E3: Gaming Cameras For Motion Control: Have They Really Thought This Through?

Both Microsoft and Sony announced camera-based game control solutions at E3 2009.  At the same time, Nintendo has said they rejected this kind of technology years ago in favor of the Wii-mote. Satoru Iwata, Nintendo President said recently:

“Until they say when they’re releasing it, how much it costs and what software it comes with, we won’t know whether that is the route we should have taken. However… I think they couldn’t choose to release exactly the same thing.” (link)

I have to say, that while the demos for Project Natal were neat, I tend to think that Nintendo is on to something.

Here is a question for you:  Have you ever played a game that uses a camera as the control mechanism?   I have owned both the Eye-Toy for the PS2 and the camera for the XBox 360.  While I like them both, but they both have some major problems. While these are not exactly what Microsoft and Sony have announced (but in part, they are the same too), there are some fundamental problems with camera control that go beyond any kind of new tech:

Take a look at this Microsoft demo before we begin.

OK, this looks pretty neat. The body movement tracking looks amazing. The “Richochet” game, especially, looks really cool. The full-body control is a dream-come-true for someone like me, who would love a full-movement soccer game to play in my living room the likes of which the Wii could never handle in it’s current state. However, watch segment with “Abbie” and “Richochet” closely again, and you will notice some things that make “Natal” seem less promising than it looks at first.

1. Distance

Look how far Abbie is from the screen. It looks like about 20 feet. From my experience with these types of cameras (Eye toy, 360 Camera) this is not an insignificant detail. In many instances, you need to be an almost exact distance from the camera to play a game correctly. I realize that a 3D camera is involved too, but so is standard camera. This could mean that something like this might only work in giant space. (20′ x 20′?) Also, the “3D” camera means that depth is factor, and again, that means that an unspecified large, clear space is needed. At least with the Wiimote you can simulate space by moving your arm. With Natal, you have no choice but to have a large, clear, open area.

2. Background

Notice that you don’t see the any of the “background” in either demo. The “background” meaning what the people are standing in-front of. That is because it is nearly impossible to use one of these cameras in a regular person’s living room. They software tries very hard, but eliminating the “background noise” to get a good view of just the player is very difficult. Even if this does work, it opens another issue. Where do other players sit? How can someone watch you play?. If you are playing in front of the TV, between you and the couch, no one can effectively sit behind you. They either mess-up the camera with their movement, or they can’t see because you are jumping around in front of them. The idea that this is a device for social play in the living room kind-of goes out the window.

3. Gamer Height

This one is huge for me. The problem with camera in the past has been that they need to optimized for the current player. This is fine if, say, two 5 year olds are playing, or two 39 year olds. They are relatively the same height, and adjustments should be minuscule. However, try to play an “Eye Toy” game with a 39 year old AND a 5 year old. One of you, honestly, gets screwed. Either the camera gets the 39 year old’s top 1/2 and just the head or the 5 year old, or all of the 5 year old, and just the legs of the 39 year old. It may seem like Natal is great for family gaming, but in my experience it only leads to frustration. You can try to fix this problem by adjusting the camera, and it’s placement, but that is also very difficult. Finding the right position for the camera is a daunting task. With Natal there will be TWO camera. Oh lord. You can probably alleviate the issue with a large room, but then we are back to #1. How much space is required to make this kind of play control useful?

4. Multiple Players

Trying to get multiple players to play a game at the same time in-front of a camera is not a task for the faint of heart. Microsoft touts Natal as being able to discern multiple players, but that is not the main issue. The main issue is “camera time”. If a person get in front of the camera and hogs the view, it really doesn’t matter if the system can tell who it is. It won’t be able to see the other person very well. Add to this the fact that actual injuries from ramming into other people are common (at least in my house) as were fights about who was a camera hog. Wiimotes suffer from some of this too, but the advantage is that the system does not have to actually see you in line-of-sight, which means you simple have more options for how you play with another person. The 3D camera might make this problem moot, but if there is still a regular camera involved (as Microsoft has stated) I can’t see how it will not be a factor. 

So am I just a complainer?  Maybe.  This article  refutes some of these  complaints (by pointing out how Natal uses Infrared to track players) but not all of them.  we won’t really know until we see more actual games in action.

Look, in all honesty, I love the idea of Natal and camera-based control mechanisms. I WANT to play that full-body soccer game (and no, I won’t settle for only playing goal tender) However, I’ve already been suckered into buying two camera-based systems in the past, and even though they promise the world in their demos, I’ve been mostly frustrated when trying to play with them in my living room.


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