Every gamer’s ultimate fantasy is to be immersed in the world of the game the way the characters in the Star Trek films experienced the holodeck. While there’s still a few years and a few technical breakthroughs between us and holographic images with whom we can have all-too-real battles, Microsoft has advanced the state of the art to the point where you are now the controller. At the E3 Expo last June, Microsoft unveiled an Xbox peripheral called Project Natal.
Natal contains a suite of sensors that track your every move, recognize your face (and figure out whether you’re wearing a smile or frown), and respond to your commands in natural language. The box, about the size of a home video projector, contains a camera that captures your image. Proprietary software converts the image to a constellation of points in a three-dimensional matrix that provides a relief map of the surface of your body. The software then interprets the ”point cloud,” adding color and texture that makes the image presented on screen truly you.
”The 3-D sensor is similar to very expensive laser range-finding systems, but at a tiny fraction of the cost,” says Johnny Chung Lee, a researcher in the Applied Sciences Group at Microsoft who worked on the project. Lee notes that one benefit of using this technique is that the sensor’s accuracy remains basically the same under varied lighting conditions. During the demo, Microsoft’s guest presenter showed the extent of Natal’s face-recognition capability. Users will no longer have to sign into their Xbox Live accounts because the device will automatically recognize players when they walk into the room. ”I blogged a few times about the rumors on Microsoft’s motion-sensing controller,” noted Spectrum contributing Editor David Kushner a week after the E3 Expo. ”But the reality was a true blow-away,” he says. ”At the end [of the demo], I talked with another jaded writer about it, and all we could say was ”Wow.”
Microsoft has not set a release date for Natal, but it was in the hands of third-party developers by last summer, so the device should be forthcoming, as well as compatible games and other software. But it’s still an open question as to whether the software running this extremely complex sensor array works as seamlessly in your family room as it does in front of a roomful of technology journalists.
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