The ever-excitable Jason Bradbury has posted a written and video review of his experience playing with an early prototype of Microsoft’s much anticipated Project Natal gaming interface (check out the videos on the Natal YouTube channel here). I’m not much of a gamer, though Natal does hold some interest in the same way the Wii does, by breaking gaming away from controllers. I’m up for games where I can control the movement as if playing the the real world.
So from that perspective it excites me, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If the gesture and voice recognition is as good as they allege it is we could be looking at a game changer for human-computer interaction. We really would have a Minority Report-style interface. For normal interaction it’s probably less important (voice commands and gestures have limited use at your desk, and keyboards are as fast if not faster than writing, dictating would be good, but too noisy and public), but imagine it for interacting with almost anything else. Voice commands or gestures would work great for watching TV (‘increase volume’, ‘decrease volume’, ‘change to BBC 1’), no more hunting for the remote. What about browsing through online stores, reading books, playing music, mixing music would be great with gestures. Google’s Nexus One phone has shown voice recognition has come on recently, imagine dictating notes, text messages or emails to your computer (I still think there’s an issue with privacy and noise to overcome though).
Gestures would work well for some things on your computer too, how about adjusting the volume by using a volume dial gesture and just rotate up and down to increase and decrease? Combine that with some augmented reality and you have a universal interface for controlling anything. Look at the thermostat control and options would be displayed, then just tap the virtual options without getting up. Then you could even design your own interface instead of having to put up with whatever the designer thought was important.
That’s just the direct interaction element too. The demos have the system recognising objects and colours, perhaps more, so the implications for passive interaction are big too. It could identify the book you’re reading and download related material or suggest other authors, maybe read facial expressions and select music to match your mood, or identify when it’s getting dark and offer to switch on the lights.
Maybe MS are doing a better PR job than the others, but I don’t seem to have seen this from anyone else. If the technology is as good as they lead us to believe this could have an impact a long way from just games consoles. Microsoft could make an exponential leap forward in game and general technology interface design if Natal does debut before the end of the year as planned.