Kinect unveiled at Microsoft E3 preview

Microsoft has finally unveiled and revealed the real name of its motion sensing video game device, previously known as Project Natal: Kinect.

Kinect, which plugs into the Xbox 360 console, uses a video camera and an infrared sensor to track the players’ actions and convert them into onscreen movement.

Microsoft showed clips from several Kinect games during a lavish pre-E3 2010 event at The University of California’s enormous Galen Centre, including an athletics sim in which participants run and jump to compete in the hurdles, throw an imaginary javelin, and play football with kicking actions. There was also a yoga simulation, some white-water rafting, and a dancing tuition game, which gets users to perform a series of steps and moves in time with licensed pop tracks.

Several Kinect games will be closely compatible with social networking sites Twitter and Facebook, allowing users to send screenshots of themselves playing the games to friends and family members. Microsoft has so far delayed providing a retail price for the device, but has scheduled a release date for this autumn, and is expected to support the launch with a redesigned slimline version of the Xbox 360 console.

Kinect is an attempt to complete directly with the massively successful Nintendo Wii console, which has now sold about 70-million units, 30-million more than the Xbox 360. Wii technology allows players to control games by waving and shaking a special controller, but Kinect goes one step further, by removing the need for any sort of handheld input.

Once considered a transitory pursuit for teenage boys, gaming has now become a mainstream entertainment medium, with games like Wii Fit, Rock Band and Professor Layton and the Curious Village attracting a vast new family audience. So far, however, these so-called casual gamers have been put off by the Xbox, with its reliance on hardcore shooters like Gears of War and Halo. But Microsoft didn’t completely ignore its traditional audience at the event; perhaps the loudest cheer of the night erupted when a demo was shown of a Kinect-compatible Star Wars game, in which players will be able to flail their arms around in order to compete in lightsabre duels with Darth Vader and his Storm Troopers.

Kinect is likely to enjoy a multi-million dollar marketing push in the run up to Christmas — but Microsoft is not alone in its desire to stea Nintendo’s audience. Sony is set to provide the PlayStation 3 console with its own motion controller, named PlayStation Move. The wand-like device, which more closely resembles the Wii’s remote controller, is also due out in the autumn, putting it in direct competition with Kinect.

The Kinect announcement is also set to be only one of many video game revelations this week. Tuesday sees the beginning of the E3 games exhibition at the LA Convention centre, an annual event in which all the major games industry companies show off their new releases to thousands of journalists, bloggers and game fans who’ve been able to blag their way into the trade-only bonanza. The big games are likely to be first-person shooters Halo: Reach and Killzone 3, historical assassination adventure Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, and the intriguingly dark Disney title, Epic Mickey.

Some pundits, however, reckon the focus of the three-day exhibition could be another emerging technology: 3D visuals. Nintendo will be showing its new 3D capable handheld console, the Nintendo 3DS, while Sony is expected to have a selection of 3D-compatible PlayStation titles on show, including the long-awaited driving sim, Gran Turismo 5. This year, it’s perhaps not about what we’re going to play, it’s about HOW we’re going to play: by jumping about, or by putting on a pair of special glasses and revelling in three-dimensional graphics. One thing is clear, after the massive investment Sony and Microsoft have put into their respective consoles, neither is in a hurry to announce a new platform just yet.

The audience at the launch event was also treated to an astonishing performance by Cirque du Soleil, who used dance, lights and special effects to communicate Microsoft’s brand vision — a far cry from the usual recipe of awkward upper ranking execs lurking on stage while game demos play to deafening rock music. Unfortunately, the impact of the event was slightly undermined when an Italian advert for the Xbox 360 was put online too early, revealing the new name for Natal hours before the official announcement. Although the ad was quickly withdrawn, news of the blunder spread across Twitter in a matter of minutes. – guardian.co.uk

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