Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Hands-Free XBox and Wii Interfaces Will Give Microsoft and Nintendo a Data Collection Edge

On the heels of Google's potentially revolutionary Wave announcement, Steve Ballmer's Microsoft has dropped a future bomb of its own: a hands-free, emotionally responsive XBox control system that could disrupt and expand the video game industry much like the Wii did eons ago in 2006.

Unveiled yesterday at E3, the new Natal system has been evoking rave reviews arcoss the blogosphere. Some choice phrases: "game-changer", "seminal moment not just in video games, but in technology too", "disabled gaming revolution?", and the more cautious "seems to hold a lot of potential, with some possible technical limitations".

Particularly interesting is Natal's ability to scan objects, such as a skateboard, and bring them into the game, as demonstrated in the promo video below:

Not to be outdone, Nintendo has also announced a lighter-weight hands-free control interface for the Wii, releasing this workout demo on the heels of Microsoft's big announcement:

Prosumer Takeaways: While not all that surprising from from the futurist perspective (these sorts of interfaces have been in the labs for years, even popping up in shopping malls way ahead of their time, RIP Matt Bell's Reactrix) hands-free interfaces sure do have the potential to make possible Minority Report-esque interfaces, enable whole new gaming genres, allow people to interact with rich media in public places, lay the foundations for hands-free mobile iPhones, Zunes and Androids, and so forth. (Truly a disruptive multiplier.)

That said, I wonder how other non-gaming companies are going to react to 1) the new interfaces themselves and 2) the information generated by hands free play. I'm sure they'll all race to incorporate them into their own devices and systems. For Google that may be done via external developers working with the Android platform. But that will take some time and perhaps some big new plays in hardware or cloud-based gmaing systems (facilitated by more efficient compression, coordination and streaming software), which leaves Microsoft, Nintendo and possibly Sony (they can't be far behind) with a unique window of opportunity to create marketplaces for the gestural/behavioral data generated and captured through these systems. I bet that's how Google sees it.

Who will win that niche search war?

Update #1: Sony, too, has announced it's getting into the motion capture game, albeit with a hand-held, gyroscope-free stick used as visual reference for a camera. Apparently the controller outperforms the current Wii stick. The controller arrives in early 2010.