The Empire Strikes Back: Project Natal

Wouldn’t you know, just a day after someone had the temerity to proclaim Google as the new King of Software, the Redmond Empire Strikes Back with what appears to be a most impressive announcement in gaming hardware and softwareMicrosoft’s Project Natal is a hands free game controller (does this help explain all those gaming-themed ads for Visual Studio and SQL Server appearing lately?) which sits on top of a TV or Home Entertainment center and allows game playing in the manner of Nintendo Wii. But Natal requires no attachments, detects sound and full body motion, and even understands speech. It also has a scanner so objects, toys, games can be scanned and added to the experience.

At the E3 game conference this week Microsoft has been able to display working prototypes of two games Richochet (a super BrickBreaking game) and Splatter(a paint splattering game that can scan in people and objects for “painting”). So the technology is real  and appears genuinely fun and very entertaining.

The questions will arise on the cost of the technology (both hardware and software), its practicability (just how finely and accurately  can you control on-screen events, and the open question on the exact timeline to introduction on gaming markets. Do expect a lot of coverage especially from the Engadget set.
But like Google Wave, Project Natal is certainly Alpha-state software+hardware and Microsoft does not see any release to the market during 2009.

Don’t Discount Gaming

Now some parties may be harumphing, saying game controller hardware and software, even though highly novel, is hardly worth the time of day. Be careful. First Project Natal could allow Microsoft to get entrance to a place it really wants to be – on the TV set-top(especially given that is where the Internet and PC are going too). Second, it will certainly charge up the Xbox franchise, only the scale of the boost depending on pricing, availability, features, etc (but this party can see some nouveau Jackson Pollacks plunking down their bucks for Splatter, ASAP – see the video above). Finally, some of the biggest advances in CPU+disk hardware, software and especially display technology have been feature-and-price driven by games and gaming. So ignore this at your peril.

Microsoft probably has ceded the top rank in software development (its anti-OpenSource and proprietary bent so that “everything must run best in Windows” certainly does not help); but to call the biggest software money machine down for the count would be equal folly.