At their E3 press conference, Microsoft unveiled a new way to play games: a motion-sensitive camera controller they’re currently (but hopefully not permanently) calling “Natal.” Taking motion-sensitivity to a new level, we were certainly intrigued by the possibilities when we had a chance to test it out at a Microsoft event later that night.
“Natal” works kind of like the PlayStation’s EyeToy camera, in that it senses your motion, basically turning you into a big controller. But unlike the EyeToy, which put your image (rather badly) onto the screen, where you’d interact with bubbles or ninjas or whatever, “Natal” can transfer your motion to an on-screen avatar. Or it can transfer it to nothing (as we’ll discuss in a moment). Microsoft have also said that it will feature voice- and facial-recognition, and will be a simple way of navigating the dashboard’s menus, since you can just wave your hands to shift between, say, the movies on your Netflix queue, kind of like how you can use your finger to flip through the albums on your iPod Touch or iPhone.
For our demo, though, we got to test it out on a real game. Microsoft put a copy of Burnout Paradise into a regular Xbox 360, connected a “Natal” unit — which looks like a longer version of an EyeToy or the Microsoft camera, just with more lenses — and after tweaking things a little, made Burnout Paradise a racing game that didn’t need a controller.
Instead, I stood in front of the TV and the “Natal,” and held my hands at 10 and 2 like I was holding an invisible steering wheel. I then stepped my right leg forward and away I went. Okay, away I went into a wall, and then another wall, and then a parked car, but after playing with it for a few minutes, I was able to steer in and out of traffic like I would with a regular controller. I could even brake by moving my right leg back (insert your own hokey pokey joke here), and could activate the boost by jerking my right arm back much the way you would if you were shifting in a car with manual transmission.
Admittedly, you won’t be able to do this right out of the box with any ol’ game. The game will have to be made for this controller. Or will have to be patched, since a game’s developer could, very easily, adapt their original controls to work with the “Natal.”
If there is one complaint about “Natal” that we can make from our brief time with it, it’s that, like the Wii and the EyeToy, it seems like it’s going to get kind of exhausting after a while. Even just holding my arms up like I was steering got tiring after only a few minutes, though that could just be because I’m so old and out of shape that I perpetually feel like Danny Glover in a Lethal Weapon movie: I’m getting too old for this, well, you know.
I also kind of felt that steering might’ve felt more car-like had I been holding something circular, like a plate. But that would defeat the purpose of this hands-off controller.
Ultimately, like any controller, the “Natal” will only be as good as the game you play with it. What those might be, we don’t know yet, but we’re certainly curious to see what Microsoft and other developers do with this thing, whatever they call it.