Infrfared to be Incorporated in the Gaming Industry - Specifically, Microsoft's XBOX 360

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Project Natal takes on Wii
Republished from The Los Angeles Times

REDMOND, Wash. — On a blustery January morning, Michel Laprise found himself in a private conference room within Microsoft Corp.’s labyrinthine campus here, surrounded by 15 of the company’s sharpest analytical thinkers.

Laprise started his presentation by dumping a pail full of sand on top of the conference table, alarming executives who worried about the wiring embedded in the table for PowerPoint presentations and technology demos. Armed with three rocks, a small wooden elephant and a flashlight, he spent an hour weaving a tale of a boy on a quest to locate meteors that have fallen from the sky and to uncover their meaning.
At the end of his talk, the artistic director for Cirque du Soleil got a standing ovation.
 
“It was amazing,” said an awestruck Don Mattrick, the 46-year-old executive who heads up the juggernaut’s multibillion-dollar video game business. Mattrick had invited Laprise to help Microsoft figure out an unconventional way to launch a new technology that would let people play games without the use of joysticks or controllers. “He used the power of words to share what he saw in his imagination. He was a great raconteur.”

Code-named Project Natal, the technology consists of three small motorized sensors — a camera, infrared depth sensor and a multi-array microphone. Attached to Microsoft’s Xbox 360 game console, the device interprets gestures, such as when players swing their arms to hit a golf ball, lean to steer their way through an obstacle course or swivel their hips through a dance routine. It also can recognize faces and associate them with their profiles.

For the last 35 years, Microsoft has strived to push technology into every corner of the world. Its Windows operating system powers 90 percent of all computers, and its software can be found on devices that sit in people’s pockets, purses, cars and living rooms. Yet in an ironic twist, the company’s next big feat required Microsoft to make its high-tech wizardry invisible.

So it hired one of the best illusionists out there — Cirque du Soleil, the French Canadian entertainment company known for its visually arresting extravaganzas and ethereal, new age music. In addition to the 21 permanent and traveling shows, Cirque has a special events business that does a handful of private and corporate events each year (clients have included the royal family of Dubai and the 2007 Super Bowl).

For Microsoft, Natal is critical to the future of its ambition to be at the center of entertainment in the living room. And like a besotted suitor who spared no expense, Microsoft gave Cirque free rein over both the creative aspects of the performance and its budget.

“This is a massive investment for Microsoft,” said Aaron Greenberg, Microsoft’s executive producer for the company’s E3 events. “For us, it wasn’t about the money. It was about creating an experience that would be remembered forever.”

In this incarnation, Natal is applied to video games. Designed to perch on top of a living room TV and attach to Microsoft’s Xbox 360 game console, the device can recognize faces, obey simple voice commands and track body movements and gestures.

It has been compared with Nintendo Co.’s Wii, which rocked the video game world in 2006 with its motion-sensing Wii remote. Natal is Microsoft’s attempt to one-up Nintendo, which has sold an estimated 74 million Wii consoles, compared with 43 million Xbox 360s. While the Wii has gained traction with a broad demographic ranging from toddlers to seniors, the Xbox 360 is perceived as a “hard-core” game machine for adrenaline junkies looking for elaborate ways to blow things up.

“Microsoft is deadly serious about expanding their reach with Natal,” said Michael Pachter, analyst with Wedbush Morgan Securities in Los Angeles. “But people buy consoles based on the software, and right now, we just don’t know what games are actually going to be on there. Once we get a chance to see those games, then we can better evaluate things.”

Another challenge: Getting the attention of consumers who don’t normally play video games, much less the shoot-em-up’s that the Xbox 360 is known for.

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