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  1. Life & Culture

With IllumiRoom, Microsoft thinks outside the box

Hot on the heels of Nintendo's announcement it would not be holding an E3 news conference unveiling anything for the struggling WiiU, Microsoft has announced it has loaded both barrels for a May 21 announcement of the next Xbox, still known as the 720.

But what is most interesting is what the company is only hinting at — in this case, its IllumiRoom research project.

We've seen this interactive projector before, because it was shown off at the Consumer Electronics Show back in January. But with an extended preview of the device at the Computer Human Interaction conference in Paris this week, Microsoft is showing its cards a bit, even if it insists it's still in the developmental stages.

The IllumiRoom, which is rumored to be a potential 720 add-on, is the kind of thing consoles need: A full-blown new way of seeing and playing our games. Motion controls are nice, and the PlayStation 4's simplified chip architecture is a good move, but so far Microsoft is the only company offering a truly different experience, and that may mean another round of Microsoft dominance in home consoles.

The IllumiRoom projector scans your playing area, maps the room and then augments the gamer's playing experience. The device can extend the game's graphics from the confines of the television, can add lighting effects, can provide tertiary gaming information or any combination thereof. It is, in the simplest of terms, the next step toward a Star Trek-style holodeck.

Gimmicky? Sure. Intriguing? Absolutely. There have been plenty of attempts to expand gaming beyond the screen, from the 3DS's augmented reality games to Sony's EyeToy to Microsoft's own Kinect, but this approach is different. Microsoft techies say that's the whole point.

"A lot of previous research has said, 'Let's take a virtual thing and put it in your physical environment,'" Microsoft Research intern Brett Jones told PC World. "What we wanted to do is take a physical environment and make it virtual."

YouTube videos of the demo show this immersive push can be as simple as simulating passing streetlights in a racing game to as complex as adding motion blurs and animating flying projectiles. None of the tricks seem all that necessary to control the games, (so far there are no IllumiRoom-specific titles, anyway), but the impression of being surrounded by the gameworld is fascinating, as long as you don't mind playing in a darkened room (it also works in a lit room, but what fun is that?).

Microsoft says the IllumiRoom won't be a part of the 720 unveiling, but there will be a public presentation of the project at SIGGRAPH 2013 in Anaheim, Calif., in July. By then we'll all know if we should even be impressed by the IllumiRoom's eye candy, or if we should be focusing on all the nifty things the 720 can do.

In any event, it means Microsoft researchers are delving into what is possible with next-gen home consoles, and really trying to find some new methods of interface. That's something Nintendo and Sony seem to have forgotten.

— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at