Hands-free gaming closer to reality

Microsoft plans to release its hands-free add-on for the Xbox 360 console this year.

By November, gamers won't need a controller when playing Microsoft's Xbox 360 gaming system.

The company has announced plans to release the Project Natal add-on, the newest product in the growing motion-control gaming industry made popular in 2005 with Nintendo Wii. 

"With Project Natal, we are removing the last barrier to gaming — the controller," Robbie Bach, president of entertainment and devices division at Microsoft, said Wednesday during a keynote presentation at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Bach said the hands-free system would be available in time for the next Christmas season.

This product image released by Microsoft shows a Project Natal sensor for the Xbox 360. The sensor tracks a player's full body movement while responding to commands, directions and shifts of emotion in the voice without the need for a controller. ((Microsoft/Associated Press))
Microsoft is not the only gaming company to introduce a new motion-control feature to its console's repertoire. Nintendo released the Wii MotionPlus in June 2009 as an expansion device for the Wii remote controller, allowing for accurate capture of complex motion.

And Sony is set to launch the Playstation motion controller by spring for its PlayStation 3 console.

But Microsoft has gone a step further with Natal, adding facial recognition software that allows the console to do more than just track body movements. The company is pushing the Xbox 360 as more than a game console — rather it's a full entertainment experience.

First previewed at Electronic Entertainment Expo last June, Natal uses a 3D motion-sensing camera, microphones and software to understand voice commands and capture a player's every movement or gesture.

For Jonathan McCallum, an animation professional and avid gamer, Natal "is an interesting new interface," and he believes it will make gaming more interactive and accessible.

There's still a disconnect, however, between swinging your hands as if you're holding a golf club and actually having a club in your hands, he said. 

"The physical feedback of the club is very important to the movement," McCallum said.

How it works

The Natal software illuminates the gamer with an infrared light and uses a monochrome video camera to record how much of this the gamer reflects back. This data then works out how far away the person is — up to a distance of four metres.

The device works out the gamer's position using a vast database of body poses collected by Microsoft. Programmed with a basic understanding of the human anatomy and according to lead developer Alex Kipman, Natal consumes just 10 to 15 per cent of the Xbox's computing resources. It can recognize any pose in just 10 milliseconds and needs only 160 milliseconds to latch on to the body shape of a new user.

Bach did not say how much Natal would cost or which countries would see a launch of the product in November. He did say it would work with existing Xbox 360 consoles.