With Xbox One, Microsoft Emphasizes TV over Games

With Xbox One, Microsoft's moving to secure its place as your living room's de facto media hub -- with or without games.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Ted S. Warren / AP

Microsoft Corp.'s next-generation Xbox One entertainment and gaming console system is shown on stage in Redmond, Wash., on May 21, 2013.

From beneath gray skies, working a boisterous audience packed into a giant tent on its Redmond, Wash. campus, Microsoft this afternoon took the wraps off its third Xbox, dubbed Xbox One. But gamers tuning in to watch the live-stream event only caught glimpses of vaguely better-looking in-game footage, and then not until the presentation’s finale. Instead, Microsoft and its partners chose to spend most of the presentation talking about the future of TV-related entertainment as well as Xbox One’s much-refined voice command-driven interface.

Kicking off the one-hour show, Microsoft president of interactive entertainment Don Mattrick helmed the stage, electric-green Xbox screens flanking him, to portray Xbox One as the center of an interactive media-verse. That universe is more heterogeneous than ever, said Mattrick, comprising casual games, live and recorded TV, sports and movies, multiple platforms, living rooms in flux with cloud-powered Internet services, voice and gesture controls and mobile devices like tablets and smartphones. “To continue to lead, we must provide compelling answers to new questions,” he said, then asking, “Can we take what you love and make it better? Can we improve a living room that’s become too complex, too fragmented and too slow?”

Microsoft’s answer: a set-top console that looked less than ever like a stylized game console and more like a traditional, almost mundane piece of orthogonal, black, glossy hi-fi stereo equipment. The new console was joined by a revamped Kinect camera — included with each Xbox One — and a refined, slightly more angular version of the Xbox 360 gamepad (making it look a hair more like a batarang).

“For the first time, you and your TV are going to have a relationship,” quipped Mattrick, a statement that sounds awkward at first blush — we’ve had a relationship with our TV sets for decades — until you realized he was hyping Microsoft’s considerable ramping-up of the Xbox brand as a media-platform first, and a games console second.

TV > Gaming

Before delving into hardware specifics, Microsoft interactive entertainment marketing honcho Yusuf Mehdi demonstrated Microsoft’s vision of the Xbox One as a versatile, interactive media controller. For example, the Xbox One never turns itself completely off and can be woken up simply by saying “Xbox on.” As it powers up, it actually recognizes you (via Kinect), loading your personalized homepage and eliminating having to manually log in. It also now downloads and installs system updates in the background: Mehdi explained you’ll no longer be prompted to download these at sign-in.

Furthermore, Xbox LIVE — which still looks pretty much like the version of Xbox LIVE you’re using today — now remembers what you were last doing, what game you were playing, what song you were listening to and so forth, surfacing that information automatically. What’s more, if you’re deep in the interface somewhere and want to go home, all you need to do is say “Xbox, go home” and the system instantly shifts back to your personalized homepage.

Mehdi highlighted a traditional downside to the existing, longstanding console-TV paradigm: having to hit the input button to switch from your console to live TV. With Xbox One, by contrast, all you have to do is say “Xbox, watch TV,” and the system automatically pipes in your live TV feed. That principle extends to the rest of the new Xbox’s ecosystem, thus saying “Xbox, game,” “Xbox, go to music,” “Xbox, go to Internet Explorer” or “Xbox, watch movie” summons the respective features. (I’ll have to see how it works for myself, but in the demonstration, the response times were instantaneous and, impressively, required no second tries — an all-too-common occurrence with Kinect 1.0.)

While it wasn’t clear whether the much-reviled Kinect pointer-hand is returning in some fashion, Microsoft highlighted new universal gestures like “grab and pan” and “swipe up,” taking a page from Apple’s trackpad and iOS interfaces, to make controlling screen elements easier. Mehdi demonstrated switching to a movie and shifting to the homepage, claiming the new gestures were “not only simple, but make it instant to get to what you want.”

Curiously, Xbox One seems much better oriented to multitask, allowing you to run multiple programs simultaneously, say watching a movie, popping up a browser to view a trailer for that movie’s in-theaters sequel, then navigating to check theater times or buy tickets to a showing. Another demo sure to thrill fantasy league buffs involved watching ESPN (“Xbox, watch ESPN”), then saying “Xbox, show fantasy” which popped up a fantasy player view in a sidebar beside the live TV, allowing viewers to track both simultaneously.

Mehdi was keen to tout Skype, of course — Microsoft paid $8.5 billion for the messaging service back in 2011, after all — demonstrating Xbox One’s ability to easily handle group video calls (exclusive to Xbox One, he said), interweaving voice controls (“Xbox, answer call”) and highlighting Kinect’s widescreen, high-definition (1080p) video capabilities.

Of course TV viewing itself has been overhauled, with voice controls much more deeply integrated. Getting to a channel, for instance, will now be as simple as saying what you want to see: utter “Xbox, Today Show” or “Xbox, watch MTV” and those channels instantly load. There’s also a customizable “Favorites” view that essentially compiles all the shows you like to watch, which Mehdi described as “like having your own personal channel.” One of the more intriguing wrinkles, however, involves something called “Xbox Trending,” which lets you glance at what the entire Xbox LIVE community’s digging (basically a popular shows view, though it applies to video-on-demand, too).

Under the Hood

When it came time to talk system architecture, Xbox LIVE general manager Marc Whitten took over to tease the audience with a few vague hardware-specific buildout details, describing Xbox One as “connected and ready.” (An allusion to always-online requirements? Microsoft chose not to address that particular elephant-in-the-room here.)

Where the Xbox 360 houses a processor with 500 million transistors and uses 512MB of system memory, Xbox One employs a CPU with five billion transistors and uses 8GB of RAM. Whitten added that Xbox One includes USB 3.0 ports, a Blu-ray drive, is “64-bit native,” has “variable power states,” is virtually silent and that the system was “engineered to deliver now and well into the future.” The past, however, is a different story: Xbox One won’t be backwards-compatible with Xbox 360 games.

Kinect’s been upgraded, too, bumped up to wide-view 1080p capture, capable of finer skeletal tracking and actually understanding balance (the transfer of weight from one foot to another, for instance) and can supposedly read your heartbeat as you exercise (a bold claim — we’ll see). Xbox One Kinect also offers “more conversational” interaction that Whitten claimed was faster and more supportive of multiple players (say, the entire family), at one point referring to the speed at which it tracks photons bouncing off you as “13 billionths of a second.” “This is rocket science level stuff,” said Whitten.

Last but not least, Whitten mentioned (almost in passing — see what I mean about presentation emphasis?) that the new gamepad, which looks almost identical to the Xbox 360 gamepad, has been updated with more than 40 design changes, including an integrated battery and dynamic impulse triggers.

The O.S. Trifecta

But all of that you were probably expecting, since it describes the average (or arguably sub-average) home computer today. What we weren’t expecting was Microsoft’s explication of Xbox One’s crazy-sounding operating-level architecture, divided into three discrete operating environments, which Whitten called “an industry first.”

There’s Xbox mode (presumably gaming-centric), Windows mode (described as “web-powered apps and experiences”) and a sort of governing connector that handles how these two operating systems interrelate. In other words, it’s either a brilliant maneuver to solidify the Xbox One’s multifunctional modus operandi, a looming nightmare for developers, or some amorphous amalgam of both. Whatever the case, this piece is central to the Xbox One’s philosophy: Whitten described it as “the soul of the new system,” adding that it was “three operating systems in one.”

One of my favorite statistics from the presentation’s pool of “meant to impress” figures was probably Whitten’s discussion of Xbox LIVE. When it launched for the original Xbox, Whitten said the company was using 500 servers, a number that bumped to 3,000 when the Xbox 360 launched in 2005, and that stands at around 15,000 today. For Xbox One? Microsoft’s deploying an astonishing 300,000 servers, or as Whitten put it, “more than the entire world’s computing power in 1999.”

And where cloud-based computing was sort of glommed on to the Xbox 360 version of Xbox LIVE, Whitten noted that it’s the very heart of Xbox One, with all of your movie, music and game saves stored online, “accessed anytime, anywhere” (though by “anywhere,” it’s not clear if Whitten meant platforms beyond Xbox One, and obviously not anywhere you don’t have Internet access). But the coup de grace may turn out to be the new, dedicated DVR feature, which allows players to capture live gameplay, edit it, then share it to the cloud. Somehow that’s tied into achievements: As Whitten put it, “Achievements become dynamic and changing, telling the personal story of how you play, not just how you’ve done.”

Absent from the show: anything whatsoever about the Xbox 360, which Microsoft said it would share more details about at E3 in a few weeks. We also have no details about price, nor do we have a firm launch date other than sometime later this year. “Today we look forward,” said Whitten. And that’s what the rest of us will have to do as we wait for Microsoft to let us put this thing through its paces at E3 next month.

41 comments
XboxMan
XboxMan

I have always been a xbox fan. i have both the original xbox and the xbox 360 but now that I have seen what Microsoft is doing with the Xbox One I hate to say it but I will not buy one. As much as I hate to admit it, the Playstation 4 will be the superior gaming consule. I dont want something to watch tv with, and Im sick of paying to play online. I want to play games and I dont want a bunch of cheap gimmicks and for that reason I will be switching over to Sony and buying the PS4. 

MTDizzai
MTDizzai

You have to be a very dedicated fanboy or NFL fantasy enthusiast to be impressed with what we've seen so far about the brickbox. Gimmicks, gimmicks, gimmicks, and then a few more gimmicks on top.

I have a sky box, and I have an xbox. Why do I need my xbox to connect to my sky box? So I can change channels by waving my hands or shouting commands? Thanks, but no thanks. Amazingly enough, I buy a console to play games, not to force myself into subscribing to half a dozen multimedia services. So if Microsoft are watering down their focus on games to pander to these tv gimmicks then I'm not going to reward them by buying their console.

A few side notes, everyone I know who appreciates Sky Go on Xbox does so because it acts as a second sky box, away from their living room. But with Kinect and all their rhetoric Microsoft are obviously making this console purely for people's living rooms. You have to buy extra paraphernalia to actually use the tv functionality as well (oh how typical), and it's only going to be available in the US at launch (oh how very typical). Kinect has to always be on for the console to work, and it won't start unless you're connected to the internet. Buying second-hand games will almost certainly be a thing of the past. And it only ships with 500gb storage (400gb usable), but most games will be ~50gb to install, which sounds fantastic. /sarcasm

Congrats Sony, you finally have my attention.

Steve_S
Steve_S

Not being a fanboy of any of the consoles, they all seem to be doing the same thing. Build a box that doe's everything. Any reasonable person knows this is not possible. Don't put all your eggs in one basket. What happens when the Blu-ray stops working and you have to send it in for repair? Now you can't Skype, record tv, or search bing etc... till it's repaired or exchanged. Oh, and make sure you subscribe to their partners.

TyrelleWatts
TyrelleWatts

hey i don't buy a new system to play old game on period. what is the use? if i still want to play 360 games i'll use my 360.

danielcoulsonasm
danielcoulsonasm

Seems like Microsoft is trying to mimic Apple's strategy of creating "captive" users. Always on, no freemarket used game trading/reselling, The ne w XBox One seems like it is going to be similar to your satellite or cable box. Yea its in your living room and you paid for it but its not really yours and all content and activity must flow through the provider, in this case Microsoft. Going to be a long time before I shell out hundreds for a system this restrictive.

brandtbast18
brandtbast18

People telling other people to calm down are either ignorant of the facts or out of touch- you will have to connect your Xbox One to the internet at least once a day and pay full price to play used games. That means no sharing games with friends, and that the least of the problem. There will effectively be no used games on Xbox One. Not to mention it comes with mandatory Kinect which doesn't have majority support. I don't think it will fail, but as word of mouth takes it's toll on sales, it will on come out on top this generation.

jonga
jonga

I made an account just now to say that everyone that thinks that xbox prefers tv over games is a retard. Microsoft wants to take there own time to demonstrate the new abilities of this console and hold off on showing games for E3.

AdamBozek
AdamBozek

Everyone needs to chill... we got a very little taste of actual gameplay and i would expect to see more at E3. The system specs for the new box are very similar to the PS4. Its amazing how no matter what tech product you are researching to buy there are always a million haters. Who cares if you cant play old 360 games on the new xbox. Don't you still have your 360 if your still stuck playing those games? I plan on moving forward with my games and leaving the 360 games behind. Why are people crying about connecting to the internet once a day. Is that difficult for you? I do not use cable and have a home media server running that i use for all my media so all those new features on the ONE mean nothing to me ... With that said I just want the games to get better and we don't really have a clue yet if that will happen. Lets get a little more info on the gameplay before everyone starts crying.

Rick6505
Rick6505

For all of the people whining about it not being backwards compatible and wanting to switch to the PS4 for that is stupid because the PS4 is not backwards compatible either. And if they added that feature then the price of it would be so much more to be able to play they physical disk of the 360 thats why the ps3 was so much when it was released.

n7specops
n7specops

I just don't like the idea of not being backwards compatible. It means I'll be keeping my 360 to play older games because they'll end up arriving on the new Xbox Live and we'll have to buy them all over if we wanna play them. Microsoft's Cash Cow... I mean, as much as I'm complaining though, I'll probably wait 6 months or so after launch to actually see what happens with sales and to check the thing out at a friend's house, but I'll probably end up buying it. Backwards compatibility is the big thing with me...

wandmdave
wandmdave

I'll wait to see what its failure rate is before I buy.  Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.  More interested in the PS4 at this point anyway but we'll see what happens at E3.

MrBenGhazi
MrBenGhazi

Am I the only person that is completely, thoroughly impressed with the capabilities of this device? Integration with your TV? Built in DVR? Voice commands for most common actions? Oh, and it also plays games and watches movies? What more do you people want!

As someone that owns a very powerful gaming computer, I'm actually OK that XboxOne looks like a mid-range gaming computer (as far as hardware goes). If the hardware can handle all of the ridiculous features revealed, and can play new games without having a heart attack (hello PS3!), then I'm not complaining. How smooth this all actually works in practice is obviously yet to be seen. As a PC enthusiast, I would love it if in addition to all of the software innovations, Microsoft would actually let us open up the box and improve the hardware. Would it really be that hard to build in a few empty RAM slots? But this is a really minor gripe on what looks to be an amazing new system.

The real sticking point with this device is going to be the price. I honestly can't see this selling for anything under $500 and wouldn't be at all surprised if the price tag soared much higher than that. This is where the added software capabilities of the XboxOne really start to makes sense. Would you or your family consider dishing out nearly $1,000 (don't be surprised when it's announced!) for a machine that plays video games? Probably not. Would you or your family consider dishing out nearly $1,000 for a computer, gaming system, video telephone, DVR, voice and sensory remote controller, exercise companion, web browser, and cloud storage service? The deal begins to sound much better.

SteveSonOf-Rob
SteveSonOf-Rob

The title of this article is inaccurate. The focus on non-gaming media may have taken the focus at todays press conference, but it's important to remember that todays reveal is only part 1 of a 2 part announcement. The key note at E3 will be ALL GAMES, a fact that has been confirmed by Microsoft. Microsoft remembers who brought them to the dance, gamers need not lose their minds over today's hardware-centric reveal.

preperser
preperser

Gamers are already anxious to get a hand on this impressive device. They can sign up to be on the list with the people who will be notified when the pre-ordering begins and will also get a $10 store credit. http://t.co/nFk8F3BhLA

MatthewMelange
MatthewMelange

They announced a video game console with no video games!

tangerine3000
tangerine3000

I really dislike the current Kinect, so I'm really skeptical about this fancy new one. My Kinect got chucked in the magical abyss behind the TV after a couple of days. It barely works at all for people without ridiculously large living rooms. Definitely won't buy the new one without trying it out first.

Wondering if it has any sort of integration with tablets, phones or computers? It'd be cool to have my devices linked like Apple's are. Looking forward to the new TV features and specs for the gaming computer. It's definitely time for an upgrade!