Military gets Microsoft’s Project Natal early

25 May

This time of year is always exciting for video game fans, with the Electronic Entertainment Expo set to kick off in Los Angeles next month. E3 is typically where the video game industry shows off all the cool new stuff that’s coming soon.

One of the big attractions at this year’s show will be Microsoft’s Project Natal, which will be an add-on to the Xbox 360 that will allow for the kind of motion-controlled gaming made popular by the Nintendo Wii. Microsoft is expected to announce pricing and availability on the device, which should be in stores for this Christmas season.

Microsoft’s take on motion control uses some pretty sophisticated technology and will apparently be able to detect not only movement, but gestures, faces and voices. I’m personally curious as to how the company is going to be able to sell so much high-tech hardware at an affordable price. I suspect Natal is either going to be really expensive, or Microsoft is going to sell it at a loss in an effort to lure people away from the Wii, but more on that in a minute.

One potential customer that doesn’t have to wait until Christmas is the U.S. military. The Army’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) is into the second year of an early-access deal with Microsoft, wherein the software company shares its technology with the military for testing and implementation.

The military is Microsoft’s single largest customer, so it’s no surprise that CERDEC has already been playing with perhaps the coolest thing Microsoft has developed in ages, the Surface multi-touch computer. Here’s a video of how the military has been using the Surface.

CERDEC is now getting access to Project Natal before it becomes commercially available. The goal, the Army says, is nothing short of science fiction. “Eventually, these efforts will lead to gesture-based interaction with data a la what was done in the movie Minority Report,” one of the Army scientists told Information Week.

The military’s links to video gaming, of which I devote the better part of a chapter to in Sex, Bombs and Burgers, are deep and go way back to the very beginning. Ralph Baer, the man who essentially invented video games, told me about how, in the early seventies, he showed off his “television game” creation to Pentagon officials. They wanted to know if the light gun Baer had created could be used in a training game to shoot Russian tanks (“Of course it could,” he told them). Today, of course, the line between video games and military training is blurred, with many military robots now using PlayStation and Xbox controllers.

One final funny anecdote about the Microsoft Surface, that may in fact reveal something about Natal… Back at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show in January, I had an interview with a Microsoft executive scheduled at the company’s booth. The press lounge waiting area had couches situated around tables with the Surface on them, and the first thing I said to my hosts when I sat down was, “These things are awesome, why aren’t they in every home?” Only a few minutes later, another reporter showed up, sat down and said the exact same thing.

The answer, as it turns out, is that for all the coolness of the Surface, its cost is in the neighbourhood of several thousand dollars, which makes it impractical for any sort of mass market. Here’s hoping that Microsoft can benefit from the tried-and-true method of giving your technology to the military in the hopes that they can somehow let you make it cheaper.

I wonder if that’s the strategy with Natal?

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Posted by on May 25, 2010 in army, microsoft, video games, war


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