E3 2010: Natal/Kinect Experience report

by: Chuck -
I’m just back from the Microsoft “Experience Natal” event and I’m still trying to digest what I saw. The problem with being at the show is the realization that the show wasn’t really intended for the people in the audience, but rather for those who will be watching the show on MTV and Nick@Nite later this week. And more than likely it will be great TV unless you’re a core gamer.

The big news of course is that Natal is no more and the device is now named Kinect. Personally, I dig the name as it evokes both kinetics and connections. It’s also something that Microsoft can easily trademark and I’m sure we’ll be hearing Kevin Butler ripping of it during Sony’s press conference.

The event was billed as Natal envisioned by Cirque du Soleil and it certainly delivered a unique experience that was a bit overproduced and heavy on the dramatic. The best comparison I could make is that it felt a lot like watching the opening ceremony at the Olympics. As each member of the press entered the Galen Center, they were handed a white poncho with shoulder pads that would have been at home in a Mad Max movie.

We sat for a bit in the heat trapping ponchos while creatures straight from the French Broadway adaption of Avatar walked through the aisles to keep everyone entertained (one of them even marked one of the folks sitting in front of me which led me ,to think that he’s now mated for life). After sweating it out for 45 minutes, the show began. The wait was made somewhat bearable by the fact that I was in a better position sitting by the “cool folks” who got the green wrist bands that allowed them to stand on the show floor below a small family of three who was suspended 40 feet above the floor.

Once the show began it became obvious that the faux Na'vi represented the old way people interacted with computers and gaming consoles, which then lead up to the big unveil of Kinect.  There were some climbing of rocks and a few other things, but it was an interesting metaphor to use.

After that we got a somewhat stylized montage of games that showed what the system can do. The highlight for me was a Star Wars game where you got to fight off Stormtroopers and use force powers in cool new ways. Looking back though it looked more like a Kinect rails game than anything else. The low light was a game where you rode a mine cart and had to reach out and grab glowing balls while avoiding being hit by various obstructions. The demo was choppy and had a very beta feel about it.

After that we got into the exercise and dance games, which are where Kinect is going to make a killing. We saw a basic yoga game and a dance game that showed exactly how the new system differentiates itself from the Wii and Move in that you can do the exercises and moves without a controller. The games looked very sharp and were clearly the most polished demos of the night.

I was a little disappointed that we didn’t get any more of the Milo type demos that showed off some of the more advanced features of the system, but I’m guessing we’ll get that and any kind of core games during the morning MS press conference. Also missing was a price and a release date, but that will also probably be given during tomorrow’s press conference.

After it was all over there was a definite feeling of “Did that just really happen?” from the assembled members of the press. Kinect certainly got one of the more interesting launches of any E3 technology and this presentation is going to immediately become part of E3 lore. Much like the Wii, it’s going to take developers time to figure out how to best use the technology outside of the exercise genre.

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