Microsoft to Kill Off Controllers with Project Natal

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Of the many games (and celebrities) Microsoft wheeled out at this year’s E3 press conference, perhaps the most fascinating actually revolved around a previously leaked announcement: Project Natal. The prototype camera accessory for Xbox allows players to interact with the system using no controller at all – merely gestures in the open air.

In an introductory video, Microsoft showed the system being used to recognize users faces as soon as they walked in front of the TV, battle computerized opponents with kicks and punches, skateboard by jumping around on carpet, skim through a list of movies with a wave of the hand, and even virtually try on different clothes.

Afterwards, the company showed off two live demos. In a 3D brick-breaking game, a woman leapt around in front of the screen to bat and kick virtual balls into a wall of bricks. Traditionally, the downfall of games that use cameras for control has been poor response time and clumsiness. Though the model on the brick-breaker demo seemed to miss a lot of balls, it wasn’t entirely clear whether it was a glitch system or just  a poor player.

In a more creative bent, Microsoft also demonstrated a painting game that allowed the player to splash buckets of paint – which he selected by calling them out by name – over a massive canvas. After sketching out a rough – very rough – landscape, he called in another demonstrator to model in front of the camera for a custom elephant stencil, formed almost like making finger puppets in front of a flashlight.

Fable II creator Peter Molyneux also showed up to give his own take on Natal, which Lionhead Studios has had a chance to experiment with for months. Molyneux demonstrated an experimental game that allowed a woman to interact naturally with a life-like boy: talking to him, “catching” a pair of goggles from him, and even making a drawing on paper that the camera was able to scan and import when she held it up to show him.

According to Molyneux, the Lionhead demo with Natal will be on display for select audiences during the show, hopefully giving us a chance to see whether it’s really the next generation of console interaction, or a carefully groomed demo with a lot of kinks to be sorted out.