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Project Natal from Microsoft promises to give the thumb the boot

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The company unveils the new technology at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, in Los Angeles. Natal will allow gamers to control the action using full body movement.

June 02, 2009|Alex Pham and Ben Fritz

Video game players with less-than-dexterous thumbs will soon stand a fighting chance, with Microsoft Corp. on Monday promising a new method for controlling the action with full body movements.

The Redmond, Wash., software giant unveiled a technology for its Xbox 360 video game console that, as early as next year, could let people toss aside the baffling 12-button controller. Instead, the system's camera and sound sensors detect movement of faces and body joints as well as voice commands.

Microsoft showed off the feature, an answer to the Nintendo Wii's motion-sensing remote and pressure-sensing balance board, at a news conference that kicked off the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, this week in Los Angeles.

The announcement of the system, which Microsoft is calling Project Natal for now, was part of a bid to expand beyond the Xbox 360 platform's core audience of young male gamers. To give more mainstream users something to play with before Natal arrives in stores, Microsoft said it would add ways for players to connect with Facebook, Twitter and other social networks via the Xbox this fall.

"We want Xbox to be the next-generation social and entertainment network," said Shane Kim, corporate vice president of strategy and business development for interactive entertainment.

In recent years, Microsoft has added family-friendly features, including easy-to-play, arcade-style games and the ability to watch movies or TV shows on-demand via its Xbox Live online store.

Last year, Microsoft made a deal with Netflix to stream from a catalog of 12,000 videos, a move that helped propel the number of Xbox Live subscribers to 20 million this year, from 8 million last year. Microsoft will soon add high-definition streaming.

But Microsoft said it isn't ignoring the group responsible for the platform's success -- men aged 18 to 34, who queue up at stores to snap up each new release of Halo, a science fiction-based shooter series.

At the expo, the company showed off a lineup of big-budget action-adventure games including Left 4 Dead 2, a survival horror game developed by Valve Corp.; Alan Wake, an action thriller by Remedy Entertainment; and Halo Reach, published by Microsoft.

The Xbox also scored the next game in the popular Metal Gear Solid franchise, which historically has been exclusive to Sony Corp.'s PlayStation consoles but will now be on both platforms.

Instead of spending billions of dollars to release a new console, Microsoft is integrating Natal into its current Xbox 360 with the aim of keeping the 4-year-old console on store shelves for another six years or more.

"We can lead a whole new era of interactive entertainment without having to launch a whole new console," said Don Mattrick, Microsoft's senior vice president of interactive entertainment.

Independent analyst Billy Pidgeon said the decision makes financial sense for consumers too. "With the economy the way it is now, you don't want to be buying another $500 machine," he said.

Microsoft wouldn't say how much the camera and other sensors packaged with Natal would cost.

In a demo game called Ricochet, players can use their arms, legs, torso and head to block an onslaught of virtual projectiles. Another game called Paint Party lets users splash virtual paint onto an on-screen canvas. Players call out different colors to change the palette.

In another prototype, a player can talk to a virtual character who picks up on the player's facial movements to detect emotion and converse based on what was said, as well as what may have been implied. The technology can also potentially recognize objects, such as a piece of paper, read what's on the paper and integrate the content into the game.

Film director Steven Spielberg, a game enthusiast who made an appearance at the news conference, said that after he tried the technology, "The gamer in me went out of my mind."

Microsoft said it was shipping more than 1,000 development kits to third-party game developers to begin making games using the sensor kits.

In the meantime, the field is dominated by Nintendo Co.'s Wii console. Nintendo is holding its press news conference today, as is Sony, which is expected to debut a motion-sensing controller for its PlayStation 3 console.

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alex.pham@latimes.com

ben.fritz@latimes.com

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