CES' Burning Xbox Question: Will Natal Not Work With High-End Games?

As the first full day of the Consumer Electronics Show wore on, stories exploring the digital guts of Microsoft's Project Natal gave way to gamer anxiety that the hands-free controller can't work with high-end 360 games.

Reports covered by Kotaku this morning indicated that the Natal would use 10-15 percent of the Xbox 360's "computing resources." Those reports gave way to comments we received from a source familiar with the development of Project Natal who said that the peripheral would actually need to use up to 33 percent, a third, of the 360's CPU.

The source explained to Kotaku that, while Natal wouldn't use the horsepower of a full core of Microsoft's three-core central processor, it would need to use a core on its own in order to reduce latency between human input and what happens on a TV screen. That would leave the CPU's other two cores for the other processes needed to run Natal-compatible Xbox 360 games.

While this would seem to even further curtail the ability for technologically complex big-budget games to work with the Natal — such games would seemingly need as much of the 360's CPU for their non-Natal functions — the source said those fears were a little off. High-end graphics such as those in a richly-rendered racing game such as Forza 3 could still be possible, the source told Kotaku, but compromises might have to be made for "slightly reduced" artificial intelligence, sound or physics.

Microsoft was aware of the brewing gamer anxiety and expressed a desire to explain Natal's full potential in the future.

For today, they focused on shooting down the source's 33 percent figure: "The software behind 'Project Natal' is what makes it special. While we aren't able to share further details at this point, we can assure you that 'Project Natal' does not require a dedicated Xbox 360 CPU core."

At E3, Project Natal was played by several reporters, including me, with several games, including the high-end Burnout Paradise. At the time, Natal was actually a bunch of sensors held in a box, not a streamlined product in its final shell.

Part of today's Natal confusion has been over the rumored elimination of a dedicated processor in the Natal peripheral, first reported on the 4 Guys 1 Up podcast. That elimination seemed even more certain this week due to the slight but specific tweaks made in Microsoft's official Project Natal fact sheet. As noted earlier today on Kotaku, in mid-2009, the fact sheet cited a dedicated processor as a feature of Natal, but today in early 2010, it does not. Most of the rest of the fact sheet's language is unchanged, but the two references to the processor, in two parts of the fact sheet, were removed.

Microsoft director of product management Aaron Greenberg told Kotaku today that "The description of the product at E3 and the description of the product now shouldn't have changed as far as I'm aware." But he and other spokespeople for Xbox 360 declined to directly address whether the processor had been removed.

Greenberg did allow for the possibility that some of the elements of Natal may have changed: "The sensor that we showed and whatever basic details we gave about the sensor were very much in the incubation state [at E3]. These were early mock ups and things as we were describing how this would be done. And now, as we have development kits in developer hands and we've got developers actively working on games, those details are obviously becoming much more firm."

The bottom line as far as Microsoft is concerned, that Natal will still be an innovation. "This product... will see you," Greenberg said. "It will hear you. It will work." But with what kind of games? That remains an unanswered question, one that will come closer to be answered as more technical specifications are revealed and games running on final Natal hardware are shown closer to the device's late 2010 launch.