Microsoft previews controller-free games for Xbox 360

Step away from the controller.

Microsoft this week is unveiling a set of video games that don’t require people to navigate their way around a complex controller with more buttons than the cockpit of a Boeing 747.

Following on the massive success of Nintendo’s Wii, Microsoft is introducing a technology, code-named Project Natal, that ditches the controller altogether. Instead, the games will rely on a device the size of a stapler that perches on top of a living room TV to recognize faces, obey voice commands and track body movements. No more mashing 14 different buttons in endless labyrinthine sequences. No more buttons at all, in fact.

Though Microsoft won’t reveal which games will launch with the device until Monday, last month it did show off four “tech demos” to a handful of journalists at its campus here. One can only assume that those games will become part of the package. The lineup is expected to include:

River Rush: What Shaun White would want in real-life river rafting, players instead can indulge in the vicarious thrill on their living room rug. Steering a virtual raft past waterfalls, rocks and other obstacles requires lots of jumping and leaning. The graphics are similar to what you’d find in snowboarding games, with giant visual cues telling players where they can go so they won’t get lost. The mini-game is designed to encourage anyone to jump in and play without having to read a manual.

Ricochet: Prepare to break a sweat. Players use their arms, legs, feet and head to block a frantic barrage of soccer-sized balls. Microsoft showed an early version of this game during last year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo. The latest iteration lets two people play simultaneously. Using facial recognition software, the camera checks who is playing and pulls up their personal avatars on the screen. The feature would, for example, let parents control which games their kids can play. If the console sees that the person playing is associated with a profile with parental controls, it will restrict the types of games that can be played.

Living Statue: One small step for Xbox, one giant leap for Microsoft’s social media strategy. This game lets players record their avatars dancing and singing karaoke-style, then e-mail the video masterpiece to their friends. The company has long nurtured its ambitions for its Xbox Live online game service, which has 23 million active users, to become a virtual watering hole for people who play video games. Living Statue is the latest attempt to encourage its players to check into Xbox Live and make friends.

Obstacle Course: This imaginatively named title is exactly what it suggests. Players pull, dodge and jump their way through a series of levels resembling what you would find at summer camp, sans the mosquitoes.

In addition, there will be about a dozen more Natal-licensed titles from other game developers unveiled Monday and Tuesday, but Microsoft has forbidden the publishers from uttering a word about them until after its own news conference Monday morning.