Sony, Microsoft show progress in motion gaming

But work still remains to get motion-controlled gaming to retailers' shelves

For anyone expecting significant updates on the progress of the motion-controlled gaming systems under development by Sony and Microsoft, this year's Tokyo Game Show will have disappointed. While both systems made brief appearances -- Microsoft's behind glass on the show floor and Sony's at a news conference -- the lack of demonstrations indicated that a fair amount of work remains before either is ready for sale.

With the systems, both companies are playing catch-up to Nintendo, which ushered in a new era in gaming with the launch of its Wii console and motion-sensitive "Wii-mote" remote control.

Of the two it's Sony's Motion Controller that is closest to the Wii-mote. It's a handheld device that looks a little like a microphone, albeit one with a glowing ball on the end. The glow isn't just for design -- it's the reference point that is tracked by the PlayStation Eye video camera so its position can be determined.

Microsoft's system, known by the Project Natal code-name, is based on a completely different technology. An infrared camera tracks the player, whose body becomes the controller. The player can jump, swing, hit and kick and these actions are mirrored by the character on screen. The camera-unit, which Microsoft is keeping close to its chest, also includes a microphone for audio feedback.

The motivation for both companies is drawing new people into gaming, as well as providing a more immersive experience for existing gamers.

"We wanted to make a new controllerless game that allowed anybody, no matter what your age or gaming ability, to get in and play with our console no instructions required," said Kudo Tsunoda, creative director for Natal, just before literally jumping into a demonstration that had him punching and kicking the air at on-screen balls that were virtually coming towards him.

It's worth noting that getting more people into video games was the prime motivation behind Nintendo's development of the Wii, Nintendo President Satoru Iwata said at the time of the console's launch in 2006.

Natal is certainly the more visually impressive of the two and the most energetic to use -- Tsunoda said he's lost 9 kilograms since starting to play prototype Natal systems -- but beyond the same gee-whiz factor that the Wii already introduced, what can both systems bring to gaming?

"When we started this our goal had always been to bring more consumers to the platform, making a very easy-to-use, intuitive interface," said Shuhei Yoshida, president of Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios. "But as we developed our technology and started experimenting with game prototypes we discovered that this technology works very well with the type of game that core gamers want. Because of its precision we can make the game deeper."

The companies expect their systems will be embraced by both casual and core gamers but to date there are few details on what games will feature the technology and how it will be used.

At a Sony news conference on Thursday the company demonstrated two games modified to work with its Motion Controller: Capcom's "Resident Evil 5" and its own "Little Big Planet." But neither is guaranteed to be available when the system launches.

Microsoft said a number of major publishers are working on Natal games, including: Activision Blizzard, Bethesda Softworks, Capcom, Disney, EA, Konami, MTV Games, Namco Bandai, Sega, Square Enix, THQ and Ubisoft. But it stopped short of naming any software titles.

Both companies have yet to announce launch dates, although Sony did say this week that it planned to put the Motion Controller on sale in Japan during the Spring of next year. Microsoft hasn't said anything beyond a broad 2010 launch window and Sony also hasn't talked about markets outside of Japan.

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Martyn Williams

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