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Microsoft's Natal game in stores 2010

LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - Microsoft Corp plans to get its Natal body-gesturing gaming system into stores in time for this year’s holiday shopping season, hoping to boost sales of its Xbox console and associated games.

Visitors play Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360 at the Tokyo Game Show in Chiba, east of Tokyo, September 24, 2009. REUTERS/Toru Hanai/Files

Natal, which lets gamers control on-screen movements with hand gestures and voice commands, without a handheld device, is the software giant’s counter to Nintendo Co Ltd’s hugely successful Wii.

“Wii was an important innovation, it was a part step. Natal is a giant step,” said Robbie Bach, head of Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices unit, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

“It’s going to change the (gaming) experience in a pretty fundamental way,” Bach told Reuters in an interview. “It’s an accelerant in the business, because it will create new experiences for everyone.”

The Wii, which went on sale in 2006, also employs motion-sensing technology. But players wield a controller -- a device that doubles as everything from a tennis racket to a steering wheel.

Microsoft’s Xbox 360 game console is a distant runner-up to Nintendo’s wildly popular gaming platform. Bach is hoping the controller-less Natal system will draw in new audiences, including older generations which are not a big market for gaming products.

More than 70 percent of game developers are working on Natal versions of games, Bach said, meaning there should be a range of games available by the end of this year.

Natal will require new hardware, essentially a motion-sensing camera, but will work with existing Xbox 360 consoles. Bach did not give pricing for the new system.

Microsoft demonstrated Natal several times last year, but had never pinned down a date for rolling it out for sale.

“This coming year will be Xbox’s biggest 12 months since the beginning of the business” in 2001, said Bach, with Natal and a new version of its popular “Halo” combat game -- Halo Reach -- slated for fall of 2010.

The company is also pushing growth of Xbox Live, which lets remote users play against each other and access Facebook, Twitter, Netflix and other Web services.

Microsoft’s Xbox 360 sold 820,000 units in November in the United States to the Wii’s 1.26 million. But the world’s largest software company hopes to bring the console into the center of the living room, transforming it into more than just a gaming box.

Bach laughed at the suggestion his unit will develop a “Zune phone” based on its well-reviewed but still unpopular digital music player.

“We’re doing tons of work in the phone space,” Bach said. “But I’ve said consistently, we don’t have plans to do a Zune phone, and we don’t have plans to do Microsoft phones.”

Editing by Edwin Chan, Matthew Lewis and Richard Chang