Humans were not meant to experience the exhilaration of life-threatening action while slumped on a couch covered in Doritos crumbs. Celebrity voice-overs and cinema story lines are drops in a shallow pool of experience without raw physiological emotion.
From recognizing the trigger-pulling motion of a single finger to activating Jedi powers through a push of the hands, Microsoft has taken a leap forward toward a more visceral gaming experience with enhanced gestural commands that control avatars with intuitive, life-like movements. At yesterday's Xbox E3 announcement, Microsoft demonstrated two games that may give them a lengthening lead in the three-way race for gamer dollars. Star Wars: Old Republic is every fan's geeky fantasy: Robots are tossed around with Force powers gestured through the familiar Jedi pushing movement. Kudo Tsunoda, creative director for Kinect, says that it was previously difficult to become immersed in the Star Wars universe, when "I'm using the Force by pushing a button. Like, it just doesn't make any sense. It doesn't make you feel like a powerful Jedi."
Body and mind share a deep cognitive connection: Reenacting specific movements can trigger a rush of memories and emotions. Upright positions, tensed muscles, and quick movements spark the body's primative flight or fight response, along with a flood of heightened excitement. "It immerses you in the world," Tsunoda tells Fast Company. "Letting people build that connection between themselves and their character is really a strong kind of emotion."
Gameplay, at least in the demo, wasn't perfect: Slashing was jerky and jumping significantly slowed down the action. Enemies would uncharacteristically wait for Jedi avatars to awkwardly reposition themselves after a jumping movement, which was triggered with a lazy hopping motion. Still, the ability to battle Sith lords and toss Darth Vader with one's own body is a much cooler, and physically charged, experience than pressing a button.
Microsoft's science fiction war simulator, Mass Effect 3, might do gestures more justice. Yesterday's demo previewed a choose-your-own adventure type story line, navigated through voicing the actual dialogue that leads the player along a uniquely chosen path. Moral dilemmas of whether to shoot or spare a human life are more emotionally genuine when the choice is made by curling one's finger to pull a trigger, or commanding a soldier to perform an execution.
The lively Sesame Street demo yesterday may also get an educational boost from gesturing, as studies have shown that instructing children to gesture improves performance on math tasks. Sesame Street: Once Upon A Monster leads parents and children through an animated world of not-so-scary monsters, challenging children to imitate the big, bear-like movements with hands, body, and voice. A historically educational franchise, Xbox will likely be a compelling buy for parents wanting to see their children get up on their feet and experiment with hands-on learning. Another family-friendly game that was shown was Disneyland Adventures, where players can explore the theme park and then go on the rides—which have become little games, such as flying with Peter Pan (reportedly, all games shown during the demo were exclusively for Xbox).
Microsoft also unveiled a potentially fascinating feature that permits fingers to trace patterns behind objects, such as through legs, with individual finger commands. Other demonstrations of tech included Kinect scanning a person and instantly creating an avatar with matching clothes and a cartoony replica of their face and the scanning of objects so you can add your own possessions into a game.
The possibilities are endless for hackers, who have already exploited Kinect's open architecture to perform surgery, play World of Warcraft, and control robots. The added granularity could revolutionize virtual music lessons (think individual piano keys), military training, and bring us one step closer to living in a Minority Report world. Although, on that last point, there is stealth competition for Kinect.
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[Image: Flickr User Creative Tools]
[Videos by Adam Barenblat]