Time Magazine has recognized Microsoft's upcoming controller-free Xbox 360 console accessory, Project Natal, for its list of Best Inventions of 2009. Previous technology featured on the list include: Retail DNA tests, Hulu.com, and the Chevy Volt. This year, Microsoft is recognized alongside the AIDS vaccine, a bladeless fan, and levitating mice, among other notable devices for 2009.
The inclusion of Project Natal on the list is an interesting choice, considering we've yet to really see how Microsoft intends to implement the device. Watching Jimmy Fallon play Burnout Paradise by twisting his hands is intriguing, but who really wants to play a game that way? The dodgeball demo is equally interesting, for a few minutes, but it's difficult to imagine we'll see controller-free gameplay on a large scale, or even in the casual market - Especially with rumors that Project Natal will be a costly addition to gamers' already costly Xbox set-up. Tech innovation doesn't always translate into gameplay innovation. Over the years, numerous gaming consoles and add-ons have represented advancements in tech but didn't capture the attention of gamers.
From Time Magazine:
"Since time immemorial – or at least since Pong – one barrier that has stood between gamers and total Tron-like immersion in their video games has been the controller: the joystick, trackball, mouse, light gun or whatever. This year Microsoft demonstrated a technology, code-named Project Natal, that enables players to control games using only body movements and voice commands, no controller required – the gamer's body becomes the controller. Project Natal uses several cameras, plus a highly specialized microphone and a lot of fancy software, to track the gamer's body and interpret his or her voice. You move your hand, and the Master Chief (or whoever) moves his hand. It's that simple. And that cool."
Time Magazine's assertion that a controller is a "barrier that has stood between gamers and total Tron-like immersion in their video games" shows a limited notion of gameplay mechanics. Most game developers admit their job is to create a game that handles intuitively, immersing the player, and as a result makes the controller disappear - the controller becomes an extension of the player, not a barrier.
Microsoft has yet to showcase a truly intuitive combination of the Project Natal tech and immersive gameplay. Right now, watching players flail around in an attempt to hit virtual dodgeballs, Natal looks more like a barrier to immersion rather than the savior Time proposes. Look at the Wii, its phenomenal success is the reason we're getting Project Natal and the Sony Motion Controller, but Nintendo's sales have reached a saturation point, partly due to the lack of immersion the Wii gameplay offers. The limitations of the Wii controls are further confounded by many Nintendo titles prioritizing patched-on motion content schemes over immersive gameplay.
I am by no means claiming that the tech isn't impressive or fun, or that casual gamers won't eat it up, or that it will never produce an immersive gameplay experience, but in terms of the long term viability of controller-free gameplay, Microsoft still has some convincing to do.
What do you think of Project Natal? is the controller headed the way of the Dodo bird?
Project Natal is expected to be released in 2010.
Source: Time Magazine