Microsoft Whacks the Wii: A First Look

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Microsoft's new Xbox

Let's just admit it: the Nintendo people are total geniuses. I was one of the first journalists to see the Wii, in Kyoto in the spring of 2006. I even tried it out. I played fake mime-tennis. I caught a virtual fish by casting with the Wii controller. I did a little dance and watched a little guy do a little dance on the screen. At the time my thoughts were as follows: 1) Technologically speaking, this is a pretty amazing hack; 2) too bad the graphics suck; and 3) nobody will buy this ever. And 4) at least I got a free trip to Japan. And this was even before they told me the name.

Now the Nintendo folks have sold about as many Wiis as Microsoft and Sony have sold Xbox 360s and PlayStation 3s put together. They are geniuses.

The Microsoft people may or may not be geniuses, but they're definitely geniuses at figuring out who the geniuses in the room are and then doing what they're doing. Today at E3, Microsoft announced a new technology that, like the Wii, uses motion-sensing to control video games. But it may just be better than the Wii. In fact it may just kill the Wii. (See the top 10 video games of 2008.)

The Xbox 360 is a great machine. Hard-core gamers like it because it's got decent graphics and a great online service and it's developer-friendly, so there are lots of good games for it. But to compete seriously with the Wii, the Xbox has to expand outside the hard-core gaming scene too. It needs casual gamers, and that's where it has a problem. Non-hard-core gamers have trouble using the Xbox controller. It has two joysticks, two triggers, two bumper buttons and a bunch of other buttons besides. It takes time to learn. Their little thumbs get all confused. The Wii isn't like that: you just wave it like Harry Potter and you're golden.

If it had really tried to, Microsoft probably could have come up with a decent knockoff of the Wii controller. But instead they — meaning Don Mattrick, the head of Microsoft's interactive-entertainment division and the former head of Electronic Arts — decided that instead of imitating Nintendo, Microsoft would try to leapfrog past Nintendo. "We did explore whether we thought a motion-based controller was a true next step or a transition step," Mattrick says. "And for us, we decided it was a transition step." So about 18 months ago he started up Project Natal.

Microsoft tends to name its internal projects after cities. Natal is a city in Brazil, which is where Alex Kipman, one of the key engineers on Project Natal, comes from. What Mattrick and Kipman decided to try to do was to get rid of the controller altogether. They wanted a technology that would enable a gamer to control the game just by moving his or her arms and legs and other body parts. The gamer would become the controller. (Read "Why Video Games Are an Excellent Economic Indicator.")

This has actually been tried before, with peripherals like the Sony EyeToy. The problem with the Sony EyeToy and its ilk was that they were lame. They didn't track your motions very well, or precisely, and there were no good games for them. That's not surprising, because building a system of this kind is a very hard technological problem. But Microsoft's Xbox division has a somewhat different corporate culture than the rest of the company — it's nimbler and friendlier to innovation — and Kipman and his colleagues are extremely clever. Which is good, because they were going to have to innovate like hell to make this work.

What they came up with is a kind of self-contained module that you add onto your Xbox 360. It has a video camera in it that tracks where your body is and what you're doing with it. It also has a monochrome camera (it works with infrared) that reads depth — how far away your body and its component parts are — and a highly specialized microphone that can pick up voice commands. Along with all this hardware, it's got a ton of software that tells the Xbox how to find your body's various joints (it tracks 48 of them), how to keep track of multiple players at the same time, how to tell your Hawaiian shirt apart from the colorful wallpaper behind you, and so on. Microsoft even did an acoustic study of living rooms, so Project Natal can tell when you're talking, when your buddies are talking and when somebody in the game is talking, so it knows whom to take voice commands from.

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