Project Natal Meets a Stopwatch, Lags a Little

By  |  Monday, February 22, 2010 at 10:40 pm

Last week, Microsoft brought some of the east coast press up to speed on its 3D motion-tracking camera for the Xbox 360, codenamed Project Natal. It was essentially the same demonstration presented at E3 last year, but Russ Frushtick of MTV Multiplayer used the occasion to time Project Natal’s responsiveness with a stopwatch.

The lag between movement and action on the screen floated around a tenth of a second. That’s not huge, but it’s enough to notice. Microsoft could improve Natal’s response time before it’s released this holiday season, but Frushtick notes that even Hollywood motion capture cameras aren’t lag free.

The report ties in nicely with a think piece by Kotaku’s Brian Crecente, who compares motion control to the uncanny valley — a theory in robotics that the more a robot resembles a human, the more people are repulsed by the resemblance. The uncanny valley has also been used to describe eerily realistic video game characters.

Crecente argued that Natal is so accurate at tracking motion, its flaws are hard to ignore. Compared to the Wii’s “good enough” approach, which still captures the essence of motion control, Microsoft could stumble despite having a technologically superior product. Even with the Wii’s MotionPlus accessory that attaches to the Wii Remote to make it more accurate, games have avoided “one-to-one” controls — where your actions are duplicated precisely on the screen — because they’re too realistic, diluting the fantasy of play.

That issue of fantasy versus reality is bound to come up as game developers experiment with motion control, not just for Project Natal, but for the Wii MotionPlus and the Playstation 3’s upcoming motion-sensing wand. I’m reminded of Tony Hawk: Ride, a game that used a skateboard-shaped peripheral, but flopped because it too closely duplicated the frustration of learning to skate.

If developers try to create lifelike simulations with Natal, they’ll fail if there are any flaws in the technology, such as lag. But if they can somehow translate motion into a more idealized version of itself (e.g., your sloppy karate kicks gain black belt form on the screen), Natal could be a hit.

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