This year's E3 conferences were all about motion control. Apart from Nintendo's, of course, as they'd done an E3 conference about motion control several years previously and showed off Women's Murder Club instead. But Microsoft unveiled Project Natal for the first time while Sony revealed its very own motion-sensing controller, complete with PS Eye functionality and glowy coloured ball.
Kish Hirani, head of developer services, repeated part of the demo at the Develop conference in Brighton last week. Afterwards we sat down with him and SCEE's vice president of research and development, Paul Holman, to find out more.
We were warned in advance they wouldn't be able to answer questions about how much the controller will cost, when exactly it's out, whether you'll be able to draw nobs with it etc. But keep reading to find out what Hirani and Holman think about Natal and whether they're on track to meet that spring 2010 release date.
Eurogamer: What did you think of the reaction to the motion controller after you unveiled it at E3?
Paul Holman: We'd already had prototypes out there in the development community for certain people, so it was more about making it real for the public. But I think the developers working on it are quite enjoying it because it adds an extra mechanic to development, an extra element and dimension to their games.
Kish Hirani: What most people are really surprised about is the precision. It's scarily good. The army has had this sort of technology for a long time, so a lot of academians have seen these things, but when you see a consumer space device with this level of accuracy - that's when developers say, 'Wow.'
Eurogamer: So the level of precision and accuracy is greater than with motion controllers already on the market, i.e. the Wii remote?
Paul Holman: Oh, totally. It's another generation forward, or even a couple of generations. I know in certain games or applications which are out there, people had to sort of fluff it to make it real for consumers. But this stuff is super-accurate and the impact of that is incredible. I think you have to play with it to realise what it will do to games.
Kish Hirani: What I personally love is to be able to write your name. Grab a mouse and write your name; it's difficult. The mouse uses very old motion-tracking technology, and to be able to write your name on the screen - that's the precision you're getting. You've physically got a chalk in your hand, you're in front of the blackboard and you're writing. That's the level of precision involved.
Paul Holman: I think the second thing developers are picking up on is the camera aspect. There's this augmented reality where you can mix and match, take the camera input and super-impose the imagery on the game. Again, that's bringing the industry into new spaces. We'll see a lot more of that in the future, I think.
Kish Hirani: The mic is equally important. It can distinguish where you're sitting in a room, so the four of us could be sitting here and the mic could tell who's talking from where. That [technology] has previously been available, but designing your game becomes like cherry picking - grabbing what you want from these new technologies.
Paul Holman: We haven't made developers try to learn about this new technology, struggle with it and try to make something work. We've got the libraries and we've been able to leverage work in other parts of Sony. So in the camera space, they've been doing a lot of work on facial recognition for still cameras. We've got more processing power so we can actually put it in more easily. That's where you see what people are doing in front of the camera and not just their face, but also the way their body moves and their hand gestures.
It's really about giving it to the game designers. We've got all these little things that are new and interesting and you've just got to think, 'Well, what am I going to do as a game designer?' It's going to be quite interesting to see what comes out next year.
Eurogamer: Going back to the issue of precision, have you tried out the new Wii MotionPlus accessory, which is designed to give the Wii remote a much greater degree of accuracy?
Paul Holman: I don't think we should be commenting on the opposition. I think that's one you want to ask some developers working on these titles, because it's not for us; it's not our style.
Kish Hirani: We're giving designers technology and training them how to use the technology. They're the ones who write the games, so I think it's only fair if you ask them.
Paul Holman: We're proud of the technology and we think it's going to be really good, but we'll see what people do with it.
Eurogamer: What about Project Natal? Do you think it's very different to what you're doing?
Paul Holman: Well, think about it - our heritage has been with camera work for a generation. Way before we had EyeToy products we were showing R&D work - at ECTS I think, back in the early PS2 days - and that was later picked up by the studios and turned into EyeToy. So we've got a good heritage in this space.
What's really exciting now is that you've got the building blocks, the voice recognition, the skeletal recognition... It's really about what you do with these building blocks and what direction you take them in.
Eurogamer: Microsoft seems to have abandoned the controller altogether, while you're looking at ways to take the controller further...
Paul Holman: I think the first abandonment was with EyeToy, really.
Eurogamer: Are you basically saying Project Natal is a posh EyeToy?
Paul Holman: No, not quite, I wouldn't say that. All I can point to is the fact there have been historical precedents in this area. What's exciting is that we're seeing increased performance in our machines and other forms of UI, you can mix and match and make something interesting. I'm always keen to see what people like Lionhead come out with, because at the end of the day it's about what game developers do with it.
Eurogamer: Can you explain a bit more about how the controller actually works? What about the coloured light-up ball, for instance? So the camera recognises different colours?
Paul Holman: You can programmatically set the colour as well. It's RGB, so there's the full spectrum of colour. And you can use up to four of these things at the same time, depending on your game design, so it's quite interesting.
Kish Hirani: I'm not a games designer, but if I was I might use it as a muzzle flash if you're using a gun, or use it as a paintbrush you can use to dip in and pick up different colours... There's always room for wizards...
Eurogamer: But there will still be buttons on the controller too?
Paul Holman: Yes.
Eurogamer: The same number as currently are on the DualShock, or are you planning to simplify things and strip it down?
Paul Holman: I don't think it's fixed, as such. One of the aspects of the way we work is we tend to bring out prototypes early on and work with game teams - our own studios, external studios - and get their feedback. We're really in that phase where we're working with people to see what they want, so that when we have a final product it's actually going to meet the game designers' needs.
Eurogamer: At E3, you said the motion controller will launch in spring 2010. Why announce a launch date at all? In the past Sony's had a few, shall we say, calendar issues with things like Home... Why did you feel it was important to set a date?
Paul Holman: To show it's real. Game developers want to know, if they're working on a title for next year, whether they should consider it or not. We have to send some sort of message. At the end of the day, we know the track we're taking for our technology, we know when we're going to manufacture, but we have to make sure there's a good catalogue of games to back it up.
Eurogamer: How confident are you that you're going to hit the spring 2010 release date?
Paul Holman: From a hardware point of view, everything's on track.
Eurogamer: How many games for the controller are in development right now?
Paul Holman: To be honest, I don't know.
Eurogamer: How much interest have you had from developers?
Paul Holman: Good interest. We've got a limited set of prototypes because we're in that phase and they're all in active use, and it's almost like managing that is the hardest thing at the moment. People are coming in with some great ideas.
Kish Hirani is head of developer services and Paul Holman is vice president of research and development at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe.