Art vs. Science- A look at Microsoft's Surface and Project Natal

Art vs. Science- A look at Microsoft's Surface and Project Natal

15th February 2010 - Microsoft is at the pinnacle of blending creativity and technology to make a future where your everyday entertainment system feels like an extension of your body. This future was on display at Microsoft’s Sydney University Event on February 9 which launched the birth of Surface and Project Natal. Ian and my-self were there and firstly I summarize what generally happened on the night and then Ian delves deeper into the new technologies and what they entail.


People entering the event.

The first half of the night was a hands-on experience with Microsoft’s latest electronic toys. Groups of people were huddled around twelve XBOX systems, four Dell laptops and Microsoft’s two newest innovations, Natal and Surface. People showed off their Rock Band Beatles, Halo ODST and DJ Hero skills while others marveled at James Cameron’s Avatar game adaptation on a Hyundai 3D television. The event space was a bit cramped but there was just enough room for people to game, move around and observe play. The Dell laptops were there to display the variation within Dell’s latest line of laptops, although they did not get as much attention as the other devices in the room.


Some of the screens for people to use.

The rest of the night was a talk given by Robert Bach, Microsoft’s President of Entertainment & Devices Division, on how Microsoft plans to bring in a new technological age. He firstly stated how technology has changed how we see entertainment. Traditionally entertainment could be split into categories such as books, movies, sports etc. However, this view has now been changed to the point that one cannot think about a movie without thinking of the video clip or music that goes with it and vice versa. The same can be said about how we view our entertainment. It is possible now to be watching a show on television, while looking up information about it on your laptop and chatting to your friend online about it via messenger on your phone. The innovative move to make these three functions into only two or even one function is what Microsoft calls ‘multi screens’. When forming this new technology Bach claims Microsoft’s approach is ‘user centric’ and this is achieved by seeing how people interact with their technology and trying to make it easier.


The presentation then moved onto the latest technology being brought out by Microsoft.  I’ll let Ian take over from here.


Hyundai's 3D Screen which Avatar was run on.

Thanks Sussan. The First piece of technology on show was Microsoft’s Surface. Robbie stood on the not so new Microsoft surface; Microsoft’s ‘big-ass’ table computer with multi-touch sensors, something that the general public has not had the chance to play with since it was released around 2005. It exists, but only in the lobby of high priced hotels. It seemed to be the unofficial Australian launch, with an emphasis on education and big business.


Now in all fairness, it may be a big achievement, in fact it looks downright cool, placing your phone on the screen and uploading/downloading data, playing with maps and generally taking the interface between objects including the humble credit card. The thing is Apple kind of came along and squashed those dreams with their iPhone. It has broken a public stigma, associated with new technology, one they hope to repeat with the recently announced iPad. Taking the simplest of input commands, touch, and making it accessible to everyone, means no one wants to use a mobile the same way again. Suddenly people are looking at technology differently, that they personally have the ability, without any knowledge, to drive and interface with the most complex of programs.


The Microsoft Surface.

Human Centered Design

As All Age Gaming heads towards one year of online content, it has left me thinking about my place in this whole thing. See, when I’m not writing about games, I’m actually a teacher doing my best to educate 20-somethings on the pros and cons of said new technology. And sure enough, as soon as I’ve shown them one video, another comes along.


So I’ve known about the Surface computer for a while, I’ve also known about this. TED has some of the smartest, innovative people in the world, all coming together to make the world a better place, so when one of the most visionary game designer behind some of the most beloved titles of the past two decades; Earthworm Jim, MDK, Messiah, talks- you listen.


Heading toward 30, something like that really, really makes you think. When I present something like the iPhone or Touch Screens to my students, Human Centered Design always comes up, but what is it. It’s basically a design philosophy which more and more game companies are embracing, which puts the user of the interface i.e. Humans, at the centre. We are no longer static observers of media. We are wholly interactive functional extensions, namely through sight, sound and touch.


Until I can smell the internet and taste a movie, that will have to do, but as Humans, we have something else: Emotion, reason and logic: Logic has always been at the driving point of ‘smart’ technology; robots, AI ect, but more recently art and science have come together to incorporate emotions and reason too. Not only whether these artificial relationships illicit happiness or sadness, but how far we can stretch the reality of the AI itself.


Take Microsoft’s Natal, and Milo. The user literally invests real emotion based on the feelings towards the avatar who in return, through Natal can tell how you’re feeling. As we head through 2010, with wireless and 3D interfacing becoming a norm, it’s going to be ever more important that we invest in the other input commands, the subjective ones and then output a response to the user that is both logical and emotive.


But all this is indulgent right? What are the biggest issues facing our world today; poverty, economics, global warming- Human Centered Design is about that too. It is in a nutshell, about improving the quality of life through sustainable technology created for the environment in which they live. The $100 laptop is a prime example


The Surface again.

Natural User Interface

This one I like. I like it, because I haven’t taught it yet. Usually on a Monday afternoon, the best thing I can come up with is Graphical User Interfaces+ User Interface Design = Human Centered Design. Now, that can be updated. Forget Graphical User Interfaces, that was so last year. Natural User Interfaces are; you guessed it, Humans as extensions of the machine; our body is both the control for input commands and directly receives the output of stimulation weather it be sight, sound or emotion. It is, in my opinion, the future.


Forget the Matrix, in the future everyone is going to be playing with technology literally throwing data around the room, don’t believe me? Check this out; it is available now, and it works.

The future is now!

The end is nigh

So what does all this mean, for you, the 20-something video game junkie and the consumer; it does not mean the end. Certainly some people, once again, are heralding the end of core video game content as we know it- “All the developers are soft, Natal is too casual, ‘real games’ are dying”. I tend to disagree, mostly because if anything games are taking an evolutionary leap forward. Hind-sight is a wonderful thing because as we have seen, computers have not died because of the console. The delivery methods have changed, the business models are more mixed up than ever before, but the content is still top notch.


Certainly, there are emerging trends currently in dummying down gameplay for bigger and better graphics, more artistic styles and the ebb and flow of casual gaming. But if anything I see Natal as giving back the PC what it already had. I actually think we might see a shift of core-gaming back to PCs in the next 5 years, with developers designing for all consoles but essentially PC preferred for ‘hard-core’ games. Until the 20-somethings have kids of their own they might just feel muscled out of the console market, returning to more traditional methods. It is hard to see exactly where all this is going, as much as the iPhone took off, people may just not be ready for the ‘next big thing’. 3D gives us hope for the future but is still too expensive.


Australian based Krome Studios were also there to pimp out the new XBOX Live Game Room, and if it shows us nothing else it’s that: games never die, people will always pay for them, and we love to play together. Our interview with Krome Studios on the new Game Room feature can be read HERE.



Microsoft surface

Krome Studios

XBOX Games Room

TED Talks


Article Written By Ian Crane and Sussan Nunez