Earlier this week Microsoft let me try Project Natal in a hotel suite where test-versions of the new gaming sensor array was set up. Three times, I thought I found a flaw in the systems.
I thought the system, as impressive as it was in letting me play kickball with virtual balls on a TV and no controllers on my body, might not be able to handle multi-player gaming.
Wrong, the project's director, Kudo Tsunoda told me. He had me look at a special display set up as part of the ball-ricocheting demo. What I saw proved how clearly Natal was easily reading both my body and his as we both stood in front of the sensors. We appeared on screen as simplified, mutli-jointed stick figure skeletons within silhouettes of our bodies. It clearly saw us as separate people. There would be no problem, he said, for the system to support a game that let us play at the same time and track our movements separately.
I thought Project Natal might be good for reading big body movements but not for finer finger movements.
Theoretically, I got that wrong too, Tsunoda told me, though he didn't have a way to prove it to me there. The stick-figure skeletons that Natal recognize us as did not have fingers. Each one had a short stick for each hand. I saw no fingers, so I assumed it could not see my fingers. There seemed to be no way for Natal to know, say, how many fingers I was holding up. If it could, then it could maybe read hand signs issued to squadmates in military first-person shooters. I questioned Natal's ability to detect those finer movements. Tsunoda said that such detection was possible, though the sensitivity would be different at different distances. He thought my fingers idea was do-able.
I thought that the Natal could be fooled to let me drive Burnout Paradise one-handed.
Wrong, for sure. Microsoft had EA's Burnout Paradise programed to work with Natal. As I stood in front of the sensors, I moved my right foot forward to accelerate, and moved it back to decelerate and reverse. I held my hands in front of me, pretending to turn a steering wheel. The Natal had registered me in under a second and was letting me control Burnout smoothly. I saw, in another monitor, how it read my stick-figure skeleton. I guessed that it was reading my hands as a single unit moving in space and that it wouldn't be programmed to know or care if I put one hand behind my back. It did. When I put my hand behind my back and just waved one hand in front of the TV, the Burnout car failed to steer. The Natal needed to see two hands. Maybe it's cooler to drive one-handed, but Natal not letting me do it was impressive in its own way.
I thought Natal had to be used in bright light.
Wrong? The demos I played of Natal were set up in dimly-lit hotel rooms, except for Peter Molyneux's Milo demo which was set in a bright room. Tsunoda said lighting was a non-issue for Natal. Maybe so, maybe not. But if it works in a dim room, that's not bad.
With Project Natal not due for release at least until next year, we'll all have plenty of time to question every aspect of Natal. The strong showing the system had in its first week in public suggests that it may withstand the skepticism. So far, it's fun. And it works.