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E3: Project Natal

Milo, Ricochet and Burnout.

E3 2009 may not have officially kicked off yet, but it's already been a show to remember. After all, it's not every day you get to see the likes of James Cameron, Paul McCartney and Pele chatting about videogames. Nor is it every day you get to have a conversation with a virtual 10 year-old or play Burnout with an imaginary steering wheel.

But today is one of those days, because today Microsoft is revealing Project Natal to the world. Fresh from the E3 conference, we dropped by their posh hotel to go hands-on - or rather, hands-off - with the new technology.

Milo & Kate

First up is Peter Molyneux's new baby. As you'll know if you followed our live text, Milo is the name of the new AI character in development at Lionhead Studios. And as you'll know if you read our interview with Peter Molyneux, or could have predicted if you know anything about Peter Molyneux, Kate is the name of a dog.

A Lionhead man mucks about with Milo.

But the dog's not on show today - instead we're presented with Milo on his own, sitting on a swing by a river. Molyneux invites me to try interacting with him by standing in front of the screen and moving around the room.

As I move, the camera moves with me. Shift your body left and the camera pans left; tilt your body forwards and it zooms in, and so on. "Normally you'd be using the right thumbstick for this," observes Molyneux. It's a bit disconcerting, but in a good way; looking around to change your viewpoint feels a lot more natural than pushing a stick.

What about those who would rather stay sat on the sofa? The technology works just as well when sitting down, according to Molyneux: "You just move your torso and your head to move around. It can be a very relaxed experience."

Now, he says, we're going to train Milo to recognise me. I'm told to smile and frown to start the process off, and I try to make things easy for Milo by exaggerating my expressions like a gurning champion at a rave. "That's too much," says Molyneux. "You don't smile and frown like that in real life, do you?" He clearly hasn't seen my Facebook page.

I tone it down a bit and sure enough, Milo jumps off his swing and walks towards me. "You OK?" he says.

It's unnerving, there's no doubt about it. Instinctively I reply, "Yes, thank you. How are you?"

Claire again, Milo again. We want the dog. Show us the dog now.

"Wearing black, I see. It suits you." He's not wrong. About the first bit, anyway. But once the shock of Milo noticing this wears off, I realise he hasn't answered my question. Perhaps this is one of the tricks used to make you think he's real; and they are indeed tricks, as Molyneux is happy to admit.

I try another direct question. "Have you had a nice day, Milo?" He smiles and nods, so I go for something more complex. "Did you enjoy Microsoft's E3 conference?" He's non-committal. "Are you looking forward to the rumoured unveiling of the PSP tomorrow?" Milo nods. The truth is though, he doesn't really know what I just asked. He understood I was asking a question by listening to the tone of my voice, but he didn't understand the words. Knowing that doesn't make the whole thing much less unnerving, though.

Molyneux invites me to go and look at the fish in the river, as seen in the E3 press conference. The water effects are stunning anyway, but to see yourself reflected within them is astonishing. "Swish the water about a bit," says Molyneux, so I do. There are one or two odd moments where the water doesn't quite seem to flow naturally, but once again, the overall effect is highly impressive.

The demo's over, and all too soon. I didn't get to try out the work or play activities, or draw a picture for Milo, or meet his female counterpart, Milly. Not to mention the dog. There are still lots of questions about Milo & Kate, particularly with regard to how scripted the conversations are and just how clever your virtual friend really is. Here's hoping we'll get to find out more soon.