Thoughts on Project Natal, Milo and the coming Motion Tracking Videogame and Technological Revolution

Bill Loguidice's picture

Amidst all of the usual software-centric sequels and somewhat tired continuations of long running series at E3 was a clear, present and somewhat surprising focus on hardware accessories, and, more specifically and perhaps most exciting, next generation motion tracking and control systems. This wasn't just an attempt to copy Nintendo's almost-there original Wii Remote technology, but rather an attempt to redefine the technology once and for all and influence videogames and the technological world at large for generations to come (think integrated touch and motion controls in your 2015 laptop).

Of course Nintendo's approach was already made known and will be out shortly - the Wii Motion Plus - which is a small snap-on attachment for their present Wii Remote that offers pretty much 1:1 tracking, enhancing the precision of the sometimes hit-or-miss controller to a very high degree. I'll take a more detailed look at the add-on after its release.

Sony's PlayStation Eye-powered motion technology aims to turn a light emitting wand controller into any virtual item imaginable on-screen (suggestions included swords, tennis raquets, whips, whiskey bottle, etc.). Of course the PlayStation Eye is their pre-existing camera - which I have - and which already can work with real-world objects, a la the Eye of Judgment, which I also have, but have yet to put through its paces (Microsoft has a camera of their own for the Xbox 360, but it's not quite as sophisticated). Anyway, the unnamed light emitting wand controller is expected to see release some time in the spring of 2010, so expect it to go through some refinements between now and then assuming Microsoft's stuff (also a 2010 release) - discussed in the next paragraph - continues to take shape like it is.

As for Microsoft, in regards to at least this type of technology, they went above and beyond and stole the show with Project Natal. As they say, "no controller required". Essentially using a smallish bar that sits above your TV, you and all of your movements are tracked in real time. It also naturally has camera and audio (microphone) technology, making it a complete real-time tracking and control system. Based on the demos and comments from developers who have early dev kits, this actually works, and has lots of people excited, including videogame enthusiast Steven Spielberg, who most recently dabbled in the videogame world on the Wii with the excellent Boom Blox.

Perhaps most intriguing and showing Natal to its best effect was the Lionhead demo for Milo, essentially a virtual boy/playmate type of thing, though practically to the level of science fiction. You really have to see the demo to really appreciate all this has to offer. What's so big about this is that I've been watching for years how university researchers have been dabbling in this type of technology, both virtually and through "emotional" robots, meaning robots that can show human-like facial expressions. What's so interesting about Milo is that it looks like it one-ups all of that type of stuff, meaning we've taken that next generational step in the research, allowing for goodness-knows-what future possibilities, and all this in the mainstream rather than academia, where it can actually reach people in a reasonable timeframe.

Lionhead's Milo Project (the beginning of this is the tail end of the general Project Natal demo, so just be patient before the Milo part begins):

Unlike the past, these things have a real chance of becoming integral to our gaming (and even general computing) experiences, an inextricable companion to our well worn and proven controller methods. Why do these things have a chance this time versus the past? Well, in the past, these have been all one off not-quite-there-technology, a la Broderbund's U-Force or Mattel's Power Glove, but this time the technology is to a highly usable point - and, more importantly - the big three - Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft with their vast resources - are behind it all. These are three of only a handful of companies on the planet that can successfully launch a mainstream videogame console, and they're certainly more than capable of reimagining the industry itself.

As for Milo and the other stuff being just a fad, gimmick or unnecessary, just remember that the same thing was said about e-mail - why send an electronic letter to someone when you can just as easily pick up the phone? Sometimes the application of this stuff can take on an unexpected utility and become integral to society itself. Don't count out the latter as a strong possibility.

One final thought and something I think will have to be addressed at some point is the lack of real-time, physical feedback. At some point, assuming partial body suits or gloves and the like are not a realistic option (and they're probably not), some type of practical audio projection system will have to be developed, one that hits you with sound waves where you can feel when you're touching or hitting an object (or you are in turn "hit" in a game or receiving a hug from a friend). While the "phantom limb" effect is somewhat there when playing controllerless games, a la Sony's Eye Toy for the PlayStation 2 and the karate mini-game where you punch on-screen enemies - you somewhat "feel" the impact through clever use of visual clues and bass heavy sounds - it's not enough for truly profound feedback. Something does need to actually touch you or at least FEEL like it's touching you to complete the effect.

Anyway, I'd love to hear your thoughts on all this. I certainly think since there's a brief "the future" section in our in-development feature film documentary, that this will be worthy of a mention or two, as I really think this is a big part of that future.

Comments

Catatonic
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Force Feedback

I think I know what you mean by "real" force feedback - there are arcade racing games with steering wheels that can turn by themselves and you have to apply a lot of effort to keep driving straight. Would probably wreck your shoulders if you played for too long.

Bill Loguidice
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Force Feedback damage
Catatonic wrote:

I think I know what you mean by "real" force feedback - there are arcade racing games with steering wheels that can turn by themselves and you have to apply a lot of effort to keep driving straight. Would probably wreck your shoulders if you played for too long.

Exactly, though I'm not sure I agree about any damage to the body (frankly I think rumble controllers could be more damaging). It's wonderful stuff, but it's really only realized in a select few controllers these days, like Microsoft's Xbox 360 Wireless Racing Wheel, which only supplies force feedback when plugged in (otherwise it just works as a regular wheel) and of course needs specific support from a particular title to actually supply the force feedback commands. Also, some games are designed to take better advantage of it than others.

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LarryLaffer (not verified)
the forced feedback sounds

the forced feedback sounds like a lawsuit waiting to happen, some kid gets hurt or dies and it's game over. next thing you know they will be using blowup doll as a controller. haha, that would be pretty funny, can you believe people would buy it? I would never buy it myself, dont need it because I can get the real thing anytime. but some people dont have that opine.

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clok1966
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Joined: 01/21/2009
I do not think

I do not think "controlerless" will work just yet. Great idea, and amazing tech but for 90% of the game buying public... sorry, not going to happen. The Wii worked for the simple fact it was new, but somewhat familiar, the buttons and dpad are still on it. And as the numbers show the Wii is not selling to the hardcore gamers, its selling to everybody else. Problem is the non hardcore gamer doesnt play enouhg and doesnt buy enough games. nintendo has sold a boatload of Wii's but the software, not so much. For awhile when there was nothing to buy, Wii Titles (mostly Nintendo ones) did ok, even the shovel ware did. But now numbers are going down on 3rd party, attach rates are less then the PS3 or 360. The Wii was a fad, and MS and SONY are late to the race and there "me too" motion controler stuff (that they both made lite of) is to late for the "fad". Again its amazing tech, and has almost unlimited abilities, no argument at all. But if you ahve played Wii any amount of time, and actually swung the bat, or racket, you know you get tired fairly quickly. much like boxer who misses gets tired quicker then when he hits. Now imagine (as the race demo shows) holding your arms out away from your body to stear for 10 minutes.. heck just hold um out for 10 minutes. Stereo types are bad, but there is some small basis in fact for a few of them. if the studies are even close to correct, kids and adults are overwieght and this is going to be "work" for them. I predict they will sell much like the closet dwelling Wii Fit board.. everybody might buy one, but nobody will use it past the few days when its new, and nobody will make much for it later.

once again, amazing tech.

Bill Loguidice
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Project Natal on Jimmy Fallon
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Catatonic
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I played Mario Kart Wii with

I played Mario Kart Wii with the steering wheel once, and it did actually make my shoulders sore. (I have some arthritis) Second time I played it I chose the GameCube controller instead.

Bill Loguidice
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"Fake" controls
Catatonic wrote:

I played Mario Kart Wii with the steering wheel once, and it did actually make my shoulders sore. (I have some arthritis) Second time I played it I chose the GameCube controller instead.

I just got Mario Kart Wii with a second wheel last night in the same shipment as a single Wii Motion Plus. Unfortunately I have nothing to try the latter on, as my preorder of the Wii Sports Resort bundle won't ship until the end of July. I hear great, great things about the Tiger Woods game, though.

Hopefully I can play Mario Kart Wii tonight.

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Bill Loguidice, Managing Director | Armchair Arcade, Inc.

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Rowdy Rob
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Joined: 09/04/2006
Tremendous, and perhaps DANGEROUS(!?!?) Potential?

The "Milo" video was insanely inspiring. Can you imagine the types of games that can come about due to this sort of technology? Imagine an "adventure" game where you actually interact with "suspects" or whatever. Imagine an RPG where you actually TALK to your party members!

I'm sure that whatever high technology is behind this, it probably is largely based on the old "keyword" concept that's been around for 30+ years, as evidenced by the "adventure" genre.

However, how far is this going? If my lunatic self has a "friend" that I can interact with via computer technology, rather than getting out and meeting people, is that not, in some way, dangerous? Will I spend most of my time interacting with a CGI playmate? What if they're pushing a twisted political agenda? What if all the brains in programming concentrated all their time on artificial intelligence, rather than pushing polygons? Will I not want to spend my free time in my sick fantasy world, rather than interacting with REAL people? Is this technology not portending to the end of Western civilization???

Ok, I'm being overly dramatic, but this almost seems to be nearing a "Star Trek" holodeck situation. I know imagination is to be applauded, but the "Milo" demo seems to be almost beyond the realms of gaming and into the world of total fantasy, which I can imagine a great number of people can get lost in.

Seriously, though, the "Milo" demo seems to cross some boundaries as to what is real. Milo seemed all too real, although I realize it was a scripted demo. But how much fantasy is healthy? I don't know.

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Bill Loguidice
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It's brought!

Good points, Rob. My only response is that that line of thinking about lack of social interaction with others has been posited before, particularly in relation to the Internet. From e-mail to social networks, I think the Internet has made us MORE social, not less. Same thing with texting on phones. Not a fan myself, but it does keep people in touch more than they otherwise would be. As with anything, it can be taken too far, but again, that's as with anything. I think humanity will adapt to and assimilate this technology just fine, just like it will adapt to the inevitable holodeck or even direct brain input/manipulation.

And heck yeah, I'd be stoked to play an RPG or some other high concept game on a Natal/Milo type thing. Why not? It's just more options. Bring it on I say!

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Bill Loguidice, Managing Director | Armchair Arcade, Inc.

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Mark Vergeer
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Milo

Milo is exactly what blows me away, but most of all the interaction between an AI and an OI (organic intelligence). I think this part of the demo is heavily scripted. It really needs to be more than responding to keywords for it to become anything resembling talking to a 'real' mind. Back in the day I had 'enhanced' an old Elise sourcecode to recognize a topic and keep the conversation on that subject until the user changed the topic. Language recognition and structure is always something that will limit a program like Elise - but also something else....

I was thinking....
But the AI needs to be structured around a set of basic parameters - like emotional avatars- that fluctuate and are influenced by similar environmental things as the human spirit. Those emotional avatars need to be expressed by the AI in a verbal or non-verbal way like humans do.
There needs to be something like 'general mood', main topics of thought and a continuous double 'flow of thought' on the subject and related subjects to mimic the human mind in a more realistic way. This way the AI can seemingly 'associate freely' like humans do. The way the AI 'associates freely' can be defined by a preference to certain patterns or certain topics and that could actually be the beginning of a 'personality pattern' that is recognizable and will respond in a more or less recognizable way.....
There also need to be parameters concerning norms and values, do's and don'ts. Perhaps even somthing like Asimov's laws of robots prohibiting them to harm humans as such an AI could also be very dangerous in the same way that a free human mind can be dangerous.

Perhaps I am just rambling on but I do have a very clear vision of how a seemingly 'human' AI could work, you can even make it 'grow' and get more experienced along the way.

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Armchair arcade Editor | Pixellator | www.markvergeer.nl

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