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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Microsoft's "Project Milo" Goes from Wow to Meh

When Microsoft first introduced their hands-free video gaming technology (was Natal, now Kinect), they did it in grand fashion and showcased what could arguably have been the showstopping moment of E3 2009. Peter Molyneux of Microsoft's Lionhead Studios brought out what their team was working on called Milo, a boy child whom you could seemingly interact with in real time over your television screen.


I admit, when I saw it, I immediately envisioned a different world. One where every home would have an Xbox 360 and experience a whole new way of interaction with AI technology. Just watch the video above and you'd be hard pressed not to find some level of excitement over the possibilities. Today, however, that excitement turned into disappointment followed closely by anger.


I'm not sure whether Molyneux thought he might be upping the ante with his ambitious project when showcasing his latest outing of Milo, but whatever the case, the tricks are obvious. See if you can spot them.


To placate those who didn't understand how Milo would hold the interest of the gaming world, Molyneux and crew have now added "gaming" elements to it. Using an on screen bubble (similar to that which you would create out of dishsoap and a cheap pan) you can interact with Milo by popping bubbles at his feet or collecting on screen items by passing over them with Mr. bubble. And you are rewarded by collecting the bubbles with a +10 to some vacant scorecard that displays in some unrelated cartoonish fashion. The environment is nothing more than an overly computerized landscape to play mini games, with Milo serving as the master of distraction with his less than committed interest to you or your snail collecting abilities.

It gets worse.

By Molyneux's own admission, interacting by voice command is a challenge. When we first saw Milo, he was interacting with his live counterpart by voice chat with nary an issue. Today, we must be prompted by the in-screen computer voice to command Milo to do certain actions. In this demo, we will shape Milo's disposition by saying either YES or NO to step on a snail. By saying YES, I guess we are dooming Milo to a life of wily-nily snail bashing and rough back-talk. By saying NO, we might be dooming Milo to a life of getting stuffed into lockers and passive aggressive freeway driving. Who knows. But the point is, we have now taken this wonderfully promised technology and made it into a YES or NO equation. Did we really need to relegate the controller for that?

In a possible point of redemption, we are whisked away into Milo's house where he is busy being reprimanded by his parental unit for some nonsense, and I guess this is supposed to give us a sense of pity or establish some connection. It didn't. We were busy cleaning up Milo's room and scoring senseless points for putting garbage away and sweeping things under the rug. When Milo did enter, it gave us a second chance to try out the lousy voice commands in a different way. On screen prompts goaded us to cheer Milo up after his tongue lashing from his mother. Now, here's where the foolery comes into play. It doesn't matter what you say, as the responses Milo gives could suit any situation. Similar to seeing a psychic for the first time and hearing sweeping generalizations that could apply to anything, this is exactly how Milo reacted. I swear, they hired Miss Cleo to conduct this bit of chicanery.

What we experienced in the first video is a far cry from what we have been given today. Milo has degraded into all the other worthless party games that are so synonymous with motion technology. It could have been a game changer, a phenomenal invention that could have sculpted the landscape of not just gaming, but of interaction with technology. Instead, we are left with popping bubbles in the grass at Milo's feet and spouting senseless jargon into a microphone with no real understanding of what has been said. Shame on Microsoft for selling me on an exciting concept that will never be, and shame on me for believing they could actually do it.

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