E3: Microsoft shows off gesture control technology for Xbox 360


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A video demonstrating how Microsoft’s new technology, ‘Project Natal,’ emphasizes that it’s a whole-body experience. More from the Microsoft press conference. Credit: David Sprague / For The Times

Microsoft kicked off the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles this morning by giving the boot to the iconic video game controller.


Microsoft wants people to start using their full bodies to play video games. The Redmond, Wash., software giant showed off a sensor-based technology that recognizes faces, voices and body joints to affect the movements on screen. In a demo game called Ricochet, players can use their arms, legs, torso and head to block an onslaught of virtual projectiles. Another game called Paint Party lets users splash virtual paint onto an on-screen canvas. Players call out different colors to change the palette.

The effort aims to attract a broader audience to Microsoft’s console. Most of the 30 million Xbox 360s sold since November 2005 have been snapped up by avid young males drawn to complex shooter or adventure games such as Halo and Gears of War.

To lure women and families to its console, Microsoft last year changed the look of its online service, Xbox Live, to make it more approachable. It also added Netflix’s Instant Watch service for movies on demand and is adding high-definition streaming through its Zune video service. Many credit Netflix with the surge in Xbox Live subscribers, to 20 million today from 8 million a year ago. ‘We know there have been people who have bought the Xbox 360 just to be able to watch Netflix movies,’ said Shane Kim, corporate vice president of strategy and business development for the Xbox business.

But playing games is another matter. The company’s trademark green controller features 12 buttons and two joysticks, far too many ...

... for the novice user. ‘The controller is still a barrier,’ Kim said. ‘But once you remove the controller, what do you replace it with? So we came up with a way people can play games by doing what they do naturally -- by moving and talking.’

The technology, which Microsoft code-named ‘Project Natal’ after a city in Brazil, won’t be ready this year, and company officials declined to specify whether it would even be ready by next year. The company said it was shipping more than 1,000 kits to game developers today.

‘This is about building awareness about our technology,’ Don Mattrick, Microsoft’s senior vice president of interactive entertainment, said in an interview. ‘We want to talk about our vision and engage third-party developers.’


Mattrick said Natal combines several technologies developed by Microsoft Research, a division of the company that has worked on so-called natural user interfaces, exploring ways for people to use computers using natural movements or voice commands.

While it’s too soon to tell whether the technology will click with consumers the way Nintendo’s Wii has, independent game publishers are giving it the thumbs up.

Robert Kotick, chief executive of Santa Monica game publisher Activision Blizzard Inc., said, ‘It’s a clever idea.’

-- Alex Pham