New game consoles don’t exactly come along every week. Microsoft unveiled its current one, the Xbox 360, back on May 12, 2005 — an era when the newest version of Windows was XP, almost all forms of gadget input involved clacky little buttons and the fastest way to get Netflix into your living room involved a red envelope and the U.S. postal system.
In the eight years since that announcement, the Xbox 360 has evolved — a lot. Microsoft has reworked its user interface repeatedly and added scads of features. Using Kinect, which arrived as an optional add-on in 2010, you can control the 360 with your entire body and your voice. And thanks to Netflix and other streaming services, Xbox owners spend more total time watching video than they do playing games.
But at its heart, the 360 has remained a piece of hardware from another era — an old dog that works really hard to perform new tricks, and does them well. But it’s still an old dog.
On Tuesday, in a tent at its Redmond, Wash. campus, Microsoft introduced its new console, the Xbox One. Its specs reflect eight years of dramatic technological advancement since the 360′s debut: It sports a vastly more powerful eight-core processor, sixteen times the RAM of the original 360, a much more capable version of Kinect that now lets you make Skype video calls in HD, advanced Wi-Fi, a Blu-ray drive, HDMI input and output, and three — count ‘em: three — operating systems. (As Microsoft explained, the box has an Xbox OS, a special version of Windows and a bridging OS which melds the two into one experience.)
But while the Xbox One is all-new from a technology standpoint — it won’t even play Xbox 360 games — it also feels like a continuance of the ideas that Microsoft has been adding to the Xbox 360 since 2005. There’s no radically new concept akin to the two-screen interface that Nintendo gave the Wii U. It’s just that all of the familiar features — games, video, motion input, voice input and more — have been reimagined in ways Microsoft can only accomplish now that it’s got a modern, forward-looking platform. It’s the Xbox that the Xbox 360 would be if it wasn’t an old-timer.
Before I go any further, a disclaimer: Microsoft’s big unveiling was much more of an actual product introduction than Sony’s February tease for the PlayStation 4, which didn’t even involve a peek at the PS4 hardware or interface. But in the game business, it’s standard practice to reveal a new platform over multiple events. The Xbox One is not departing from tradition. In fact, Microsoft ended the Tuesday event by displaying a giant countdown timer for its event at E3, the video game industry’s big trade show in June.
“Today, we showed seven games,” Don Mattrick, president of Microsoft’s interactive entertainment business told me. “We announced two key partnerships: NFL and Spielberg. We showed our box and showed our name, and had people give an outline of how it works.” There’s more news to come, he says, at E3 and beyond.
For now, there’s a lot of stuff we don’t yet know about the Xbox One, and not just mundane-but-vital details like its exact release date (sometime this year, Microsoft says) and price tag. The company didn’t really address streaming-video services for the One, and how it will (or won’t) integrate with cable-TV systems. At the event, it let journalists like me get a bit of time with the new Kinect and redesigned game controller, but only as technology demos, not to play real games. And so on.
Bottom line: with the console only partially unveiled, it’s only possible to form a partial impression of it. But I do have some thoughts…
“Game console” may be an insufficient term for the Xbox One. With so many non-gaming features, such as the new voice-controlled TV guide, it’s fundamentally multi-functional in a way that the Xbox 360 was not. The TV emphasis in particular may lead some consumers to think of it as a TV box that does games, rather than a gaming box that does TV.
I wondered if Microsoft thought that non-gamers would buy the One in droves. When I posed that question to Mattrick, he seemed cautious about setting expectations too high: “How many people are on Planet Earth? Eight billion? A lot of people are into entertainment. They love touching their friends through Skype. They love being social and engaged. It’ll expand our market, sure.” (World population is currently more like seven billion, but point taken.)
The interface is designed for everything. On the Xbox 360, everything except gaming is secondary, and all of the device’s capabilities are walled off into their own little not-entirely-consistent universes. The Xbox One, by contrast, aims to let you zip between all its features, like gaming, TV, Internet Explorer and Skype, with zero lag, as you might do on a PC. In fact, it accomplishes this in part by borrowing concepts from Windows 8: the new home screen looks very much like that operating system, and Snap mode, first seen in Windows 8, lets you stick an applet on one side of the screen so you can do two things at once, such as watching an NFL game while managing your fantasy football team.
Mattrick says that the goal was to make it as easy as watching TV: “Moving between classes of content is like a channel change — Ooh, Skype call, ooh, a game.”
It’s the first major voice-first gadget. If you have an Xbox 360 and Kinect, you can control it by speaking. Samsung makes TVs you can talk to. And voice input is a major feature of smartphones thanks to features such as Siri and Google Now. But it seems to me that the Xbox One is the first big-time device that treats voice not as an alternative form of input or an added benefit, but as the default method of doing things such as turning it on (“Xbox on”), switching between functions and tuning to a particular TV station.
It’ll be fascinating to see how it works in the world’s living rooms. (It performed well, though not perfectly, in the demos I saw in Redmond.) If it’s natural and effective, it might be the start of an epochal shift in living room interfaces in the way that the iPhone introduced the world to touch.
The new Kinect looks amazing. Like the Xbox 360′s version, it uses an infrared camera to watch your movements and turn them into game input. But it does so with dramatically more precision. The new Kinect detects tiny movements; it works in murky lightning; it can sense the force with which you punch or kick; and it knows if you’re smiling and/or speaking. By watching subtle changes to your face, it can even measure your pulse. And it has a much wider viewing angle, making the technology suitable for more living room configurations.
It’s not a given that game developers will use the One’s version of Kinect for all its worth, especially in the first wave of games. I asked launch event participant Andrew Wilson of EA Sports about it, and he said, “We’re still working through that, in all honesty. I’m really excited about what it can do.” But the technology looks like it has the power to be transformative.
Skype calls could be a big deal. In 2010, Cisco introduced an HD video-calling camera called Umi. It turned a big-screen HDTV into a portal into other folks’ living rooms, and was quite dazzling; the company gave up on the product almost immediately, but not before convincing me that we’d all end up with something like Umi in our living rooms eventually. The new Kinect sensor doubles, essentially, as a Umi — a 1080p camera which lets you call other Xbox One users or anyone else who’s got a Skype account. As the One lands in millions of homes, living-room videoconferencing will have a shot at becoming an everyday reality.
Xbox Live could start to look like a TV network. The Xbox 360 already has standard fare like Netflix, Hulu Plus and HBO Go. So will the One. But what if it also had compelling TV programs that you couldn’t get anywhere else? Part of Tuesday’s event was presided over by Nancy Tellem, the former president of CBS Television Studios who’s now president of entertainment and digital media for Microsoft. She announced that Steven Spielberg is involved with a TV show based on Microsoft’s bestselling Halo franchise — which, if it’s only available on Xbox One, might be a reason to buy the console in much the same way that the Kevin Spacey version of House of Cards is an incentive to subscribe to Netflix.
But Tellem didn’t quite say where the Halo show will turn up, and neither she nor Mattrick were ready to provide specifics when I asked. Still, she told me that she’s having lots of productive conversations with creators about bringing their work to Xbox and that the key will be melding conventional storytelling with the One’s new features, such as related content that could be displayed in Snap mode. “As we’re looking at all the capabilities of what Xbox can offer and how we differentiate ourselves from any other box out there, it’s how we do content on an interactive basis,” she said.
There’s more — much more — to come. Mattrick told me that building in room for growth was a key design goal: “We’re creating a box with just a whole different set of characteristics over its life cycle than anything that’s existed before.”
Thanks in part to the degree to that it’s integrated with cloud-based services, he says, the Xbox One has “infinite headroom.” Good to hear. If it’s as successful as the Xbox 360 has been, it’ll still be selling briskly in 2021. Which means that even once Microsoft has told us everything there is to know about this Xbox — and even once consumers get their hands on it — there will be plenty of surprises ahead. And if that headroom is indeed infinite, even Microsoft can’t yet tell us where the Xbox One may be headed.