Would Natal Enable User-Generated Mo-Cap?

Illustration for article titled Would Natal Enable User-Generated Mo-Cap?

Let's start the week with a million-dollar-idea, courtesy of Kotaku, offered for free.

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An idea's been rattling in my head I'd like to share (reader warning: I'm home sick today). It's an idea for the Xbox 360's controller-free control system, Project Natal, for which I've been able to get no official comment.

Perhaps folks don't like my idea. Or perhaps they are silenced by its greatness.

So here it is: user-generated motion-capture. Create your own victory animations for characters in Fight Night or Halo or Madden using Natal's ability to read the movements of your body.

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Earlier this month, at E3, I tried Microsoft's Project Natal and saw how it read my controller-less body's movements with its camera and sensors. I waved my arms or pretended to steer a steering wheel. Stuff happened on screen. To help me understand what was happening, I was shown a monitor that displayed what Natal "saw": my body, simplified as a stick figure, with joints matched to my major joints: elbows, shoulders, hips, etc. Natal was identifying my body frame and interpreting its movement, mapping it to the movements of a car in Burnout Paradise or a translucent dodgeball player in the mutant-gym-class demo Ricochet.

As days and weeks passed, I heard from developers both excited and skeptical about Natal. In those conversations, the user-generated motion-capture idea emerged. If Natal could read the movements of my skeleton, then surely it could map those movements onto the skeleton of a human character in a video game?

Forget merely taking a picture of one's face to create a Fight Night fighter who looks just like you. Instead, stand in front of Natal and act out the pose you want your fighter to strike when he's introduced by the ring announcer. Customize your wide receiver's touchdown celebration in Madden. Then have it mapped to the player to perform every time he makes a big play. Tired of seeing people trigger their teabag animation in Halo 3 multiplayer? Create your own per-kill victory animation that you first puppeteered from your living room and map it to the d-pad (obviously this is where the idea gets ESRB-sensitive).

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There are technical problems with this idea. User animations might not sync with a game's collision rules, making that custom boxer pose in Fight Night a nightmare of fighter's arms going through nearby trainers and managers' torsos. There is the problem of inappropriate animations.

And there's the problem of having no idea if Natal could do this.

Microsoft doesn't want to talk more about Natal until closer to consumer launch, a rep told me when I asked about the following notion a couple of weeks ago. EA Sports, an outfit I thought would be good to address this, hasn't had anyone available to talk as of last week. Motion capture experts I called late last week have not called me back.

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One developer I spoke to who is familiar with Natal thought the idea was do-able, but what do I know about what he knows?

Back at E3, when I was bedazzled by the head-tracking Natal enabled in Peter Molyneux's virtual-boy Milo demo, I suggested to a developer of shooter games that such head-tracking would work well in his games. Players could lean in their chairs to look around corners in a game. Good stuff, right? He said you'd not want a feature like that, that it would alienate those who didn't have Natal. If it was going to be an essential mechanic, you'd only want to put head-tracking in games made just for that peripheral. So what kind of Natal-enabled features wouldn't curtail the ability of non-Natal owners to enjoy a game? How about user-generated motion-capture?

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Bear in mind, this could just be the fever thinking.

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DISCUSSION

Head tracking can be used for a lot more than just looking around corners. It could be added to a game, almost as an afterthought, to allow Natal players to experience a more 3D environment where as their head moves, so, too, does the perspective, even if ever slightly - Enabling things like more realistic depth perception against a traditionally-2D viewing plane.

Johnny Lee's Wii-mote projects put forth more precedent (and examples) for that, and really, I'd love to see something similar for Natal-enabled (but not Natal-required) games. The extra immersion, added with the extra depth perception, would allow for a much more realistic and engaging gameplay experience than the largest plasma or LCD display on even an SD CRT.

Other things that it would offer would be gestures. Enable Natal support, and make a motion with your arm to throw a grenade, or shift gears up or down, or select a certain unit type or cast a certain spell. Move a different way to reload, or hit the handbrake, or use a special item, without taking your thumbs off your sticks.

And that's just something that can be tacked on to an existing game, or a traditional controller-based game. Natal is a technology that has a lot of potential - It just depends on how Microsoft decides to deploy and support it, and how creative developers are willing to be with it.