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Remember 'Project Natal'?


Remember 'Project Natal'?

Moving into the next generation comes with a lot of excitement and expectations. With the Xbox One coming bundled with a new Kinect sensor, one might look back at the expectations and original vision Microsoft had for the first Kinect. Back in 2009, Microsoft officially unveiled Kinect as Project Natal during their E3 conference. Project Natal, a motion-sensing input device, introduced a new way for players to interact with their Xbox 360 console through controller-free hand gestures and voice control. The most distinguishable demo showcasing this new technology was Lionhead Studio’s Project Milo.

Microsoft unveiling Project Natal during their E3 2009 Conference

Project Milo introduced us to the “emotional AI” named Milo. Utilizing the Kinect sensor, Project Milo would be able to recognize players and emotion in their voices while reflecting those emotions in Milo’s face. Sounded too good to be true, right? It didn’t stop there. Players would also be able to interact with Milo by using the sensor to scan real life objects and pass them into the game for the character to interact with. This radical innovation would change the face of the gaming industry forever! The fact that players would be able to communicate with characters from their games without the use of specific syntax and have the characters react to a player’s emotions was unfathomable. Plus, being able to scan objects and use them to interact with the world was simply astonishing. The potential was endless! Project Natal could finally remove the communication barrier standing between players and their games, and all of this could be done on an Xbox 360!… Wait, what?

Claire interacting with Milo in Lionhead Studio’s Project Milo

Who actually fell for this? Okay, maybe I did. But it wasn’t because I thought it was possible from the current-gen tech (especially with the obviously staged interaction between Claire and Milo), rather I wanted to believe that video games had this kind of potential. As of February 2013, Microsoft has sold upwards of 24 million units of Kinect. Yes I fell for Microsoft’s grand hoax, but I wasn’t alone! It wasn’t hard to buy into, especially with Microsoft pumping out endless promotional campaigns. In 2010, Kinect was everywhere! During the 2010 holiday season it was impossible (no joke) to watch TV and not see Kinect appearing in ads, the news, or even being demonstrated on your mom’s favorite talk show. This didn’t come as a huge surprise though since Microsoft was spending $500 million for advertising Kinect (more than the original Xbox’s marketing budget) with the slogan, “You Are the Controller.” To be honest, those promotions didn’t falsely advertise Kinect the way Project Milo or the reveal trailer did. Looking back on it, the fact that Microsoft had the nerve to showcase Project Milo and play it off as a real AI is astounding in itself. It was inexcusable for Microsoft to showcase an “emotional AI” and never make good on it. In fact, I don’t see that ever being possible with any version of Kinect, period. See how pessimistic you’ve made me Microsoft?! They pitched us ideas Kinect couldn’t possibly deliver, and we allowed it.

Xbox One and Kinect Sensor

Xbox One and Kinect Sensor

Instead, what has become of Kinect? With the beginning of the next generation right around the corner, has Kinect even come close to reaching their original vision with the first Kinect? To me it’s simply become a tool to control the operating system of the console. What happened to changing the landscape of games that we play or creating connections to virtual worlds? I do think all communication used to interact with a game has to be controlled and limited to within that game’s boundaries, but like most forms of media entertainment, you’re just passenger along for the ride anyway (which is fine). As long as there’s relative freedom in the player’s speech, I’ll be okay with that. Imagine an Elder Scrolls or Mass Effect game where you’re not given any dialogue options and can create your own dialogue with the characters. Now that would be amazing.

Microsoft should have pursued their vision this generation, pushing developers to implement it instead of simply discarding the current sensor for the next one. With the little progress it’s made this generation, I doubt we’ll see the Xbox One’s Kinect get anywhere near the original vision, even with all its new features. Basically, I’m still waiting for that one game to come out and fulfill Kinect’s original vision that seamlessly “connects” communication between the player and the game while crafting a unique story based on the player’s actions.

With all that talk about us growing together, I’m almost embarrassed to say this: you fooled me.

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