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Events: Beyond the Bigtop

Cirque Helps Launch "Project Natal"

    Los Angeles, June 13 2010 --- with a mise-en-scène by Cirque du Soleil, Microsoft launched Kinect, a revolutionary system for the Xbox 360 console where the human body is the controller.


    In a rich green forest, the cheers of more than 3,000 poncho-clad people rose above a steady drumbeat at the moment Microsoft shared the name of its new controller-free gaming device for Xbox 360: Kinect. It wasn’t an actual forest, but a college basketball arena as imagined by a Montreal-based troupe of Cirque du Soleil performers. Previously code named Project Natal, Kinect had its most-detailed public introduction to date during the 45-minute extravaganza at the Galen Center arena in Los Angeles on the eve of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3).

    Microsoft approached the mega-performance troupe after realizing it wanted to announce Kinect in a “hyper-creative setting,” said Xbox general manager Rob Matthews in an interview at the time. “We said, we need to do something Cirque- esque or Cirque-like. Why don’t we call Cirque du Soleil.”

Why Don't We Call Cirque du Soleil?

    Cirque du Soleil artistic director Michel Laprise and several other crew members came to Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Wash., tried the Natal games and Laprise was “intrigued. The freedom and physicality as so strong. This is so emotional, it makes sense we are doing it.” To get across how Cirque works, Laprise says that at a planning meeting with Xbox executives in Montreal he poured a bucket of sand on the table. “Natal is a name of a beach on Brazil and our company co-founder had the idea that … on the beach this is where friends have dreams. So let’s all dream together a story that will touch the people in the room,” Laprise says.

    “Then I took some rocks and said, ‘This is a story where four meteors land on Planet Earth and what is very magical is that they all fall in the same Amazon forest, the place where there is the most biodiversity. It’s not been spoiled by tech, it’s just purely orgainc. People heard about the four meteors and when (the meteors) aligned there’s a big giant monolith that came out of the center of the earth. … That attracted people from the four corners of the world and people started to interact between themselves with more friendship and more playfulness.”

    That concept provided the seed for the performance, he says. About the final presentation, Laprise says, “I didn’t want it to be big. It had to be big.”

It wasn’t just big, it was huge!

    The 75 dancers, musicians, and acrobats not only unveiled Kinect, but gave attendees a long, hard, never-sit-still look at Xbox 360's newest gaming and entertainment platform. The troupe transformed themselves into a vine-and-flower- covered tribe and the arena into a lush forest with foliage and filtered light. They transformed the audience as well—the 3,000 celebrities, journalists, bloggers, and tech industry who’s who in attendance were issued white satin ponchos to wear for the evening. The college graduation-gone-Vulcan smocks provided a blank backdrop for the colorful performance until the end, when the large, pointy shoulders of each poncho illuminated, turning the audience into a sea of tiny, Xbox -green lights.

    In order to find new ways to make the crowd participate in the event, Cirque du Soleil called upon ESKI’s PixMob technology. With barely three months ahead of them, ESKI’s designers and engineers produced several thousands of PixMob LED pixels as well as the infrared spotlights to communicate with them. They also designed the visual effects, created the ‘ponchos’ that the Cirque du Soleil had imagined and embedded the pixels in more than 3000 ponchos. PixMob’s technology stunned the members of the crowd as they each turned into a pixel of a giant screen glowing in a myriad of colors!"

    A life-sized elephant and gorilla, a family sitting on a couch suspended 80 feet in the air, pumping world music and pounding drums, 25-foot projection screens around the top of the arena, a rotating 40-foot “television screen,” a large boulder aglow with the Xbox logo—all of these effects and more were meant to help tell the (largely wordless) story of a boy on a mission to find meteors and meaning.

    By the time the show began, attendees who had at first seemed bewildered by their white ponchos had relaxed and were mingling with Cirque du Soleil performers and rubbing pointy shoulders with each other, speculating on the show and what mysteries it would reveal.

The Big Reveal

    In the show’s prologue, a narrator posed the notion that the future of humanity is humanity itself: “Since the dawn of time, humanity’s long journey has lead us to countless discoveries. Objects along our path have projected our way forward, but the ever-more sophisticated inventions introduced ever-more complex languages for humans to master in order to communicate with machines. With each leap forward for civilization, more people were left behind. But our quest has now taken us to a completely new horizon. History is about to be re-written. This time human beings will be at the center and the machine will be the one that adapts. After five million years of evolution, might the next step – the next object – be the absence of an object? Is it possible that the future of humanity is humanity itself?”

    With the help of the dancers and acrobatics, a boy made his way from where he was sitting on a couch, through the forest and the white-clad crowd, to some large, boulder-like meteors. He scrambled up the meteors, tossing aside a traditional game controller on the way up, and as he stood on the top-most meteor, it lit up with the Xbox logo to great applause.

    Standing there put the boy face-to-face with a large screen that slowly revealed an avatar of him, complete with matching clothes. After the boy and his avatar waved their arms and legs in unison, the boy asked the screen, “What’s your name?” In a flash of purple, letters appeared on the screen and arranged themselves to form the word “KINECT.” Again, more cheers from the crowd. The screen then transformed into a rotating living room, and the boy climbed inside. There, for the rest of the show, a cast of characters demonstrated the experiences that Kinect will enable.

    Cirque du Soleil performers took the audience on an extended tour through multiple games that included steering a raft down river rapids; driving a car on a race course and a half-pipe; petting and interacting with a tiger cub; competing in a variety of sports including beach volleyball, track and field, and soccer. Performers also demonstrated some non-gaming experiences, including a woman enjoying yoga lessons from a virtual Kinect teacher, a family using Kinect to select a movie and take dance lessons together, and far-flung friends interacting by using video chat.

    After the performance, audience members returned their white smocks and were given a Kinect tiger cub as seen in one of the games. Regardless what you might feel about Microsoft, the Kinect, or E3, this “imagining” by Cirque du Soleil was simply amazing. I wish I could have been there!

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