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Microsoft uses Cirque du Soleil to introduce top-secret video game technology

Code-named Project Natal, Microsoft's attempt to one-up Nintendo's Wii will be launched at a mammoth Galen Center spectacle Sunday.

June 13, 2010|By Alex Pham, Los Angeles Times
  • Dancers rehearse for Cirque du Soleil's Galen Center event.
Dancers rehearse for Cirque du Soleil's Galen Center event. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Redmond, Wash — .—

On a blustery January morning, Michel Laprise found himself in a private conference room within Microsoft Corp.'s labyrinthine campus here, surrounded by 15 of the company's sharpest analytical thinkers.

Laprise started his presentation by dumping a pail full of sand on top the conference table, alarming executives who worried about the wiring embedded in the table for PowerPoint presentations and technology demos. Armed with three rocks, a small wooden elephant and a flashlight, he spent an hour weaving a tale of a boy on a quest to locate meteors that have fallen from the sky and to uncover their meaning.

At the end of his talk, the artistic director for Cirque du Soleil got a standing ovation.

"It was amazing," said an awestruck Don Mattrick, the 46-year-old executive who heads up the juggernaut's multibillion-dollar video game business. Mattrick had invited Laprise to help Microsoft figure out an unconventional way to launch a new technology that would let people play games without the use of joysticks or controllers. "He used the power of words to share what he saw in his imagination. He was a great raconteur."

Code-named Project Natal, the technology consists of three small motorized sensors — a camera, infrared depth sensor and a multi-array microphone. Attached to Microsoft's Xbox 360 game console, the device interprets gestures, such as when players swing their arms to hit a golf ball, lean to steer their way through an obstacle course or swivel their hips through a dance routine. It can also recognize faces and associate them with their profiles.

For the last 35 years, Microsoft has strived to push technology into every corner of the world. Its Windows operating system powers 90% of all computers, and its software can be found on devices that sit in people's pockets, purses, cars and living rooms. Yet in an ironic twist, the company's next big feat required Microsoft to make its high-tech wizardry invisible.

So it hired one of the best illusionists out there — Cirque du Soleil, the French Canadian entertainment company known for its visually arresting extravaganzas and ethereal, new age music. In addition to the 21 permanent and traveling shows, Cirque has a special events business that does a handful of private and corporate events each year (past clients have been the royal family of Dubai and the 2007 Super Bowl).

In the conference room, Laprise pitched a story that became the basis for a show set to be performed just twice — this Sunday and Monday night at USC's Galen Center sports arena as the prologue for the $45-billion industry's big Electronic Entertainment Expo. Outside of a hiatus in 2007 and 2008 when the convention toned down considerably, the 16-year-old gathering has itself evolved into an over-the-top spectacle staged each year in downtown Los Angeles by game publishers to showcase their lineup for the upcoming year.

The Cirque event is easily one of the most lavish and costly ever in the 16-year history of E3, which places a premium on showmanship. Previous years have seen performances by the Who, Eminem and Jay-Z, as well as guest appearances by such megastars as Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono and Steven Spielberg. As word leaked out of Cirque's involvement, speculation has soared about just what spectacle is in store Sunday night.

For Microsoft, Natal is critical to the future of its ambition to be at the center of entertainment in the living room. And like a besotted suitor who spared no expense, Microsoft gave Cirque free rein over both the creative aspects of the performance and its budget. "This is a massive investment for Microsoft," said Aaron Greenberg, Microsoft's executive producer for the company's E3 events. "For us, it wasn't about the money. It was about creating an experience that would be remembered forever."

A cast of 80 performers supported by a crew of more than 100 designers, set builders, engineers and seamstresses meant the performances soaked up as much resources as any of Cirque's permanent shows. The company drove from its Montreal studios 25 semi-trailer trucks packed with equipment, costumes and props — nearly all handmade for Microsoft's event.

Top-secret project

On a Sunday afternoon a week before the first performance, the hubbub of activity resembled a three-ring circus at the Galen Center, which Microsoft had booked for three solid weeks.

The troupe had converted the basketball court into a full-blown workshop for four designers wielding glue guns, irons and sewing machines to put finishing touches on 100 costumes. One of them, Marianne Theriault, estimated that the headpiece she was assembling, a sequined cap with branches and leaves that fanned out like fireworks, would take three hours to complete.

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