LOS ANGELES — The days when video game playing required mastering a complex controller may soon be a thing of the past, if Microsoft has its way.
At the E3 video game conference here, company representatives showed off technology that would allow users to play games, navigate menus and browse movies using their hands and bodies instead of a game controller or remote control. Given the beta name Project Natal, the technology incorporates sensors to detect users’ movements, faces and voices.
“With Project Natal, you can use the best controller ever invented — you,” said Don Mattrick, senior vice president of Microsoft’s Interactive Entertainment Business.
For now, Natal may be little more than a glimpse of the future. Microsoft representatives did not say when Project Natal will be available to consumers but hinted it will hit the market before they release their new console. They also didn’t say what it will cost or what Microsoft plans to call it once it hits the market. The company demonstrated the technology on stage, but did so via hardware mounted in boxes the size of milk crates. These looked nothing like the sleek set-top boxes it showed in a video that seemed to suggest what consumers might eventually see in their homes.
Mattrick said the technology will work with all existing and future Xbox 360 consoles. And Kudo Tsunoda, creative director of the project, said Microsoft was already sending out developer kits for the technology that will allow game programmers to incorporate it into their games.
The unveiling of Project Natal is an indication that Microsoft has finally zeroed in on Nintendo, and not Sony, as its chief competition in the current video game console cycle.
Where Sony and Microsoft have touted the high-definition graphics and multimedia capabilities of their PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, respectively, Nintendo took a different tack. Nintendo’s Wii became the bestselling console this cycle in part because Nintendo focused on making game playing easier and more natural with its motion-sensing controllers. Wii players can pretend to hit a ball with a racket by swinging the Wii remote or can pretend to snowboard while standing on the Wii Fit balance board.
Other companies have started to build on the idea of having gamers interact with games using natural movements and gestures rather than punching buttons. Gamers can play Electronic Arts’ “Rock Band” and Activision’s “Guitar Hero” using simplified musical instruments. And at Microsoft’s press conference, skateboard legend Tony Hawk showed off a new controller in the shape of a skateboard that gamers can use to play the upcoming “Tony Hawk Ride.”
In a parallel evolution of technology, Apple’s iPhone substitutes a touch-sensitive screen for a keypad, and users interact with it using a series of gestures to zoom into Web pages, browse through a picture slide show or scroll through a document. Game developers have also tapped into the device’s built-in accelerometers to allow users to control vehicles by tilting the device in one direction or another.
Project Natal would take these developments a step further by eliminating the controller completely. Instead, users would swipe their hand through the air to scroll through a series of movie titles, punch the air to play a fighting game or pretend to throw something to paint on a big virtual canvas. Users could log into their accounts by simply standing in front of a camera. Or they could start a game or interact with an on-screen character by merely talking.
“This is not about reinventing the wheel. This is about having no wheel at all,” said director Steven Spielberg, who came on stage to promote the new technology.
Spielberg and Hawk were just two members of a small army of celebrities that Microsoft brought on stage at its event. Ex-Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, as well as Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison, the former wives of the late John Lennon and George Harrison, were on hand to tout the upcoming “The Beatles: Rock Band” game from Harmonix. And actress Felicia Day promoted new links to social-networking sites Facebook and Twitter that Microsoft is building into the Xbox 360.
Microsoft officials also unveiled a revamped video store for the Xbox 360. The service will now be called Zune, the name of the company’s slow-selling MP3 players and MP3 store.
In an effort to match Sony’s PlayStation 3, which, unlike the Xbox 360, includes a Blu-ray disc player that plays high-definition movies, the Zune store will now feature videos in 1080p resolution, the same as on Blu-ray. Microsoft will stream the movies to customers so they can watch them “immediately,” or at least without having to wait to fully download them, as they did before.
On the game front, Microsoft officials boasted of luring developers to the platform who previously made games only for its competitors. Most notably, Konami is bringing a new game in its “Metal Gear Solid” franchise to the Xbox 360.