Digital Foundry vs. Project Natal • Page 2

In-depth, no-holds-barred hands-on analysis of the Next Big Thing in gaming.

Now, onto the second demonstration: the legendary Burnout Paradise demo. There's nothing mad or crazy going on here coding-wise, it's exactly the same game that emanated from Criterion's Guildford development lair. "The reason we did this demo is because we wanted to show that you have just as much responsiveness in control with Natal as you do with a regular controller," Tsunoda explains. "The reason we chose Burnout Paradise is that with any type of racing game, it's very fast-paced action, you're moving very quickly, and if there's any lag or delay in the controls, you're going to notice it very quickly in a big fashion."

In essence, Microsoft is scanning Natal inputs and converting them into the equivalent Xbox joypad commands. In this case, the hands represent the steering wheel, while acceleration and deceleration work by moving your foot forwards and backwards. It works, it's entertaining and it will make racing games far more appealing to the non-traditional gaming audience than they have ever been before, but I'll be honest - it will be a cold day in hell before I hang up my joypad and play an ultra-fast 'twitch' action game like Burnout Paradise with any kind of motion controller when the traditional pad must surely get the same job done a lot more quickly.

Instructions from Microsoft say that my fists should be placed close to each other for the steering motion to work properly, but it's not especially realistic, so I adopt a more traditional steering posture with my hands further apart. Tsunoda is triumphant. "You can see that even though he's trying to test the controls by moving his hands closer together or farther apart it's still very responsive and works in all cases."

Once again, he's right, but it's very difficult to tell just whether it is as responsive he claims. Before playing Natal, I spent some time on Gran Turismo 5 at the Sony stand on the show floor. The force-feedback wheel was great, but it took ages to adjust to, having been used to the pad. I feel similarly detached here and, while Burnout Paradise is clearly playable, I can't say I feel the 50ms precision Criterion strived to implement in the basic console version. Is it me? Is it Natal? Is it just the case that moving hands and feet physically takes longer than pressing buttons on a joypad and is therefore inherently less responsive? What about the process of drifting: dabbing the brake, hitting the gas and turning the wheel? A doddle on the controller, but with the Natal implementation here, it's very difficult to tell just what level of control is possible.

Kudo Tsunoda's clearly a brilliant Natal evangelist, but as much as he might tell us it's got the "extra fidelity", without having an extended period of time to get used to this very different system of control, it's impossible to tell. What we can do is give you another video to look at. Compare the left/right steering wheel movement to the corresponding movement on-screen, and see what you think. Once again it's difficult to ascertain quite what's going on, as you can't have immediate response on the display: presumably the wheels on the car need to start turning before the screen shifts.

Compare Tsunoda's hand movements with the response on-screen, particularly as he veers sharply from left to right.

Whether Natal controls will work seamlessly with other enthusiast favourites also remains to be seen. Shooters, for example. Can you point and shoot with Natal? Does it track the direction of your finger, and thus mirror the infra-red beam element of the Nintendo Wii controller? Bearing in mind how popular the machine is with FPS fans, it's not surprising that this is the number one question I am consistently asked about Microsoft's new tech and, until now, all I could do was shrug pathetically and speculate.

For the shooting game example, Tsunoda reckons that pointing won't work, but that you could position your arms as they would be when carrying, say, a shotgun. Which is all well and good, but assuming that Natal can't pinpoint the movement of your fingers, it's never going to know when you're pulling the virtual trigger. Some other mechanism would be required, and perhaps the intuitive nature Microsoft wants would be lost in some alternative kind of implementation.

Make no mistake though, Natal is very, very smart. Natal is going to do amazing things for the Xbox 360, and I daresay that there will be a very cunning way in which it is integrated into Halo: Reach. But it does have its limitations. In respect of direct pointing at the display, both the Nintendo Wii remote and, I suspect, the PlayStation motion controller will have the better of it. Both are built around the concept of being handheld wands, similar to TV remotes, and thus pointing is the most natural thing to do with them. Natal will need to find its own way. Outside of gaming the 'pointing requirement' isn't quite so stringent - there's nothing to stop an on-screen hand being mapped to your own appendage, and it's here that interface navigation will feel much more authentic and easier to get to grips with in comparison with the usual controller.

In terms of the presentation, is there anything held back that we aren't allowed to show you or talk about? Surprisingly, not much. Only two limitations are put on our video work. Firstly, we're not allowed to film the actual camera/sensor itself (I doubt there's anything sinister here over and above the final product looking different). Secondly, a Natal technical read-out screen is demonstrated that is hugely informative in terms of showing you how the system sees the world. It's a massive shame that we can't show it, because for the geeks amongst us, it's probably the highlight of the presentation. But I'll do my best to describe it to you.

It comprises several windows - the main one being a representation of the area being scanned, with a vector graphic display of the 48-point player "skeleton" combined with a rough approximation of Natal's infra-red display, which is overlaid on top. Next to that is conventional RGB image (similar to what you'd get from a normal webcam), and, below that, the pure infra-red camera feed, which really is quite cool. Move closer to the sensor, and you literally appear "warmer" to Natal. It's how it perceives depth, and it's why its performance will not be impeded in less-than-ideal lighting conditions.

During this demonstration, Tsunoda shows how Natal's brain works. The sensor's in-built processor constantly maintains your skeleton's points and pieces them together to form the vector image. Should one or more of those points disappear, Natal uses basic common sense on how the human body moves, and how it is able to move, and interpolates the connections with unerring accuracy. Up to four players can be tracked in this way, and even when swapping positions, or obscuring parts of the other player's body, the "brain" sorts it out. Very cool. Also impressive is how the skeleton-tracking is maintained even as the player moves towards the camera, with more and more of the skeletal points moving out of shot. Even with just the hips and a small portion of the legs in shot, Natal is still able to accurately determine leg movement. And yes, for the less energetically inclined, Natal works with the player sitting down as well. Presumably because of the properties of the infra-red sensor, background items are automatically factored out of the picture.

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