Microsoft Natal demonstration


We are truly entering the era of virtual reality: Microsoft has announced "Natal," a game controller that goes the Wii one better. The player does not have to use any remote controller at all; instead a true motion-tracking system tracks body movements and translates them accurately to the game system.

Matt Peckham of PC World provides interesting details in a recent column, and brings up, without exploring it, the inevitable next question:

Natal isn’t new technology—it’s been anticipated for years—but it’s part of more than just Microsoft’s gaming lineup. Think about walking into a room to play a game that already knows precisely where your hands and feet are. A system that already knows whether you’re grumpy or melancholy, smiling or frowning, how many fingers you’re holding up, or how curled or extended each one is.

Think, in short, about a system that gets to know you from every angle, eerie as that sounds … and inevitable as it’s always been.

Peckham doesn’t go into that question, preferring instead to stay on the topic of games, but the possibilities for this technology beyond gaming are fascinating–and perhaps a bit ominous. Imagine the health care possibilities, criminal investigation potential (accurate facial and body movement reading as the next step after facial recognition software), the ability for your tools, appliances, entertainment devices, etc., to respond immediately to subtle preferences your body tells it–especially the eyes and face–signals of which you may not even be conscious.

That’s all to the good, and continually increasing computer processor power should push the technology along.

Think, however, of the potential for such information to be harvested by government, businesses, and others, legally or otherwise. Intimate details about an individual’s preferences and even their activities–even things one doesn’t know about oneself–could conceivably be taken by others for their own use.

Government, for example, could use the information to deny payments for health care it says your body told it you don’t need (and the government would indeed do that, rest assured) or fine you for environmental crimes (for turning your home heat up when your body says you’re already quite comfortable, for example), etc.

Spammers could use this info to send advertisers to you and inundate you with unwanted materials.

And criminals could have a field day–think of the astonishing opportunities for identity theft such information could afford.

None of this means that we should fear these or other technological changes. Indeed, I believe we should embrace them. But we should be cognizant of the potentials for misuse–and prepare accordingly.

The future often arrives before anybody expects it.

–S. T. Karnick