The mysterious 'Project Natal' that was announced more than a year back is finally about to see the light of day. The lucky few (ourselves included) who got to experience Microsoft's latest stimulus for the X360 have got nothing but rave reviews for it and we had a very similar experience as well.
Now known as the Kinect, this little device will compete against the Nintendo Wii and Sony's Playstation Move, as they involve motion based gaming where you use your body to perform whatever action is required in the game. While the basis for gaming is similar, the Kinect takes this concept one step further by getting rid of the controller completely and turning you into the controller.
This is possible due to the way in which the Kinect is designed. The hardware consists of three sensors, one is a color camera for taking pictures, video chat, etc.; the second and third is an IR blaster, which when paired with the monochrome CMOS camera sensor, is able to compute the 3D space you are standing in, which is your room. This allows the Kinect to accurately sense and replicate your actions that you perform in the real world into the game world. The camera is able to map 48 points on your body that are being constantly tracked for up to two players at the moment. So there is some serious processing going on all the time. The device itself does not have any processing chip inside; all that work is taken care of by the X360 itself.
Since the Kinect was being demoed on the older X360 that was used as a test console, we didn't see the final dashboard the X360 will have for the Kinect. But the process of starting a game remains the same. Just load up a game, move into the range of the Kinect and it automatically registers you and displays a little indication in the corner that a new player has joined. Another player can simply step in the field of view and get added as a second player if the game supports it.
The menus can be accessed by hand gestures (Minority Report style) which is represented by a white dot on the screen that you hover over an icon for a few seconds to select it. It will take a while getting used to, but nothing too complex that even a kid can't accomplish. Once we were in the game, we were really surprised at how responsive the system was, instantly mimicking our action, even though it was running a Beta build of games.
If you have seen the videos online then you also know that the Kinect accepts voice commands, which means, if you don't want to use hand gestures then you simply say "xbox" followed by the command. This feature may or may not be available during launch, mostly due to the accent problem. However, in the future Microsoft could add this in via a firmware update once they are ready.