It looks like Microsoft is finally making the Kinect brand name go away, at least for hardware devices. A few days ago, the company announced it was ending production of its enterprise-based Azure Kinect Developer Kit with its motion sensor technology.
It’s a small and quiet end of an era for Microsoft. It started, at least for the general public, with a ton of promise and hype over 10 years ago with what the company first called Project Natal. You can learn a lot more about how Microsoft first developed the technology before its public reveal at Polygon’s excellent history on Kinect.
On June 1, 2009, Microsoft introduced Natal during its E3 press conference. Suddenly, the audience at the Galen Center in Los Angeles got to see a video of people playing and interacting with their Xbox 360 console without a physical controller. Instead, there was a small camera 3D sensor that detected their body movements.
The family members in the video were fighting with a virtual martial arts master, driving in a race car, pretending they were a massive kaiju monster tearing down buildings, and more. There was even a section where a girl was video chatting with a friend, and the friend on the other end shows some outfit choices that the girl could virtually try on via Natal and the TV screen.
I was there at that event and I remember the audience reaction at the time was pretty much gob-smacked. Many folks were likely thinking this was the next step in game interaction after Nintendo introduced the Wii motion-sensor controllers a few years earlier.
Microsoft went all out with its reveal. The head of Microsoft’s E3 division at the time, Don Mattrick brought out none other than famed filmmaker (and self-professed video game player) Steven Spielberg after that video introduction.
He told the audience that he had a chance to see and interact with a demo for Natal a couple of months earlier. Spielberg stated that at that time he felt he was “present for a historic moment.” He added that Microsoft was not trying to reinvent the wheel with Natal, “it’s about no wheel at all”.
The E3 event then proceeded to show live demos of what Project Natal could do on the stage. Unfortunately, the demo started with the head of the Natal team, Kudo Tsunoda, showing off the motion capture of the Natal camera on an Xbox 360 avatar. The avatar’s movements were definitely wild and all over the price and didn’t match the movements of Tsunoda at all.
The demos worked better later as Tsunoda showed how moving his hand could be used to interact with the Xbox 360’s menus. We also got to see live demos of a game where players could use their whole body to send virtual balls to targets on screen, and even create digital artwork with their movements and their voice.
The Natal E3 presentation ended with game developer Peter Molyneux who at the time work for Microsoft as the head of its Lionhead development studio. Molyneux showed a filmed demo of Milo & Kate, where the Natal sensor was used to allow the game’s characters to interact with the player via voice and body recognition.
For the most part, people were extremely impressed with what Microsoft showed off at E3 with Natal. In Neowin’s own comments about the press conference. Writer Andrew Lyle stated, “Wow, simply wow. This is going to change gaming forever. I was so freaked out when they demonstrated the Lionhead’s game Milo and being able to speak to your video game. It was fantastic.”
However, another one of Neowin’s writers at the time, Larry Cooney Jr was not sold on Natal. He stated, “My mother always told me if you have nothing nice to say, do not say anything at all. With that said, I understand why MS is doing this, I totally do, and I do think it is great to see things advance as well, but I am not really all that interested at this point in time. Meaning, until it can be applied in a way that does not require me flailing my arms around the living room so my wife can laugh at me while I do so, I personally have no interest.”
The truth was the Natal demo at E3 in 2009 seemed at the time to be a major shift in the video game industry. However, that promising shift that was introduced that day didn’t last. Perhaps we will write about that another day.