoft's console business in the face of growing competition from online multiplayer games that require only a PC or handheld device. Some games will be playable with just Web-connected TVs, forcing Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo to create extraordinary reasons to justify buying their expensive consoles.

In the shorter term, Microsoft also has to respond to the breakaway success of the Wii and its motion-sensitive controllers, and find new ways to widen the appeal of the Xbox and its online network beyond hard-core shooting-game fans.

But Project Natal is much more than a Wiimote for the Xbox, insisted Microsoft Vice President Shane Kim.

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"This goes way beyond the Wii," he said, noting that the Natal device recognizes gestures and motions made by the entire body without any sort of handheld controller.

It does look a bit like the Wii's sensor bar, though. The Project Natal prototype is a 9-inch plastic bar that sticks onto the TV frame. Inside, it's stuffed with cameras, sensors and microphones.

It can detect the faces, voices and motions of people nearby, so they can interact with an Xbox and play games just by talking and moving their bodies.

The device is intended to help software developers create more social, interactive games, which is part of a larger effort by Microsoft to transform the Xbox Live online game network from a bastion for action-game enthusiasts to a social and entertainment hub for all sorts of people.

To that end, the company also announced that it's adding Facebook and Twitter to the menu of services on the console this fall so users can "tweet" and check messages on their TV screens or send screen shots of game play to their Facebook pages.

In demonstrations, the Natal device works with multiple players clustered together, although this may get complicated — or fail to function — in a fast-paced game with lots of gestures.

In a driving game, players simply hold up their hands as if they're holding a steering wheel. A painting game lets a player call out colors, then swing arms around to splash paint across the screen.

The most startling demonstration came from Microsoft developer Peter Molyneux, who produced a game in which a player talks and interacts with a lifelike boy named Milo on the screen.

As the player talked, the device detected her emotions, and Milo's expressions changed. She then drew a picture and gave it to Milo by holding it up to the TV. Almost without pause, he reached up and "took" the paper into his virtual world and reacted to the image she drew.

When she held up the drawing, the device instantly scanned it and the Xbox re-created the image in the character's hand.

"This is true technology that science fiction has not even written about, and this works today, now," said Molyneux, president of Microsoft subsidiary Lionhead Studios.

The device won't be available until at least 2010, and details about the price weren't available, although it probably will be in the range of premium accessories such as "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero" music kits that sell for about $200.

Microsoft's Kim declined to say whether the company also is working with consumer-electronics companies to integrate the technology into their products, such as televisions. Panasonic already is working on its own gesture-recognition system to replace today's remote control and showed the technology at January's Consumer Electronics Show.

Natal was chosen as a code name because it's the hometown in Brazil of a Microsoft developer on the project. A spokesman said it's also Latin for "birth."

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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