NEWS: Project Natal and Milo

June 6, 2009 at 9:52 pm Leave a comment

On Monday Microsoft introduced the world to Natal and Milo and what better way to finally kick off this site?

Natal is basically a webcam, a microphone and some seriously amazing software. It allows the user to control a device using just physical movements – no controller of any type is required. Imagine changing channels on your TV by simply pointing your finger at the screen and flicking your finger up. It is, essentially, a massive evolution of the mouse.

As a gamer my first thought was “no way, not interested.” The idea is interesting but the thought of playing for any extended period of time is not high on my list. I play games to relax, not to tire myself out. I also just do not see something like this allowing for depth of play. I know 11 button controllers are daunting to some people but I’m more from the “11 buttons is not enough” crowd. I want very precise control over my games. I don’t see that with Natal.

As a teacher though I see perhaps the greatest technological revolution (far beyond innovation) since the dawn of the Internet. The greatest barrier to games in the classroom is setup and explanation time. Invariably a game is too simple for those kids in a class who are veteran gamers and too complex for those who aren’t. Even using a mouse requires a very specific set of motor skills that inexperienced kids don’t have.

Natal’s tagline though is “the only experience required is human experience.” Amazingly, based on the demo shown on Monday, I believe it. It looks incredibly intuitive. The software reacts so quickly to human movement that you are immersed in the game in a very incredible way. Your character truly becomes you. Project Natal can not just break down barriers to entry with software but completely blow up those barriers entirely, or as Steven Spielberg (yes, that Steven Spielberg) put it “Microsoft didn’t reinvent the wheel, they got rid of it entirely.”

So, Project Natal shows great potential as an interface device in the classroom but it is Milo that truly appealed to the teacher in me. Milo, for lack of better explanation, is a virtual personality. Not just a virtual character but a true personality with thoughts, feelings and unique reactions. What was stunning (and I won’t be convinced this was real until I see it in person) was how Milo reacted to the player. If you frown, he knows it. If you are giddy, he knows it. Milo can read your emotions just like another human being might. Imagine building a “Milo” with the personality of Abraham Lincoln or Julius Caesar. Imagine students conducting interviews with this virtual person. Not only would the figure react with proper answers but it would feel so real as to remove the “gimmicky” barriers so often associated with educational software.

Imagine going on a virtual archaeologic dig with this software. Your guide would lead you but you would do the physical labor of digging, sweeping, and categorizing. These types of simulations already exist on the market today but use the very unreal input of a mouse and keyboard. We in the Social Sciences field constantly talk about having students experience history. Milo and Natal could truly make that happen.

What about other subjects? Imagine a science classroom where students manipulated a world with a very different set of physics rules than our own. (Many games today allow this already as I’ll discuss in future entries.) Imagine visiting a crime scene and physically having to sift through for clues. There are just so many possibilities!

It really is stunning what could be possible with this technology. One more thing though that really makes this amazing is how Milo responded to being shown a drawing. Milo asked the player to draw him a picture of a fish. She did so on a physical piece of paper and “handed” it to Milo. The software then decided based on various details whether or not she had in fact drawn a picture of a fish. This, obviously, doesn’t have much educational use outside of perhaps a class for language learners but the possibilities are quite amazing. What if students could show Milo an essay and he could offer grammatical suggestions? What is Milo could check their math homework (and remember, he can see frustration!)?

This truly is an incredible revolution and I can’t wait to see how education will be affected.

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Entry filed under: Video Games.

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