Microsoft’s big push for new audience

LOS ANGELES: To appeal to families ready to graduate from the Nintendo Wii, Microsoft wants to build on the success of the Wii’s motion-capture wand — by getting rid of the wand entirely.

Microsoft detailed its Kinect game technology, coming this fall for the Xbox 360 game console. Once known as Project Natal, the Kinect system recognises users’ gestures and voices, so you can control on-screen avatars in racing, action and sports games just by moving your body.

Microsoft showed off a Star Wars game, coming in 2011, that will use Kinect to let players swing virtual lightsabers in their living rooms, and a dance title from the makers of Rock Band that eliminates the need for controllers and high-tech mats to get moving.

Kinect’s voice feature also means you can say “pause” or “play” when watching a movie on the Xbox 360 instead of reaching for the remote.

And it has a video chat function that can connect people from different parts of the country, as Microsoft demonstrated at the E3 Expo in Los Angeles, a videogame conference with 45,000 industry insiders. Kinect will launch on Nov 4 in North America, Microsoft said.

Prices were not disclosed, and it’s not clear whether Kinect will come with new Xbox 360 consoles or only be sold separately.

Double the capacity

Kinnect works with existing systems, as well as a new version of the Xbox 360 console that goes on sale next week in the United States.

It’s smaller, sleeker and comes with built-in WiFi and a 250GB hard drive. The new Xbox 360 will cost US$299 (RM990), which previously got you a hard drive with half the capacity.

Until now the Xbox 360 has been mainly known as the device to play hardcore shooter games such as Call of Duty and Halo. Microsoft ranks second in console sales to Nintendo, just ahead of PlayStation3 maker Sony.

“We’ve established ourselves as a strong No. 2,” said Dennis Durkin, chief operating officer of Microsoft’s videogame business.

He called the launch of Kinect an inflection point for Xbox 360, adding “we’re not content with being No. 2 any more.”

Since the original Xbox launched in 2001, the videogame system has been part of its money-losing divisions.

Microsoft doesn’t break out results from the Xbox 360, but in total, the divisions that housed the game unit reported operating losses of about US$7.45bil (RM24.5bil) from fiscal 2002 through 2007.

Not just for gaming

Scott Steinberg, videogame analyst and most recently founder of Game Exec magazine and Game Industry TV, said the most exciting applications of Kinect are the uses that go beyond gaming, like video chat and the ability to select and watch movies without the need for a remote controller.

It opens up new possibilities for interfacing with technology — for instance, calling up movies and TV shows with the flick of a wrist or interacting with virtual pets with just a smile, he said.

Though it is working to broaden its reach, Microsoft is still trying to nurture its loyal gamer fans, who reliably buy sequels to blockbusters like Halo and Gears of War.

To that end, the company announced an exclusive deal with Activision Blizzard, the maker of the Call of Duty games, that will bring downloadable content known as map packs to the Xbox first (and then the PlayStation3) through 2012.

Such extra content is an increasingly important business for videogame makers because they can extend the life of games. — AP

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