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Microsoft’s gaming phone March 11, 2010

Posted by Cesar in gaming me.
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Do I have to mention the picture again? I didn’t think so. Anyway, this is a quick update. In one of my last entries, I mentioned Sony’s take on the PSP phone. So for completeness sake I feel I should mention the competition: this week, at GDC, Microsoft announced their new mobile phone OS.

Windows Phone 7 will have access to Xbox Live Arcade. On the programming side, the new version of XNA, the 4.0 release, will offer support for the platform, which by the way means developers will be able to create games for Windows 7 phones in a cost free environment.

As I mentioned when talking about the PSP phone, the key to this kind of initiative is software. And both companies are betting on their console markets to succeed. In that sense, I have to say Microsoft will get a head start. Live Arcade is right now a much stronger media distribution solution than the Playstation Network.

By the way, with the Live Arcade + XNA approach Microsoft rivals iPhone development, which is also free. What about Sony? The Japanese giant was apparently going that route, at least as far as sales are concerned, with the low priced PSP Mini games. However, development still depends on an expensive SDK. Maybe that indicates Sony might choose not to go that route and follow the more traditional game development/distribution model, keeping the publisher in between and charging for the development kit, like Nintedo does with the DSiware.

Which approach is better? I prefer the iPhone/Microsoft one by far. But that’s obvious because being both gamer and a programmer, I am biased. But let’s be fair, if I were a publisher or a manufacturer, things would be far less evident.

See you space cowboys…

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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