Microsoft Is Kicking Xbox Up a Notch

At the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, the video game industry comes together to introduce its latest games and consoles. The conference runs through June 4.
By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Microsoft's Xbox team took fresh aim at Nintendo yesterday, announcing a new 3D control scheme for its game console aimed at luring non-gamers in the same way the Wii has done.

Xbox owners will soon be able to listen to Web-streamed music, update their Facebook or Twitter pages and watch movies in high definition instantly on the device, without having to wait on a sluggish download.

What's more, they won't have to use the buttons and thumbsticks that line a traditional game controller. A new motion-detecting and voice-recognizing camera that can "see" a player's arm and hand motions will allow Xbox owners to interact with the device with a wave of their hand or a spoken command.

The announcement was aided by several celebrities including Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, who showed up to talk up the latest version of the popular game Rock Band, coming this fall, which will feature 45 Beatles songs. "Whoever thought we'd end up as androids?" joked McCartney, as he and Starr promoted the game's graphics.

Microsoft's news conference blitz took place in Los Angeles on the eve of the video game industry's major annual trade show, the Electronic Entertainment Expo. About 40,000 people are expected to attend.

With Microsoft's new motion-detecting technology, called Project Natal, the company appears to be responding to the success of Nintendo's Wii game console. The Wii became the most popular game console of this generation of devices by giving players a motion-detecting controller that felt intuitive to use even for people who typically had no interest in video games. The Wii has outsold competing game consoles by a factor of nearly two to one.

With a device that doesn't require a controller at all, Microsoft is attempting to go Nintendo one better. Microsoft did not announce a release date for the device, which plugs into the Xbox 360 game console; the software tools that game developers will need to develop projects using this technology were delivered yesterday.

Film director Steven Spielberg, who has steered the development of a couple of recent popular video games for the Wii, took the stage to sing the praises of the controller-free technology. The majority of the population is too intimidated by game controllers to ever pick one up, he said, adding that this technology is the only way to bring games to everybody.

"The gamer in me went out of my mind," Spielberg said about seeing and using the technology for the first time. "I felt like I was present for a historic moment."

To control a racing game, players hold their hands in front of them and "steer" accordingly. To play a karate fighting game, players stand in front of their TV, kicking and punching as if they were practicing for their black belt.

"This isn't a game where you end up on the sofa using some kind of preset waggle commands," said Kudo Tsunoda, a director on Microsoft's Xbox team, in an obvious jab at Nintendo, as he showed off one title that had its player kicking and jumping on the stage.

In other announcements, Microsoft said that the streaming Web music service will be available this fall and that Xbox owners in Britain will be able to watch live television broadcasts through the device.

And, oh yes, there were announcements for Xbox owners who aren't afraid of game controllers, too: Game developer Bungie showed off not one, but two new versions of its hit franchise Halo -- one scheduled for a September release and one for next year.

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