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Microsoft uncloaks invisible XBox controller

'Project Natal' flails into existence

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Microsoft has revealed a motion-sensing gadget for the Xbox 360 that uses the player's full body to control video games.

Dubbed "Project Natal," the new accessory is a horizontal bar placed near the console that allows players to control their games and Xbox media without touching hardware.

Rather than rely on a wand to detect motion like the ubiquitous Nintendo Wii, the device uses a 3-D depth camera and microphones to recognize players' voices and movements for controlling what's on screen. (Think a much more sophisticated Sony Eye Toy).

Don Mattrick, head of Microsoft's game business, took the stage this morning to unveil the device at the company's E3 press conference in Los Angeles. The device was pitched as a way to lure non-traditional video game customers that may be too intimidated to wield the Xbox 360's usual button-and-joystick-laden controller.

"Before, there was a barrier separating video game players from everyone else," Mattrick said.

'Natal' demos were rolled onto stage beginning with (somewhat flakey) limb-by-limb controls of a Xbox 360 avatar. As 'Natal' project leader Kudo Tsunoda moved his arms and feet around in front of the motion-sensing device, his on-screen avatar moved in kind (fairly well).

Next was a 3-D Breakout tech demo called Ricochet. Demo gal "Abby" flailed about maniacally in front of a television to make her avatar rebound balls back toward a set of bricks.

Things got a bit more interesting for the demo, Paint Party, where Mattrick used body motions to slop virtual paint onto an on-screen canvas. The paint palette was changed by simply calling out a new color.

Microsoft also noted that Natal can recognize a player's face and automatically log them into their Xbox profile. In addition, the console's menus can be navigated by hand gestures a la The Minority Report.

Serially inventive game maker Peter Molyneux showed off a fascinating 'Natal' tech demo involving a (real life) woman interacting with a virtual 12-year-old boy. The e-kid was (apparently) able to hold a realistic conversation with the woman using the device, which included swapping sketches and the boy sheepishly admitting he hadn't completed his homework. This was all a video, of course, so unless Molyneux invented true AI, we suspect what was shown was in fact heavily scripted.

Microsoft said its shipping game design tools for Project Natal "today," so don't expect it until late 2010.

Other highlights of the Microsoft E3 show include Xbox Live adding Facebook and Twitter connectivity as well as streaming music from Last.fm. Redmond also announced UK residents will be able to access movies and TV shows through a partnership with Sky TV.

For the US, Live members can now watch streaming TV and movies in full 1080p high definition. ®

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