Cirque du Soleil helps launch controller-less system

Project Natal, essentially Microsoft’s answer to Nintendo’s Wii, has a new name: Kinect.

Microsoft made a big splash with the controller-less system last summer when it introduced Project Natal at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles.

The system uses a camera to monitor players’ movements to turn them into the controller that manipulates characters around the screen.

With Sony also pushing its own motion-control system, the Move, at this year’s E3, and Nintendo continuing to dominate sales with its Wii, Microsoft needs to make a big splash with announcements for Kinect this week.

It got a jump on its hardware rivals Sunday by presenting Kinect’s upcoming games and capabililties with a little help from dance troupe Cirque du Soleil.

Microsoft tends to lean toward the dramatic at times, and this unveiling was no different.

The show, which attempted to get the audince involved by making them wear interactive ponchos whose shoulder pads lit up during segments, was certainly a pricey affair, but whether it will wow anyone who had already seen Natal in action during its unveiling last year, is uncertain.

The 45-minute show, which will be repeated Monday night, plays more like an Olympic opening ceremony, where confusion often reigns over the main message.

For example, the show revolves around Cirque’s dancers portraying a manic crew of drum-banging cavemen who represent the past while Kinect symbolizes man’s advancements in the future.

“What is your name?” a boy dramatically asked a large white screen before the Kinect moniker soon materialized for the first time to a dramatic score.

Add to that ponchos worn by guests whose shoulder pads light up, an elephant with digital screens on its sides, a gorilla, a family perched on a couch hovering over the audience at one end of the basketball arena for most of the show, while other families are literally turned upside down while playing Kinect from a livingroom set built inside a large white cube that revolves, and you’ve got one bizarre series of events.

Yet much of the show was spent following a family of four demonstrating playing a series of games set to bow on Kinect, with Cirque’s performers interpreting the movements perched on giant boulders leading up to their livingroom.

Most were essentially a series of mini-games already offered on the Wii. But then came the more notable titles that started peaking the crowd’s interest: a “Star Wars” title that enables the player to wield a light saber on screen by mimicking holding one. In a yoga game, a player must mimick the movements of a digital double — a direct attempt to compete with Nintendo’s successful sports biz like the Wii Fit software and Balance Board. Another offering lets Kinect owners adopt a tiger that they can pet and teach tricks, opening the doors to a slew of animals gamers could similarly own and care for on screen.

Yet another game revolved around learning dance moves to pop tunes — essentially “Guitar Hero” with choreogaphy.

Names were not disclosed for the games during the presentation.

Microsoft can go too far trying to impress at times. Cirque du Soleil provide a mixed bag of a performance with its past and present often clashing. Its dancers, on occasion, also looked bored while wiggling around on the boulders trying to keep up with the distractingly cheesy movements and facial expressions made by the faux family on display.

The plastic ponchos were used only once to impressive effect, while making their wearers hot during the rest of the presentation and lengthy wait leading up to it. Meanwhile, the Kinetic name wasn’t even pushed outside of its one-time reference, raising questions whether it was actually the official new name or not.

But Microsoft does have something impressive with Kinetic and can finally compete in areas where Nintendo has dominated. It doesn’t have to oversell what it’s created. Now if only Microsoft can focus on one simple message.

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