LOS ANGELES — So much for the mysterious “Project Natal” code name. It’s given way to Kinect, the official name for the new motion tracking controller and camera system coming to the Xbox in November.
Kinect is a combination of kinetic and connect, representing the controller’s dual purpose – giving the console motion control plus new communication capabilities such as video chatting and sharing in-game photos captured with the device.
Microsoft managed to keep the name secret until just before an elaborate Cirque du Soleil production tonight that the company commissioned for the Kinect launch.
But USA Today – which had worked with Microsoft on a Kinect story to be published after the event – briefly posted the story earlier Sunday. Game and gadget blogs pounced before the story was taken down, and the word was out an hour or so before the Cirque production began.
It was awkward because most of the reporters covering the game business were working their way through Microsoft’s elaborate entry system for the Cirque showing, during which they were barred from using phones or other electronic devices.
The show is being staged for two nights only, at Galen Center, the University of Southern California’s basketball arena. It’s completely different than the Cirque show now being put on in Microsoft’s backyard in Redmond.
For Kinect, Cirque created a specatacle with a tropical islandish theme that faded into a series of Kinect demonstrations done by a pretend family in a rotating living room that at times had the family upside down, sitting in a couch on the ceiling, with a performer walking upside down across the ceiling.
Attending were 3,000 Microsoft employees, industry partners and reporters who had to don white ponchos with shoulder pads that glowed and changed colors during the finale.
A boy in safari clothes rode in on a mechanized elephant and climbed a rock mountain as drums and chanting grew more intense. Then the uppermost rock turned into a huge ball with the Xbox logo, with the boy on top. (Here’s a picture provided by Microsoft)
He asked for a name and letters on a giant screen unscrambled to read “Kinect.”
The production was Microsoft’s most extravagent launch since the Rolling Stones were tapped for Windows 95’s theme song. It’s going to be broadcast on MTV, Nickelodeon and other channels Tuesday.
Mike Delman, vice president for the interactive entertainment business, wouldn’t say how much the show cost but said that the broad exposure it’s going to receive through TV broadcasts “make it an exceptional bargain for us.”
“I think of it as a massive awareness-builder,” he said.
Yasmine Khalil, events director for Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil, said they “wanted to create a legend” with the show by performing it only twice this week, once for Microsoft and its partners and a second show for the public.
“We don’t do commercials, we are storytellers,” she said.
Cirque was excited to work with Kinect, which it sees as more than just a gadget. “We don’t see it as a product, we see it as something else,” she said.
So will Cirque now produce its own Kinect game for the Xbox?
“Maybe,” Khalil said. “You never know.”
Games shown during the performance included brief glimpses of a “Star Wars” title with gesture-controlled light sabers, sports games such as beach volleyball, hurdles and javelin, and the clearest hit in the bunch: A pet game with a cute tiger cub that approached the player, who could “pet” the animal using Kinect.
Microsoft’s apparently going to take on Webkins with the tiger game. Guests were given stuffed animals with special coded tags for the game. USA Today’s story said the game is called “Kinectimals” and it will let players train and play with 20 different kinds of virtual cats.
Hard-core gamers attending the show may smirk at the Kinect name and the family orientation of the games shown during the Cirque production.
But as Stephen Tolouse, Xbox Live director of policy and enforcement, noted in a blog post tonight, a lot of people also made fun of Nintendo for choosing the name Wii.
“And yet look at how many units it’s sold. The trick is in the magic of the experience,” he wrote.
Tolouse also talked about the challenge of replacing the “Project Natal” name:
It’s really hard when you have a cool “code name” that lasts for so long to replace it with its true name, a name that it really deserves to communicate why it’s desirable. Code names are meant to be cool, as code names. True product and technology names are far more difficult. Marketing people get a really bad rap when they face a challenge like that and there’s often a lot of eye rolling and “what were they thinking” that goes on. Coming up with these things is a high wire act with no net.
Tolouse, at least, believes Kinect is “a perfect name for this technology” and said the marketing team “nailed it.”
We’ll see how things go this holiday season. Either way, I want to buy my kids that tiger game.