That just happened: a survivor of the Natal/Kinect event tells his tale

I get the feeling that we have just participated in a dare — or the indulgence of a delusion. What else could explain the utterly insane spectacle that just took place in Galen Center here in LA? We were promised an experience. I experienced something, all right. Not something I’m in a hurry to experience again, I’m afraid.

Those of you who weren’t present for this indecipherable boondoggle are probably wondering what the fuss is all about. The fact is there’s no fuss at all; the Project Natal Experience was a complete non-event — and I’d have said that even if the device, name, and launch titles didn’t all leak a couple hours before the show. But the fact also is that this was just too weird not to share. In detail. Do you like to read? Good.

We were shuttled to the venue a little before 6; Matt, Nicholas and I were unsure of the nature of the event and thought it best to arrive a little early in case there was a line to demo the machines. I laugh now at our innocence. How little we knew then! So young, so full of life. I envy the me of earlier today.

So we arrived at 6:00, I say. A third of the street was blocked off to form the line, though puzzlingly, the entire sidewalk and parking strip was blocked off as well and inaccessible to us. A second line ran parallel to the main one, and seemed to be the dominion of anybody willing to look like they belonged there. European E3 attendees flouted traffic laws and took pictures of downtown from in front of frustrated buses.

Like cattle we stood for a bit over an hour, staring at a huge sign featuring Felix the Cat and watching a seemingly endless number of media people zoom by, getting line shots. There must be some streamlining to be done there: Microsoft should have pre-released video of a mockup line to obviate such redundant and pointless efforts.

The weather was clear and warm, luckily for us; Los Angeles has that going for it at least. A drum being slowly beaten at what we presumed to be the entrance to the Experience became like the tick of a clock — yet neither time, nor the line, ever moved forward. I struck up a conversation with one of the founders of Gamasutra, a site you should read. We determined that free to play is an interesting business model.

Finally, a bit after 7 if memory serves, they asked us all to crush forward, ruining our finely knit socio-physical networks and creating a rush toward the entrance. Fancifully made-up women and men were writhing rhythmically and sinuously beneath decorations that resembled ferns and scorpions’ tails equally, and their unexplained undulating had made us more curious than ever. The drum beat on.

At the entrance, those of us wearing green wristbands (Nicholas and I) were separated from those wearing orange ones (Matt) and many brief, but emotional, farewells were heard. Nicholas and I were stopped in order to be a backdrop for some sort of hip young broadcaster, and a hovering producer gave several one-minute warnings (cry wolf much?). Several minutes passed and although the front line was asked to show enthusiasm, we ended up simply swarming past, as the pressure of hundreds of attendees was at our backs and after an hour standing, enthusiasm was in short supply.

Before going inside, we were told “pace yourselves.” As to where this advice was meant to be applied, I have no idea to this hour. But what I do know is that upon entering, we were issued dazzling white polyester ponchos with puffy, rigid shoulder pads. Thus, attired as if attending a wedding in 17th-century Tokyo, we entered a dark hallway lined with velvet curtains.

It was short. Not ten steps brought us to a rectangular hole in the wall, through which was visible a happy family sitting on a couch in a brightly lit room. Through was the only way forward. “Welcome!” they said, grinning, as we stepped into the breach in the wall. “We’ve been waiting for you.” Puzzled, scared, and embarrassed, we passed on through to the next phase of the nightmare as the happy family warmly greeted the next clot of gamers.

Now we entered into the Experience proper. Emerging into the center area of a large exhibition hall, we began to understand just what Microsoft had in store for us. Which is to say, we began to understand that we would never understand what the hell Microsoft was thinking when it designed this absurd event.

Above stadium seating crowded with like-poncho’ed, seated attendees (separated from the center, and us, by enormous veils), there were screens a hundred feet long and fifteen feet tall depicting a jungle scene inhabited by Xbox Live avatars. They laughed, climbed trees, and walked jankily across the screen, eventually teleporting out to be replaced by a new set. At the far end of the room, a sort of series of boulders led upwards from a painted man in a spotlight, who appeared to be meditating as hard as he could. A family of three smiled and pointed from a couch suspended 70 feet in the air. Throughout our little arena, faunlike dancers flitted about, not speaking, but inviting you to tap your foot in a virtual pool of water or have your photo taken on top of a rock. Occasionally, one would do a backflip.

I describe it at a stroke, but there was much more to it than the setup. For one thing, the awkwardness was palpable. A few thousand people somehow related to the gaming industry, unceremoniously shunted into a weird jungle concept-environment which they are all trying to unravel, with nowhere to go, nothing to do, and (fatally) nothing to drink. I will say this: if every time I was surprised by a faun, they surprised me with a vodka tonic, I would have borne the evening much better. As it was, we stood looking at each other, murmuring, and watching the glitchy three-minute loop of avatars in the jungle.

This is where it gets difficult to explain. You see, we stood like this, as we had stood outside, for even longer than we had outside, and without anything happening except an occasional faun backflip or a slight change in the music (imagine the theme song to climbing that big tree in Avatar, stomping on a human face, forever). There was nowhere for us to sit, and I learned later that there was nowhere for the sitters in the “audience” to stand. Nicholas had asked earlier: “Are we being waterboarded?” In a way, Nicholas: waterboarded by Enya. The event was scheduled to start at 7, and it was past 8. I posited two options: either this was it, and Microsoft had completely lost it, or there was some kind of insurmountable delay and they hadn’t planned for an hour of downtime. Matt heard it blamed on “VIPs.” I think they were having trouble with the elephant.

During this time, we of course wanted to record the nonsense going on around us. But everyone who produced a phone or camera was instantly shut down by a sort of gadget police, who informed us that any and all technology was being suppressed. They gave up after a while, because really, what are you going to do? Unfortunately the light was terrible and the only shot I got is at the top, there. The others came from Microsoft (from last night’s private showing, I gather).

After we had been standing for (I think) at least an hour, the fauns made a move. They split the floor right down the middle, grabbed some poncho people, and made a sort of soul train line, down which several people did backflips. I can’t say more because my attention was riveted on the fabulously pneumatic faun-girl in front of me. The faun-men were wearing all manner of thick and stylish things, by the way, and the faun-girls were made to wear the tightest leotards I’ve ever seen (absolutely not an exaggeration). Make of that what you will.

The soul train gave way to a sort of micro-show, in which some fauns mimed and showed signs to their side of the audience, and a pair of huge novelty cans on a rope was stretched from one side of the auditorium to the other. The two sides were meant, I think, to yell a sort of conversation, but games journalists have no coordination, nor volume, and the message was lost among the tom-toms and jungle flutes. Props to the fauns for disentangling the rope-ball and unhooking that poor guy’s head. All part of the show, folks!

We all expected this, I think, to segue directly to the show itself. Not really: we stood about for another 15 minutes or so, until finally, finally, the music changed and we saw some scorpion-fern-lamps being brought out. My memory of the event here is a bit fuzzy, but I believe this is about the time when the elephant arrived. The couch had descended, I think, and the kid got off, and then… an elephant.

Not a real elephant, of course, although it was quite well engineered. I can forgive the girls behind Matt, who he tells me were convinced it was real until displays on its sides indicated internal projectors. You ever see a hollow elephant? Me neither. On top of the elephant rode some kid, carrying a glowing koosh ball the size of a head. He dismounted, and was carried on the shoulders of some fauns, who (someone help me out here) I do believe dropped him about halfway to the stage and hurriedly scooped him up again. It was inelegantly done, I’m afraid, if a part of the act. Anyway, the koosh was brought to the stage, then thrown into the crowd, rather hard I thought at the time, where it nailed someone.


The kid then played his way through a few games on plain ol’ controllers, climbing up successive boulders, before climbing the biggest one… which suddenly was revealed to be — a huge Xbox X. Suddenly, all our shoulders lit up like fireflies. I had to clap at this. Well done, Microsoft. And now the kid played something without a controller, and we were treated to the name we all knew by now from checking our emails, texts, feeds, and so on. Kinect. Some of us also already knew the games they were to announce. You probably did by then. But we got the full monty — as if we had a choice.

The “final screen” was actually a small room in which (after it spun around a bit) was to be found a family of smiling, perfect actors. I won’t give you a play-by-play of the games they pretended to play (and if you ask me, a few they actually did), but we saw quite a number — a dozen or so. Mine carts, river rafting, standing on the wings of a plane doing nothing (?), doing yoga, dancing, a whole track and field thing, a pet tiger, and a Star Wars game assaulted us on all sides. One view showed the player, the others showed the game. As for how the hardware performed, who can say? Not everyone was convinced the players were even playing. I’m skeptical of the actual control possibilities, but I’ll wait until we get our hands-on. Anyhow.

There was a complete WTF moment at one point around now when, after seeing several gameplay demos obviously compressed to make them more rapid-fire, we were treated to an extremely long Disney castle logo and Tinkerbell. Yes, Tinkerbell took her sweet time flying all the way around the screens ringing the room, and her presence was never explained. They simply moved on to the next demo. If my mind could have been re-boggled, this would have been the time for it. Keep in mind that this whole time, the entire cast of fauns (plus their yellow, meditative leader) were perched on the boulders beneath this constantly rotating room, swaying and pouting and pointing at objects of interest.

While showing off the Kinect interface for Xbox Live video and stuff (which actually looked quite cool), the daughter of the family treated us to a curiously stiff video conversation with a friend, and showed a slideshow of slightly Lynchian photos of the family. I had to turn my eyes away.

The great climax was near. I forget how they justified this, but all of a sudden the huge screens moved and revealed behind them a number of small cubicles, each one of which featured a family in full dance mode. Our shoulder pads blinked and changed color; I noticed some audience members had already taken theirs to pieces and were waving the LEDs. The fauns broke out the flashlights and began shining them around, and the perfect family in the rotating box urged us to join in the dance party. Needless to say, precious few did (footsore as we were, having stood for about three hours straight now), and then, and as the house lights did not come on, we were informed that we had just taken part in the Project Natal Experience.

We were asked to return the ponchos on our way out, and in return were provided with toy cats and USB drives containing the assets you see adorning this post.

What is to be made of all this? Nothing positive, unfortunately. To be honest, I had to stop myself from making the preceding 2000 words a diatribe against everything in Microsoft that creates stuff like this. I mean, they must have spent half a million dollars on the setup, and probably have paid some 300 guards, dancers, “families,” and so on all kinds of money. And the message that the thousands of attendees will take away is…? Nothing. Nothing but vague memories of crass artifice and cute faun butt.

But it’s E3 and madness is in the air. Will anyone top this? Not to cut speculation short here, but I sincerely doubt it, and I can’t say that’s a good thing. I’m extremely skeptical of this kind of event, however colorful of a blurb it makes for USA Today. To anyone with eyes to see, however, it’s clear that this sort of thing is hugely wasteful — both of their money and our time. Nothing was gained at this event, and really, not much of value was ventured. Aside from the actual demo, it could have been an announcement for almost any product, by any company, and that soullessness undercut any joy it might have produced.

This sensationalistic flailing about, clearly just a common attempt to gain coverage regardless of content, is both unnecessary and undignified. It’s painful when you compare this to the huge and genuine response generated by a microscopic (but highly meaningful) PR effort like Valve’s promoting Portal 2. The excitement latent in a company or brand’s fans cannot be accessed with a shabby skeleton key like a re-purposed Cirque du Soleil act. The lesson I took away from today’s event was that Microsoft has no idea how or to whom they should promote this product. Anything would have been better than this — anything but Nintendo’s farcical stiff-backed-businessman-uses-hip-lingo strategy, that is, which would become Microsoft even worse than it does the big N.

I’m excited to try out the Kinect (which I say has nothing to do with the Kin, despite what John and Matt think), but this event only drained my enthusiasm. It was the kind of event thrown by a group of people who have no interesting ideas. Sure, this is just the debut, but whatever the follow-up is, this was inarguably a weak start. It’s too early to say whether the technology itself is compelling enough to bear the weight of Microsoft’s tenacious and mystifying marketing incompetence, but it shouldn’t have to in the first place.

We’ll have plenty of hands-on video later in the show.