On a blustery January morning, Michel Laprise found himself in a private conference room within Microsoft Corp.'s labyrinthine campus here, surrounded by 15 of the company's sharpest analytical thinkers.
Laprise started his presentation by dumping a pail full of sand on top the conference table, alarming executives who worried about the wiring embedded in the table for PowerPoint presentations and technology demos. Armed with three rocks, a small wooden elephant and a flashlight, he spent an hour weaving a tale of a boy on a quest to locate meteors that have fallen from the sky and to uncover their meaning.
At the end of his talk, the artistic director for Cirque du Soleil got a standing ovation.
"It was amazing," said an awestruck Don Mattrick, the 46-year-old executive who heads up the juggernaut's multibillion-dollar video game business. Mattrick had invited Laprise to help Microsoft figure out an unconventional way to launch a new technology that would let people play games without the use of joysticks or controllers. "He used the power of words to share what he saw in his imagination. He was a great raconteur."
Code-named Project Natal, the technology consists of three small motorized sensors — a camera, infrared depth sensor and a multi-array microphone. Attached to Microsoft's Xbox 360 game console, the device interprets gestures, such as when players swing their arms to hit a golf ball, lean to steer their way through an obstacle course or swivel their hips through a dance routine. It can also recognize faces and associate them with their profiles.
For the last 35 years, Microsoft has strived to push technology into every corner of the world. Its Windows operating system powers 90% of all computers, and its software can be found on devices that sit in people's pockets, purses, cars and living rooms. Yet in an ironic twist, the company's next big feat required Microsoft to make its high-tech wizardry invisible.
So it hired one of the best illusionists out there — Cirque du Soleil, the French Canadian entertainment company known for its visually arresting extravaganzas and ethereal, new age music. In addition to the 21 permanent and traveling shows, Cirque has a special events business that does a handful of private and corporate events each year (past clients have been the royal family of Dubai and the 2007 Super Bowl).
In the conference room, Laprise pitched a story that became the basis for a show set to be performed just twice — this Sunday and Monday night at USC's Galen Center sports arena as the prologue for the $45-billion industry's big Electronic Entertainment Expo. Outside of a hiatus in 2007 and 2008 when the convention toned down considerably, the 16-year-old gathering has itself evolved into an over-the-top spectacle staged each year in downtown Los Angeles by game publishers to showcase their lineup for the upcoming year.
The Cirque event is easily one of the most lavish and costly ever in the 16-year history of E3, which places a premium on showmanship. Previous years have seen performances by the Who, Eminem and Jay-Z, as well as guest appearances by such megastars as Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono and Steven Spielberg. As word leaked out of Cirque's involvement, speculation has soared about just what spectacle is in store Sunday night.
For Microsoft, Natal is critical to the future of its ambition to be at the center of entertainment in the living room. And like a besotted suitor who spared no expense, Microsoft gave Cirque free rein over both the creative aspects of the performance and its budget. "This is a massive investment for Microsoft," said Aaron Greenberg, Microsoft's executive producer for the company's E3 events. "For us, it wasn't about the money. It was about creating an experience that would be remembered forever."
A cast of 80 performers supported by a crew of more than 100 designers, set builders, engineers and seamstresses meant the performances soaked up as much resources as any of Cirque's permanent shows. The company drove from its Montreal studios 25 semi-trailer trucks packed with equipment, costumes and props — nearly all handmade for Microsoft's event.
On a Sunday afternoon a week before the first performance, the hubbub of activity resembled a three-ring circus at the Galen Center, which Microsoft had booked for three solid weeks.
The troupe had converted the basketball court into a full-blown workshop for four designers wielding glue guns, irons and sewing machines to put finishing touches on 100 costumes. One of them, Marianne Theriault, estimated that the headpiece she was assembling, a sequined cap with branches and leaves that fanned out like fireworks, would take three hours to complete.
Backstage, two crew members tinkered with a 9-foot-tall puppet elephant that had just arrived that morning. It had been built by Michael Curry, the artist who created the puppets for "The Lion King" theater production.
And in the main arena, a small army of set builders were busy gluing carpet on the floor of a 50,000-pound rectangular steel structure the height of a six-story building. Others were busy transforming the giant space into an otherworldly set for an expected audience of 3,000 celebrities, media and hand chosen "influencers." Hung around the sides of the arena and on the ceiling stretched 400 linear feet of projection screens — so much that the company exhausted the supply in North America and had to fly additional screens in from Europe.
The 45-minute performance, to be preceded by an hour's worth of atmospherics, is cloaked in secrecy. Security guards were posted at doorways throughout the building with strict instructions to check for badges assigned to individual cast and crew members. Microsoft requested that visitors refrain from taking photos that showed game footage displayed on a monitor. Even the color scheme for the show was a verboten topic.
Laprise, citing the need to surprise his audience as well as airtight confidentiality agreements with Microsoft, would only speak broadly about the show's themes.
"It's a story about humanity, about a quest and about overcoming obstacles," he said. "In history, there have been discoveries that have made us leap forward as a civilization. But those technologies demanded that we master their language, the language of machines. This time, it's the machine that's adapting. The human is at the center, doing what comes naturally. Moving, jumping, talking. And it's up to the machine to interpret what that means."
For Microsoft, the stakes are enormous. Natal is expected to be one of the company's biggest product launches this year. The project in some ways aggregates years of research the company has conducted to explore different ways people can interact with technology besides keyboards and buttons.
In this incarnation, Natal is applied to video games. Designed to perch on top of a living room TV and attach to Microsoft's Xbox 360 game console, the device can recognize faces, obey simple voice commands and track body movements and gestures.
It has been compared with Nintendo Co.'s Wii, which rocked the video game world in 2006 with its motion-sensing Wii remote. Natal is Microsoft's attempt to one-up Nintendo, which as sold an estimated 74 million Wii consoles, compared with 43 million Xbox 360s. While the Wii has gained traction with a broad demographic ranging from toddlers to seniors, the Xbox 360 is perceived as a "hard-core" game machine for adrenaline junkies looking for elaborate ways to blow things up.
"Microsoft is deadly serious about expanding their reach with Natal," said Michael Pachter, analyst with Wedbush Morgan Securities in Los Angeles. "But people buy consoles based on the software, and right now, we just don't know what games are actually going to be on there. Once we get a chance to see those games, then we can better evaluate things."
Another challenge: Getting the attention of consumers who don't normally play video games, much less the shoot-em-up's that the Xbox 360 is known for.
Neither Cirque nor Microsoft would divulge the performances' overall cost. But Microsoft's Greenberg compared the efforts to promote its Natal project to the launch of its Xbox game console in 2001, and its successor in 2005, the Xbox 360, whose marketing budgets ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
"It's like Microsoft is throwing the ultimate surprise birthday party," said Geoff Keighley, executive in charge of publisher relations for Viacom Inc.'s MTV Networks, which has agreed to air a 30-minute version of Cirque's performance Tuesday afternoon. On Tuesday night, Viacom's Nick at Nite channel will re-un the segment, titled "The World Premiere of Project Natal" and directed by David Mallet, whose credits include concert videos by Janet Jackson, Tina Turner, U2 and Phil Collins.
The network is betting that the Cirque name will draw in a broad range of viewers, Keighley said, not just game geeks. "It's geared to families and people like my parents," Keighley said. "Normally, no one in those demographics pay attention to E3. But will that translate to sales for Microsoft? The jury is out on that."