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Project Natal: changes and concerns January 10, 2010

Posted by Cesar in thinking me.
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Gamesindustry.biz recently announced Microsoft is dropping the internal chip from Project Natal. Even though there’s some talk about the move being related to making updates easier, it is clearly a move to drop costs. It is understandable, as the device must ship at a reasonable price to succeed.

However, from my previous experiences with computer vision solutions, this might represent a big drawback. Natal is not supposed to be a simple toy, targeting unique, exquisite experiences. It is supposed to act as a reliable replacement for controllers in many ways. Computer vision algorithms, like the ones necessary to process both texture and range data the sensors provide, require significant processing, specially if reliability and response time are big issues (as it is clearly the case).

That means not only old games will not get updates (because there won’t be a processor budget to spare for the vision algorithms), but also that new games using the technology will have to reduce processing somewhere else in order to make the system as responsive and reliable as it has to be.

Not all is lost though and I still have hope. I don’t think Microsoft would make this decision without some confidence most of the appeal will still be there. What I can say is that the presence of the range sensors (as opposed to a simple camera) means a lot of the algorithms can be much simpler than in texture only solutions. Tasks like background subtraction, for example, are almost free when range data is available. And pose detection, be that of the head, hands or the whole body, is also simplified, since the range information makes things less ambiguous.

But there’s also no question a dedicated chip would make the impact bigger and increase the usability of the device. Developers will now have to decide between keeping Natal functionality or improving AI and other gameplay areas.

In a related note, the article also mentions Microsoft is struggling with a 100 ms delay in the system. That’s a very common issue with imaging devices: just turn on your webcam and notice the lag. In a way that’s an even more serious problem than the drop of the chip, since a hardware delay cannot be fixed by software optimization alone, meaning no matter how simple the game is, the delay will still be there. But, again, there’s hope. The fact that it is a well known problem that MS is working to solve means it will probably not be there when Natal is released by the end of the year. Or at least that’s what I hope.

See you space cowboys…

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