Wednesday, June 03, 2009

More on Project Natal

Project Natal was the most interesting thing I saw in Microsoft's conference and perhaps the best in E3. Sure I like the games, and MS E3 conference pretty much sold me on practically every game they showed. But games are games but Natal is something completely different which can essentially change the way motion systems work for games. My interest in Natal is not based purely on gaming. I can see real world applications for this kind of technology.

My husband and I stumbled across some articles that may explain what Natal really is:

Below is a link for Johnny Lee's blog

And no he is not a fanboy but an academe with 10 years of experience in his said field. Johnny Lee first came under the gaming radar with this amazing video that you definitely have to watch! And check out his other WiiMote projects as well with this link:

Imagine that interesting application for the Wii Mote. Too bad Nintendo never bothered to add a lot more depth with their existing technology. But may be Nintendo's loss is Microsoft's gain for now Mr. Lee is part of the Project Natal team. Here is what he has to say about project Natal:

The 3D sensor itself is a pretty incredible piece of equipment providing detailed 3D information about the environment similar to very expensive laser range finding systems but at a tiny fraction of the cost. Depth cameras provide you with a point cloud of the surface of objects that is fairly insensitive to various lighting conditions allowing you to do things that are simply impossible with a normal camera.

But once you have the 3D information, you then have to interpret that cloud of points as "people". This is where the researcher jaws stay dropped. The human tracking algorithms that the teams have developed are well ahead of the state of the art in computer vision in this domain. The sophistication and performance of the algorithms rival or exceed anything that I've seen in academic research, never mind a consumer product. At times, working on this project has felt like a miniature “Manhattan project” with developers and researchers from around the world to coming together to make this happen.

If you're a skeptic then try out Mr. Lee's Wii Mote projects yourself to get a better grasp of what 3D mapping actually is. His projects will run on a Windows PC but you will need bluetooth in order to connect your WiiMote to your PC. Knowing that Mr. Lee is on board makes me excited in the hopes that Natal will transcend the XBOX 360 and actually go to the PC.

And here is another interview during one of the E3 Project Natal demos:

One interesting thing that came up in the demo is that when a woman stepped up to use it, the system recognized she was female and represented her on-screen as a female avatar with long hair. Tsunoda said that ideally, Natal will recognize users and be able to grab their existing Xbox avatars, but that in such a demo environment, it simply represented her the best way it could, given what it could see of her skeletal structure.

Another interesting point was the way Natal recognizes people's skeletal structure and analyzes how we move. Tsunoda made the point that Natal will continue to work even if someone walks in front of a player because it knows how the human body works. So, if a player had his or her arms blocked, but Natal's cameras could still see part of their arm, it can fill in the rest based on algorithms that tell it how that arm should look.

And it's the software, Tsunoda said, that's the "magic" behind Natal, and that allows the technology to "extract the human skeleton."

Natal is designed to work whether someone is standing up or sitting down, and can recognize users very quickly. We saw that in action when, one-by-one, we were invited to step up and play either a kickball game or a driving game. With a couple of exceptions where the player didn't stand in the right place, Natal did seem to almost instantly recognize that a new person was playing and, then, respond to their movements.

This may have been most impressive during game play of the racing game, "Burnout Paradise," when it was clear that Natal was doing a fine job of translating the player's hand movements--mimicking holding and turning a steering wheel--into moving the car on-screen.

Tsunoda said the technology behind Natal includes an RGB camera, an infrared camera, a multi-array microphone and a depth map. These features allow the system to track a player in 3D space, as well as to capture spoken commands from multiple people, none of whom have to wear a headset.

So far those are the only things known about Natal that is available to the public. But based on the impressions of people who actually tried this out, Natal is definitely REAL and the promise is there.

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