Dorothy Crenshaw June 1, 2009 | 11:17:42

The Final (Gaming) Frontier?

There’s some cool news from E3, the largest annual trade exhibition for gaming enthusiasts. The videogame industry typically shows resiliency in economic downturns, but sales began to slump this spring as the recession took hold, and free or low-cost Web-only and mobile games started to nibble at the traditional videogame business.

Today Microsoft electrified the show by announcing the oddly-named “Project Natal” a new gaming system that lets you really get in the game like never before. Natal combines a camera, depth sensor, microphone, and processor so that it can track body movement, recognize faces, scan images of real items, and respond to vocal and physical commands.  In other words, to play soccer, you kick the ball or slam it with your body, removing, in the words of Forrester analyst Paul Jackson, “that final barrier between you sitting in your room and…what’s on your screen.”

“That final barrier…” I could practically hear the old “Star Trek” TV theme song and the melodramatic Captain Kirk voice-over about the “final frontier.”  And, uber-visionary and filmmaker Steven Spielberg, along with Xbox honcho Don Mattrick,  added verbal flourishes to the demo, waxing eloquent about breaking down barriers – “between generations, between games and entertainment, and between videogamers and everyone else.”

That’s a lofty promise, and there’s no word yet on Natal’s price, or a timetable for its availability.  If it’s not out of the ballpark, however, Natal could give casual gaming the kind of shot in the arm that the Nintendo’s Wii did for the past several years.  Is it a Wii-killer? Who knows, but the game is most definitely on.