E3: Microsoft debuts Kinect motion & voice control, slim Xbox 360

During its opening keynote at E3, Microsoft offered a new name for its Project Natal technology, along with confirming a November 4 release date for North American Xbox 360 gamers.

First and foremost, Project Natal has been officially named Kinect — and will be available starting on November 4.  The new system is able to use a combination of voice commands and body movement to change the way Xbox 360 owners are able to play games.

The demonstrations of Kinect were extremely impressive, with on-stage Microsoft employees showcasing the technology’s ability to detect a users hand waving in the air, which controls the on screen interface with no controller required. The Kinect camera also detects if the user has moved around the room and automatically adjusts to point at the user as he or she changes location.

Kinect has been in the works for some time, but Microsoft wanted to wait and make sure it released a solid product — especially with the Sony PlayStation 3 Move motion control system expected to hit the market soon.

Microsoft also brought several partners on-stage to help promote the Kinect, with 15 launch titles expected in early November.  Examples include a Sonic video game from Sega and a Lucasarts game that will provide Xbox 360 Kinect users the ability to control a Star Wars lightsaber.

An unconfirmed report in early May said Project Natal would be released in October, but Microsoft remained quiet about Kinect’s official release date until now.

ESPN also announced an exclusive partnership with Microsoft, bringing live and on-demand sporting events to Xbox Live, at no additional cost to Xbox Live Gold subscribers. This is a big win for Microsoft, as live sporting events have been one of the last remaining gaping holes left in the online media portfolio.

Also during the press conference, Microsoft launched a new slim model of the Xbox 360, which will be available in stores by the end of the week.  The new 250GB model with built-in 802.11n Wi-Fi costs $300 — and is said to be quieter than current models.

Since its release, the Xbox 360 has undergone several CPU and GPU changes, physical modifications, and eventual HDMI output support.

Overall, it looks like a solid press conference for Microsoft as the company prepares for a busy summer and fall.  Both Microsoft and Sony have been left scrambling due to the success of the lower-priced Wii console with its extremely entertaining Wiimote controller.  Microsoft hopes its Kinect platform, with support from game developers, will offer appealing games that will stand out from the competition.