NB: This hands-on is based on time we spent with Kinect on February of this year.
Microsoft has been running 'secret' demonstrations of its much-talked about Xbox 360 Project Natal system in London, and naturally TechRadar was there.
Update: Project Natal now has an official name: Microsoft Kinect
The motion control and voice recognition system has been much debated since its unveiling at E3 last year but what's the reality of the user experience as it nears launch? Is it really a game-changer or just another gimmick?
Certainly after just a few minutes playtime with the system, its potential becomes apparent. Microsoft Kinect isn't just a Wii-competitor, it's way more interesting. For the first time, users will be able to control their home entertainment with gestures and voice commands, dispensing with a traditional controller altogether.
Microsoft is planning a firmware update that will make the entire Xbox 360 Dashboard navigable using Microsoft Kinect. This rather modest pronouncement has huge implications.
Imagine navigating the Dash with air-swipes of your hand to find your favourite movie download or music track and then verbally instructing the console to play it – without ever needing to resort to a control pad.
NO CONTROLLER: Erin Hofto demonstrates Project Natal
"People say it's like Minority Report," says Erin Hofto, one of Microsoft's Xbox Global Consumer Communications team, "only we don't require you to have a huge glove on to use it. We've taken a much more consumer friendly approach. It's high technology, for sure, but you're not even aware you're using it."
At the London demonstrations, no photography of the Kinect sensor was allowed. What we can say is that the unit we used is larger than the original promotional photography suggests. It's still very much in beta form. "We haven't gone into production yet," we were told.
Inside Microsoft Kinect
The unit comprises an RGB camera, depth sensor and array microphone - all fairly off-the-shelf components. "What we've done is build a proprietary software layer that sits over the top of it and brings it all together," explains Hofto.
KICKING OFF: Microsoft first showed Project Natal at the E3 game show in 2009
Much of the tech originates from research carried out by Microsoft's R&D facility in Cambridge. "Their work in developing Natural User Interface technology is key. It's all about how helping humans work naturally with technology, removing barriers.
"Everything we do with computers, interacting with a mouse and keyboard, that's us speaking the language of the computer; command prompts we have to do in order to communicate with the hardware.
"The Natural User Interface project flips that and helps the computer understand the nature of the human. With Project Natal, it's about the sensor understanding the language of you. The deep tech behind this has been going on for a number of years."
Microsoft Kinect games
Of course, the end result of that tech also involves a lot of jumping around. To demonstrate, a ball and wall game called Ricochet is proffered. It's a bit like a third-person version of the classic Arkanoid. Only you are the bat, thwacking the ball by waving your arms/legs/body about.
What's immediately apparent is just how precise the tracking is. Your onscreen avatar authentically mirrors your movement as you jump around in front of the sensor. The sensor tracks your joints and removes the background.
Consequently, lurking interlopers do not confuse the system. The required distance between user and sensor varies depending on what activities are taking place. To play our bat and ball casual game, which requires a fair amount of physical movement, we stood around 3m from the transmitter.
Less active control would require less space. Think of the tracker as a stationary camera; it needs to keep you in the frame as you move left and right.
JUMP AROUND: Microsoft Kinect isn't for couch potatoes
As Hofto moves backwards and forwards, the onscreen avatar mimics with astonishing accuracy. Unlike similar Eye-Toy-type products, the RGB camera maps skeletally and apparently understands how human joints work. It can also distinguish colours and it's this which allows it to cut the main subject away from the background.
Significantly, the amount of lag is minimal. The demo bat and ball game is dependant on very fast reaction times, but the system never seemed to struggle to keep up.
We ask if players will get to choose their avatar's body type or does the system need to map your actual shape?
"It would depend on the way the experience is built. This particular demonstration works with a basic male and female template," says Hofto.
BUST A MOVE: Microsoft describes Dance Central as "The first full-body, controller-free dance video game with fun choreography for beginners and experts". The title was shown at E3 2010
Microsoft Kinect updates for existing games
It's unclear at the moment if existing games will receive Kinect updates. Certainly Microsoft is concentrating on new fare, and regards Kinect as the perfect lure to entice casual gamers from Nintendo's Wii.
"The Xbox 360 is thought of as a hardcore games platform, offering singular experiences. But Kinect is a social technology, enabling us to introduce casual games we haven't been able to create before. It will be focused on fun, simple games. We don't know what third party publishers will do with the technology."
Adds Hofto: "All of our publishing partners have had Natal development kits for some time, but we have no idea what these third party publishers are up to. They might want to introduce a voice element to Bioshock 2, for example. But I don't know. We're focused on family content, titles that you can jump in and out of."