Microsoft kicked off the 2009 Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles today with a press conference that featured two Beatles, a professional skateboarder and a Hollywood director.

Among the key announcements made by the company at its pre-E3 press conference, held in Los Angeles’ Galen Centre, were that it was working on a motion-sensing device, codenamed Natal, that turned players of its Xbox 360 console into the controller, that Xbox 360 users will soon be able to use social networking applications such as Twiter and Facebook on their console, and that famed Japanese game maker, Hideo Kojima, is making a game for the 360 based on his phenomenally successful Metal Gear Solid franchise. Oh, and the Hollywood director was Stephen Spielberg.

The Beatles take the (virtual) stage

Appearances during the press conference included surviving Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, who were promoting the upcoming music game, The Beatles Rock Band, and Yoko Ono. In the game, players play musical instruments and follow on-screen notes to make the music.

After the opening movie from the game was shown to the press corp, Starr and McCartney took the stage. Starr said he loves the game, which features re-mastered Beatles classics such as Day Tripper, I Feel Fine, I Saw Her Standing There and All You Need Is Love.

“What do you think about the game, Paul?”, Starr asked. “Love it,” said McCartney.

“The graphics are very good. The game is good … and we were great,” said Starr, to a round of applause from the audience. “A fantastic game, who would have thought we’d have ended up as androids. Thank you for having us here and having us on your game show.”

The games

Microsoft’s corporate vice president of the Xbox, John Schappert, told media that the interactive entertainment industry was doing well because “people want to have fun. They want to do it from their living room. Today, we are going to deliver even more.

“Today is all about showing, not telling. You are going to see 10 world premieres of games that have never before been seen.”

One of the most anticipated games shown at the press conference was Modern Warfare 2, a follow-up to one of the most popular games in recent times, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. It puts you in the boots of a soldier and has the feeling of a blockbuster movie, where the action is plentiful and the thrills frequent. In one sequence, you ride speeding snowmobiles through dense forest, all the while being shot at by pursuers. It felt like the speeder bike chase from Return of the Jedi.

Social networking on the couch

Schappert said Microsoft wanted to make the Xbox 360 the “largest social network in the living room”, something he mentioned to me at the Tokyo Games Show last year, and to do that the company had formered partnerships with Twitter and Facebook.

American television actress and writer, Felicia Day, said Facebook Connect on the Xbox 360 was a “Facebook experience custom made for your living room”.

With Facebook on your 360 you’ll be able to see both your Facebook friends and your Xbox Live friends, as well as look at your photos and even challenge your friends to beat your high score on your favourite game. The first game to use this feature will be the next edition of Tiger Woods PGA Tour.

Gaming in motion: Project Natal

But perhaps the most innovative display was the unveiling of a controller that used your whole body to make movements on screen. Don Mattrick, Microsoft's Xbox chief, said for too many people, a video game controller was a barrier. “With this, you are the controller.”

Dubbed "Natal", the camera-like device will motion capture your entire body, will have facial and voice recognition, and can even be used to scan items to upload into a game.

That was when famed movie director Stephen Spielberg took the stage to support the Natal.

“From the day we (Spielberg and Mattrick) first met 10 years ago, we’ve been asking each other how can interactive entertainment be as approachable as all other forms of entertainment," said Spielberg. "The vast majority of people are just too intimidated to pick up a controller … the only way to bring interactive entertainment [to the masses] is to make the technology invisible. Technology that not only recognises thumbs, but your whole being.

"When I got to be interactive with this, the gamer in me went out of its mind. I think what Microsoft is doing is not about reinventing the wheel - but about no wheel at all.”

Famed game designer Peter Molyneux agreed, saying “this is a landmark in computer entertainment.”