Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Project NATAL: Milo

My husband is a gamer. I am not. He occasionally reads the things I write and comments upon them but because English is not his first language and because he doesn't normally read poetry or short stories, writing per se is a passion he doesn't share. And while I find some games fun--especially word games where you have to construct words out of constantly changing grids or bubbles full of random letters (in which you are timed)--even that reaches saturation level at some point.

But we listen to one another, when one of us gets excited about a certain piece of writing (in my case) or a particular great new game (in his case). And so that's how I found out this morning all about Milo and Project NATAL, Microsoft's new, X-Box360 interactive game that probably won't be available until 2010.

It's the buzz of the Internet today. What's new and revolutionary about this game is that the digital character (Milo) is programmed to recognize you when you speak. ("Hello awyn, how are you today?", I imagine a cartoonish figure walk up, face and address me from the TV screen.) Hmmm.

"Meet your character", spokesman Peter Molyneux explains in this video demonstration. "Feel connected to Milo's world."

The character ("Milo") can recognize emotion--changes in your tone of voice, whether you're happy or angry. That in itself is kind of creepy. (What ELSE does he know about me?)

Not interested in being friends with an 8-year-old boy? Molyneux said there will also be a "Millie" – a female equivalent. Whichever gender you choose, Milo (or Millie!) will form a relationship with you and, if you so choose, other members of your family. Molyneux asked us to imagine leaving Milo on the screen, and allow various family members [to] interact with him. Milo would have a different relationship with each person, and would even reference you (or them) in conversation with the other. In other words, think of Milo as a family friend ... who just happens to live in a box on your wall. [1].

Somehow THAT's even creepier!

You don't need a controller to have this interactive entertainment experience--you can drive a car, simply by turning your hands as if you were turning a wheel. You can paint a picture just by saying the color and throwing invisible buckets of paint at the screen. ("Look, Ma! I'm an artist!")

If you're into interactive playing guitar, drums or singing at the mike along with the Beatles, check out XBox360's new Beatles Rock Band.

I'm amazed at this rampant enthusiasm for increased interaction with digitized images on a TV screen. I tried the Guitar Hero once and it was damn hard. Proved to be more frustrating than fun and not as much satisfaction as say, being able to pick up a REAL guitar and play from memory, improvise, or compose. Not that I can do that--but if I could .... (Gamers everywhere throwing me dirty looks about now, ha ha.)

Granted, it'd be a novel experience, and for those who love this sort of thing, hours of entertaining, interactive gaming pleasure.

What interests me here is the seeming NEED of people to interact--but to do so vicariously. Technology has made it possible for us to do that without ever leaving our house. It affords us the possibility to create our own character, write our own "story", so to speak, and other on-screen characters are able to recognize and verbally interact with us. And now they can even recognize our moods. "Everyone who's experienced it--their hairs are standing up at the back of their head!" gushes Molyneux. Mine, too--but for a different reason.

Comments re: Project NATAL run the gamut from wildly enthusiastic to darkly skeptical:

The cheerleaders:
"This is very exciting stuff, its the possibilities that are exciting."
"I am totally mind blown by this!"
"This is the solution to loneliness everywhere."

The not-so-enthusiastic, "Let's be cautious" group:
"This thing seems totally staged .. and the whole thing is very obviously scripted."
"There's no escapism here. I can do all this in real life, with real people. Microsoft trying to control the frickin world again."
"Amazing, but this could mean the end of the world..."

And then, this comment:
"Its not about making a virtual friend. Think about what this implies: games that incorperate actually being able to talk to characters in real time and have them responding to you based on what's been said. That's an incredible break through in technology.
Though I'm still not getting it, when Milo becomes self-aware we're all dead."

What the video demonstrates is the possibility of "emotionally triggered gameplay". The digital character reacts to what you say and how you say it. Claire (in the video) "perceives" that Milo is worried about not doing his homework (because she "knows" him now) and when she asks him about it, Milo responds by lowering his head. You, as the gameplayer, now realize that you can cause a reaction in Milo. What would Milo do if Claire, instead of being concerned, suddenly starts yelling at him? How is he programmed to respond in that situation?

"Milo ... go fetch me a glass of water." (Will he comply?)
"Milo, who's your favorite baseball team?" (scripto-glitch? What should we have him say?)

I don't know what to say about Milo and Project NATAL. I can appreciate the advances in technology vis-a-vis interactive gaming, but...

What's that got to do with writing? Oddly, I keep coming back to the opposite world of writing fiction and poetry. In fiction you invent a character and place him/her in imaginary situations. You make the character real to the reader (or try to) using words. In poetry you hope the images you struggle to convey will enable the reader to see the whole picture as you see it, or something very close to it, hopefully ... and of course, who wouldn't like to know the reader's reaction? Did your words connect? Were the metaphors recognizable? Did the writing have *meaning* for the reader?

Does it matter?!!
(I mean, if one simply finds it entertaining, or momentarily interesting but then moves on... (so much to read, so little time! ha ha).

If one COULD interact with a digital reader who "recognizes" you, would that count? I'm trying right now to imagine an interactive writing experience where instead of Milo, the digital character is, say, some famous, revered writer.

"So ... what'd you think of my poem, Walt?"
(Whitman's character fingers his voluminous beard and averts his eyes.)

"How 'bout you, Henry? Care to take a stroll down by the pond and compare notes?"
(H.D. chews on a twig and sets off in the opposite direction.)

I see I am having no luck with the dead. They seem adamently opposed to digitization. But imagine this sort of technology applied to interactive writing workshops, poetry slams, or teleconferencing with fellow writers and poets worldwide! Everyone (except you) is a character on your screen with whom you can chat, suck up to, criticize or simply share a coffee with. THAT might be interesting. These are people, of course, with whom you'd orinarily never be conversing, people who perhaps wouldn't even give you the time of day--or are deceased. They're not really REAL. What would be the point. It'd just be another (albeit entertaining) interactive Game.

As the indomnitable Miss Brodie said (head held back, nose in air) to her impressionable young minions: "For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like."

Okay gamers, just teasing.

Sorry, but I just can't seem to relate to cartoonish characters mimicking real people or digitized actors replacing unemployed human ones. I confess I DO enjoy MadCaps, Greedy Words and Bookworm Deluxe though (a lot!) and find them relaxing and entertaining ... sometimes even mildly addictive ... (did I mention the Need for Speed car racing ones?) but I think I'll pass on Milo and his digital family.

Hey, it's bad enough they have refrigerators that talk to you ("You're running out of milk. The green beans are moldy, what are you going to do about it? That's your THIRD pint of Cherry Garcia this week!"). Imagine turning on your TV, only to see a blank screen and a scolding voice incessantly whining: "Remember, we agreed you weren't to watch Frasier re-runs again until you spent at least two hours working on that novel!!" hahahahaha

[The time I spent penning this blog entry could have better been put to use planting the cucumbers in the back yard and cleaning out the shed. Ah well.]

Over & out....

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