Why Natal Won't Launch with 'Xbox Plus'

So, what of the intriguing notion that Microsoft is set to release a version 1.5 of the Xbox 360 hardware with the launch of the Project Natal 3D camera in late 2010? When an organisation like 1UP starts talking this up, spider-senses across the globe start tingling. Well, checking in with my sources over the weekend – people very likely to know what’s going on at the higher echelons of Microsoft's gaming division, the story appears to be a lot of hot air. Or perhaps, more likely, the end result of Chinese whispers.

While my main source didn't go into any details on the ins and outs of the Natal launch aside from debunking this story, the more you think about the Xbox Plus/Natal concept, the less believable it becomes. The fact is that an enhanced Xbox 360 is rather unlikely simply because the tech requires none of the console's processing might to sift through the data acquired by the 3D camera. While Microsoft claims credit for the entire Natal design, the key component – the "brain" of the camera – actually appears to have originated from Israeli start-up company, PrimeSense, with Microsoft itself responsible for the optics and the software. It's all part of a strategy Microsoft has internally that will see Minority Report-style gesture control become the next generation interface between man and machine, the ultimate successor to the touchscreen, deployed across a range of devices – and of course fully supported by the Windows OS.

Regardless, the point is that all of the really clever stuff that Natal does is carried out onboard, with the data then streamed across to the 360 via USB. If, as the 1UP report suggests, the 360 update is only offering a minimal amount of extra power, then the question surely must be, what's the point of that? Why go to all the lengths of engineering brand new silicon, risking incompatibilities with the current model, just for that extra amount of juice? Why bother developers with a new architecture for such minimal gains? And in a market where driving down the price of your console is key, why introduce that extra expense?

If the processing and fabrication arguments aren't enough, let's consider the basic marketing angle. Microsoft would be in danger of fragmenting its audience on the launch of its most innovative product in years. The firm has already pledged in the most basic terms that Natal works with every 360 on the market today; the mass wave of negative PR that would follow from the news that Natal works better if you buy a new console would completely over-shadow the launch.

What I can see happening is that Natal will form the basis of a mid-life relaunch for the Xbox 360, perhaps in a new skin. By the 2010 timeframe, the 360 will be a low-power device (relatively speaking, even compared to today’s Jasper unit) running with a combined CPU and graphics core on a single die. This in turn means a more petite motherboard, and a more modest cooling assembly, meaning a smaller unit. The machine will potentially be small enough, cute enough, and hopefully quiet enough to appeal to a new demographic while retaining the same capabilities as the current console. Certainly, the cost-savings from switching to the newer, smaller, cheaper Xbox will help offset the cost of a bundled Natal. But any actual changes to the hardware and its capabilities will be minimal – along the lines of the inclusion of the flash RAM that was introduced with the Jasper revision of the 360.

So in that sense, the story has the ring of truth to it, but any true new iteration of Xbox 360 is going to require a premium level price-point. To stand any chance of being a hit with the mainstream, the cost is key, as Wii demonstrated. In the case of Natal, Microsoft will be doing everything in its power to make the technology, whether it's bundled with a 360 console or not, as cheap as possible.

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