Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Jackson Pollack gets his Xbox on: Project Natal and disappearing technology

Last week we posted about edutainment games in marketing (here). Today, we're looking at a different take on entertainment platforms: the Xbox360 project known as Natal and what, if anything, it means to marketing.

At the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) being held this week (everything you wanted to know here), Microsoft demo'd its vision of the future of home entertainment as seen through the Xbox360 platform. And while the current incarnation of Xbox's world is largely popularized via male-oriented war games like Call of Duty and Halo, project Natal sees the Xbox going where no other entertainment system has gone before...away, sort of.

The biggest idea here is that project Natal lets you...as in your body...serve as the game controller. From motion detection to voice recognition to object scanning, the future of Xbox is one where the controller disappears and the Xbox becomes more, well, HAL2000 like. And while Wii fans may incorrectly claim 'been there, done that', the Natal vision is a bit more than just an accelerometer attached to the interwebz via a short range wireless connection.

In the demos, Microsoft showed how full-body gaming might look. They even demonstrated how full-body painting might unleash your inner abstract expressionist (see clip embedded below). I hate clothes shopping. In one demo, Natal promises to let me try clothes on at online stores and use my high-def, eleventy-billion inch LCD monitor as a preening mirror.

So What?

Video visions of the future like Xbox's--or even tradeshow demos--have a history of failing to fully describe the future that actually arrives (where's my jet pack, for instance). What project Natal exemplifies is that for technology to be truly impactful on a large scale, it has to become invisible...making that happen is no simple feat.

By placing the Xbox experience in the person (versus the other way around), Natal allows the Xbox brand to be as differentiated as the individual in whom it's embedded. In other words, the personal context of one's experience using the Xbox-of-the-near-future will define the brand in ways impossibly complex. What defines my Xbox experience if I use it in Natal-world to shop for a new suit? Is it the online store that I purchase from...the actual physical good...or the compliments I was expecting when I wear my purchase, having confidentally (and virtually) tried it on, online?

The technology in that scenario (including the technology that is the suit!), increasingly, becomes a commoditized, invisible component of this complex, personal experience...until it fails of course.

For marketers, Natal provides yet another glimpse at the challenges facing traditional approaches to differentiation, especially when technology is involved: to be successful on a large scale, you may have to lose a bit of brand identity to that of your customers--or supply and distribution partners.

Thus, as brands and products become part of ever-more complex, interconnected systems, surviving may mean standing for less...for the lucky few who exist at the top of the pyramid, it may mean that to stay there they had to let go of something...lest it be taken. In that regard, the future is already present.

For more clips on Natal, including Steven Spielberg weighing in on the future of entertainment, see here.

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