Natal Becomes Kinect and Aims for Family Play Time

BOOM widget 132896Even by the exaggerated standards of E3 events Microsoft's Cirque du Soleil "Natal Experience" show stood out as an amazing spectacle. And make no mistake; it was a show, not a videogame demonstration. In hindsight it seems painfully obvious that the famous performing troupe weren't there to play games. Their job was to suspend reality and help the audience envision the fantastical world of living with the device now known as Kinect.

Most of that vision looked like outtakes from the long line of Nintendo Wii commercials promoting "Wii would like to play." Happy families gathered in the den around the television, bonding as they play together. Mom, dad, and the kids took turns competing in the obligatory sports game running in place and jumping to simulate hurdles, running in place and launching an imaginary javelin, and, of course, bowling. Brother and sister happily guided a raft down whitewater rapids, jumping and leaning to control its movement and posing in space to touch coins along the way to score points. The camera in the Kinect even snapped a few shots as they did so afterward everyone could have a chuckle at how silly they looked having fun.

The message came across loud and clear: the family that plays Kinect together, stays together. It doesn't get much more wholesome but how realistic is it? I'm not sure you can stand in front of the TV mimicking dance moves and not feel self-conscious on your own, much less doing it with your parents. And no matter what the input device, driving a kart in a racing game is a pretty solo experience, not something that will keep a group of spectators riveted to the screen.

For such a unique innovation -- interacting with videogames without a traditional controller -- it was the Cirque du Soleil performance that tickled the imagination more so than Kinect. The montage of family gaming played it safe but left me wondering why the average person it seemed to be aimed at would be inclined to make the investment when it looked like what their Wii already does. Even the Yoga game that made good use of the body position sensing capabilities of Kinect immediately brought to mind all the various Wii workout games.

It will be good to get a chance to play some of these games this week not just to see how they are but also to get a sense for interacting with Kinect. If it feels comfortable and accepts natural motions then the potential is there for something as imaginative as a Cirque show, but it will take more than jumping around in front of the TV.