EyePet Vs. Milo: The Unlikely New Console MascotsS

Here's a YouTube comment on PlayStation 3 EyePet that caught my eye last week: "Both are useless this and milo both stupid." Hints of a 21st century version of Sonic Vs. Mario, starring a Microsoft boy and a Sony pet?

I was charmed by my brief interaction last week with Sony's PS3 camera-enabled EyePet. The fall-scheduled game/pet-simulator displays a video feed of the real world that's in front of your TV, but with a furry pet scampering through the world.

I left my demo of EyePet impressed. But it wasn't until I read the comments to the posts we ran — and those that appeared below the videos I hosted of the game on YouTube — that I realized that gamers would see EyePet as some sort of Sonic The Hedgehog smack back at the Mario that is Peter Molyneux's (pun intended) pet project at Microsoft's Lionhead Studios: Milo & Kate.

That's when I realized we may have come upon the Mario and Sonic for this generation.

More than a decade ago, Nintendo and Sega waged a console war with Mario and Sonic as the figures around which fans rallied. Neither was an expression of what a Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis was technologically capable of. But they served as shorthand for their companies and their fans. Mario embodied a certain all-ages joyfulness and quality of game. Sonic represented attitude and a verve that his company would want you to think Nintendo didn't have.

The EyePet and Milo might prove to be better representations of what their host systems and corporate backers are capable of concocting. Better than Mario and Sonic ever were. So they're worth watching. They're worth debating. And the success of one or the other may yet prove whether it is Sony or Microsoft that has the better ability to harness horsepower, gadgetry and developer ingenuity.

"Natal is cool,pet is cool.Plus Natal and Pets these is very cool.But natal needed new xbox 360 idont like these part" — YouTube Commenter

The Xbox 360's still-unscheduled Milo & Kate was demoed behind closed doors at E3. It is a long-incubated project that was recently channeled into the pipeline of projects being developed for Microsoft's controller-free interface, Project Natal. On a big TV, it rendered a virtual boy whose lifelike look was amplified by his uncanny ability to react to facial expressions, vocal tones and even the movement of my head. (Video of Molyneux showing it in action.)

I think I'm one of the only people to play EyePet and the Xbox 360 Milo demo and it hadn't crossed my mind to compare the two until I started reading feedback to our coverage. They are both ambitious and clever projects, primed with potential greatness yet still capable of tripping toward disappointment. But they're so different.

People are drawing comparisons because EyePet and Milo are both camera-supported convergences of software and video game hardware designed to simulate a lifelike being — and to do so with the minimal involvement of a game controller. EyePet does it with an already-released camera, the PlayStation Eye. Milo does it with Microsoft's Project Natal, an elaborate mechanism that has no price, no release date but is intended to work with the current Xbox 360. They are both demonstrations of what ambitious creators can wring out of video game technology.

"it made by studio london so there. wow, better than milo and natal, see there technology is way ahead of urs. plus i might get this, still hate casual games though. sony rules the gaming division." — YouTube Commenter

I see the rush among fans to declare which is superior. Let me first explain, from my play time with both, how they differ.

I experienced the Milo demo in early June. It seemed to be a natural product of game designer Peter Molyneux's long-standing ambition to make an interactive technology seem intelligent. The man has spent his career creating simulation-based games or adding simulations to games as disparate as the adventures of a medieval hero or a Hollywood mogul. Somehow, some way, those passions converged to the intent of making a game about an unreal boy who would seem real.

Molyneux prefaced my experience with Milo, as detailed in my June write-up, as one filled with tricks. And it felt like a trick. A trick to believe in. Obviously Milo was no more alive than the lady who stands on a magician's stage is cut in two. But Milo got off his swing and walked up to me as if to notice me and convince me he was there. He talked to me. He waited on my words. He commented on the color of my shirt.

The magic of the best parts of the Milo demo was that it felt as if he reached out to me.

The magic of the EyePet last week was my feeling that I could reach out to it.

I know less about the background of the development of the EyePet, but I'm familiar with the progression of the games made with Sony's cameras, the EyeToy on PlayStation 2 and now the PlayStation Eye. These games have long exhibited a Wii-like inclusiveness in their control schemes. Back when conventional controllers were just about the only option for console gaming, EyeToy provided players simple mini-games they could control with waves of their hands. PlayStation camera games seemed like efforts to find new ways for players to touch games.

Years ago, I interviewed Sony's chief developer behind the company's PlayStation cameras, Richard Marks. It was clear from our conversation that he was interested in augmented reality, the kind of camera tricks that can make virtual items and beings appear to be in the real world when seen through the viewfinder of a video screen attached to a camera. He told me about a PSP camera application that, based on what you'd see on you PSP screen, would make it seem like there were little men standing on your coffee table. Later, PS3 gamers got Eye of Judgment, which used that system's add-on camera to put little monsters on a playing mat. EyePet felt like the next step of that, with the novelty that the creature seemed almost touchable. It lept and ran across a coffee table in reaction to my hand movements.

Milo seems like a grander idea. It's trying to simulate a human being, after all. And it is not nearly as far along as EyePet. Sony's software is attempting to render as if alive a creature that doesn't exist, a make-believe animal for which we have no real-world expectations. That's a lower bar, but still a high one.

Milo could see the color of my shirt but might seem like a slow-witted boy if, by the time he's released, he can't understand the tone of my voice.

EyePet can hop over my hand and sit for a good brushing, but I don't know if he'll ever express any care about me. As with a dog or even a cat, I think affection for him will be more of a one-way street.

"haha this is basicly what natal will do, but the eyetoy allready does it" — YouTube Commenter

So which is more impressive? It depends on what you're looking for, of course.

The YouTube debate — and comments here on Kotaku — got hung up on whether EyePet was proving that the PlayStation Eye could already do what Project Natal will do. From what I felt of both, that's not the case, simply because EyePet doesn't ask for as much from the system's camera or from the gamer.

EyePet wasn't looking for much input from my face and body. It was programmed to mostly react to the placement of a card that comes packaged with the game and serves as a base for a lot of the rendered gadgets the EyePet animal can play with. Waving this card in front of the PlayStation Eye or setting it on the table can turn it into an X-ray scanner, trampoline or other items. Simple waves of the hand can then interact with those items or the pet.

My interactions with the Xbox 360's Milo felt more complex. Milo was reacting to colors, vocal tones, head movements and more. I believe the PlayStation Eye can sense much of that, but EyePet is not the proof of that. Perhaps some other software will be.

One of these beings, the fake animal or the fake boy, could be a magical breakthrough for the company backing it. They could set a new standard. And one could trump the other. Except for misanthropes, I think we'd all be impressed if the fake boy feels real, moreso than we would the fake animal.

Still, these are two potential mascots worth watching. And, yes, these are too mascots eventually worth comparing.

I just don't think it's time to draw conclusions. Not yet.