Natal E3

This was a strange thing.

Outside the Galen Center, everything was fairly standard. Some Cirque dancers/drummers, nice set pieces, jungle theme. We slowly filtered in and they had us don the what-I-assume-are-now-legendary space ponchos, which were weird. Myself and a nearby French Canadian decided that this was strange, they can’t have a water show in the Galen Center, so we explored and discovered embedded electronics in the shoulderpads. To my electrical engineer’s eyes, I could easily spy a crystal oscillator, several LEDs, an infrared receiver, two large lithium batteries, a host of resistive circuitry, but also a few chips I couldn’t identify without looking out the pinouts online.

We know this is Microsoft, but even now, before we even went into the main room, understand how surreal this was. We were split into small groups, led through a dark tunnel, asked to don mysterious white ponchos with secret embedded electronics, with absolutely no explanation. We’re a freaking cult. Oh, but wait, hold on.

Now, with cult gear, we’re led down another dark hallway, and there’s a big window where we can see an Indian family (father, mother, sister, brother) looking like they’re having fun. And suddenly they “see” us, and beckon with their hands, “Come in, come in!” My friends and I look at each other, confused. Like, step in? Through the damn window and into their living room? Yeah. So we step in and they say ridiculous things to us in what I can only assume was Punjabi, just smiling and nodding to us. Stunned, we were led out the back as they waved farewell, and I just couldn’t help but wonder what the hell was going on.

And so, we were led into the main arena. I have difficulty even fathoming the money that went into this show. The entire basketball arena was decked out in misters, foliage, craggy mountains, crazy tribal gear, giant screens. Cirque performers traipsed through the crowd, often doing nonsensical things: they would grab people’s hands and force them together, then pray, then jump and spin and run away to the other end of the floor. Some were doing acrobatics, others brought attendees on top of lit rocks for pictures…at this point I had to literally wonder if I had been slipped some form of acid, or roofies, maybe, I don’t know. There was a couch hanging a hundred feet in the air, with a family joking happily on top. I just…Christ.

Contributing to the dreamlike quality of the scene was Felicia Day, who I bravely approached and struck up a conversation. She’s quite nice; I’ve met her before (Anime Expo 2009, Comic-Con 2009). She had the special White Bracelet (White Bracelets chilled at a cocktail party whilst the press waited in line), and she was debating whether she should take her VIP seat or rock standing-room-only, like the plebians. I think she remained on the floor, though I said my farewells and ventured back to my group.

And finally, the show started. After some initial Cirque theatrics (and a giant animatronic elephant), a little boy was paraded from the back, climbing the rocks and taking out 360 controllers from his satchel to play three titles on three screens arranged before him. The first was Banjo & Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts. The second was the indie title The Maw. The third was Kameo (the FIRST Kameo, people). After overcoming these challenges, he climbed the largest rock and turned to the audience, holding his controller defiantly…but after a moment, he thinks better of it, and replaces the controller in his satchel. A voice, “Welcome.” His avatar appears, shown clearly mimicking his movements. He messes around for a bit, and then the rock atop which he stands is unveiled to be a giant Xbox orb (see my final picture). The orb moves forward, and he steps from the orb into a giant rectangular living room, held aloft.

For no reason, this room rotates completely upside down, the family presumably strapped onto the couch. A woman then walks across the room, upside down, held in place by an elaborate wire system.

At this point, the game demos began. Nothing seemed particularly exciting at first: River Rafting, then a Mine Cart game. The racing game looked fairly nice, and featured some half-pipe car tricking, and then a strange mode where wings were affixed to the sides of the car. One avatar stood atop each wing, and the two had to work together to steer.

Then, a Disney logo. Tinkerbell flew around the screens, and some fireworks, but interestingly, this led to nothing. I don’t know what it was meant to imply. Maybe I missed something while tweeting?

This was followed, however, by the highlight of the night: the Star Wars demonstration. It did NOT feel like a live demo, but it was incredibly impressive. He was force-throwing tanks and enemies with a flick of his wrist, deflecting lightsaber shots, dashing forward with a certain body motion, and using an AoE force blast by doing that think Goku does when he turns into a Super Saiyan. It did feel pre-baked, and it did feel on-rails, but it was a rush to watch. Excited.

After that was Microsoft’s response to Wii Fit, a very peaceful yoga and taichi based program. Here, the avatar was shown on screen, but so was a glowy red silhouette of the woman’s actual body. The game was checking her alignment and joints to ensure she was performing adequately. It was what it was.

Then, a boys v. girls two-on-two, featuring hurdles (Power Pad, run in place), javelin, bowling, a head-to-head 100m dash, soccer, then beach volleyball. All felt very similar to Wii Sports, in that movement is generally automatic. The girls won, 12 to 11.

Then, a Kinectimals demonstration, which was a little creepy. I like cats and all, but the girl was all over this baby tiger. She did all the Nintendogs things: food, fetch, whatever. It’s what you’d expect.

Finally, a hip-hop dancing demo. The kid failed the first two movements (“elbow throws”), so the game slowed down the beat and let him practice at a slower pace until he was a bit more proficient. Other moves included “guitar” and “seduce”. Really.

A little demo of video chat, a little of the Natal-enabled dashboard. I do believe the demos ended at this point, and the presentation wrapped up with some bizarre theatrics. The screens were brought down to reveal twelve floating cubic rooms, with dancing families in each. Meanwhile, our secret embedded ponchos showed off some impressive technology: the crowd lit up in different colors and patterns. Since we didn’t have assigned seating, this means that the chips knew exactly where we were, and chose the appropriate color for our shoulder pads. The kid from the beginning showed up again, and somehow…summoned…dozens of flying avatars through space…to him. I don’t, I don’t know.

I don’t know what this event was. I’m going to talk about it for a very long time. It wasn’t about the technology itself, I think, that’s tomorrow. It was about spending a hell of a lot of money to impress people with bizarre, over-the-top insanity. And I think it worked. People are going to be talking about this for a very long time, and everything for the next few days is going to seem tame by comparison.

2 thoughts on “Project Natal Experience: A Personal Tale

  1. This was a really interesting read! Nice to hear a lot of detail about the actual event itself

  2. This was a really interesting read! Nice to hear a lot of detail about the actual event itself

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