Early sales tepid for full-body controllers

The Wii shrunk the videogame controller down to the size of a TV remote. Now Microsoft is doing away with hand controls entirely to deliver a new iteration of motion-capture technology for home users.

Mo-cap has so far been most visible to the public in bringing actors’ performances to life as the Na’vi in “Avatar” and Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. But on Nov. 4, Microsoft will launch Kinect, a motion-capture device for vidgamers at home. The Kinect is a camera-microphone combo that connects to the XBox 360 and lets the user dictate voice commands to the console, essentially replacing the system’s controller-operated menus.

Kinect’s mo-cap is rudimentary by pro standards but a real eye-opener for the home — its camera detects users standing in the 3D space in front of it and translates their movements into gaming data. Basically, for Kinect titles, the player’s body is the controller.

The new interface has vid-game developers lining up with fresh offerings.

Ubisoft will release “Your Shape: Fitness Evolved,” a game that scans the user’s body to create an in-game avatar with the specific body type. The title then trains the player in various yoga and aerobics exercises, monitoring movements to confirm they are performed correctly. “Dance Central,” a title from Harmonix and MTV Games, teaches players dance routines for popular songs and uses Kinect’s camera to judge the dancer’s skill.

“There was no way we were going to make a dance game unless we were going to offer up actual dancing,” says “Dance Central” senior producer Kasson Crooker. Predecessors like “Dance Dance Revolution” restricted players to movements that could be recognized by a floor mat, but Kinect can detect movements by the entire body.

Major software companies representing roughly 70% of third-party vidgame sales have committed to Kinect, says Microsoft, though developers Activision and Take-Two Interactive Software are waiting to see early sales figures before they start active development.

Activision and Take-Two worry that the “casual gamer” market, made up of the kind of consumers that would be attracted to Kinect’s nontraditional interface, may already be saturated thanks to Nintendo’s Wii, the console that relies on a handheld controller to track movement. (The Wii was in such demand in 2006 that “South Park” spoofed the craze in an episode where Cartman froze himself so he could sleep through the weeks before its release.)

Publishers are also concerned about Kinect’s price. At $150 in addition to the cost of an XBox, Kinect makes the $199 Wii, which already includes mo-cap, look like the economical choice. Publishers were hoping the peripheral would be offered at less than $100.

Still, Microsoft exec Don Mattrick says the company expects global sales of Kinect to cross 3 million in its first two months.

Microsoft’s marketing efforts have been quick to call the peripheral an “experience” to complement the XBox’s functionality, rather than an interface to replace the system’s controller. The careful wording is likely a response to lessons learned from Nintendo’s launch.

In marketing the Wii as a family-friendly alternative to traditional game consoles, Nintendo alienated hardcore gamers. With its younger-skewing demo, Nintendo could take that hit, but Microsoft can’t afford to lose the hardcore 18-35 male aud that helped “Halo: Reach” rake in $200 million in one day.

The motion-capture competish ramped up earlier this month with the release of Sony’s Move controller for PlayStation 3. Sony senior researcher Richard Marks says the company was developing the new controller long before the Wii’s unveiling despite their similarities. The Move hardware bowed Sept. 19, but Sony has declined to release sales figures.

By the end of the year, all three major players in the gaming industry will be able to deliver motion-capture tech in the home. Whether Sony and Microsoft can match the success of the Wii — and whether home mo-cap is really ready to take off — remains to be seen.

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