Some days I miss the old Xbox 360 blade interface. It had its drawbacks, sure, among them the way it lagged when you summoned the guide, or whatever it was called back when it slid in from left or right like a brushed nickel panel-door. But that early version was also wonderfully simple and unadorned and clutter-free. Distracting ads and promos and auto-play videos were years off. There were half-a-dozen views instead of 10 gazillion. The stark page coloring helped delineate one area from the next. You knew where things lived and how to get to them quickly. You felt grounded.
Nowadays it’s all hustle and bustle. Metro’s a busy place to live, orthogonal animation-glazed portals, squares and rectangles glommed together under a text-menu carousel. Where Sony‘s PlayStation 3 looks more or less as it did when it launched in 2006 (for better or worse), the Xbox 360′s tried on new outfits every other year, morphing from a spare four- or five-panel setup into the colorful multi-new-media Windows 8 proxy it is today. The history of the Xbox platform has been a gradual accretion of features tacked on or shoehorned in with occasional overlay shifts punctuating things.
With Xbox One, as you can see in Microsoft‘s new 12-minute walkthrough video below, things have been further Metro-fied. The panels are back to bold colors, the background jet black by default to make the panels starker by contrast. It’s still a little busy, but then Metro is busy and there is something lively about that busyness, something that feels more buoyant, say, than the PS3′s comparably clinical XrossMediaBar.
That said, when an interface is always in flux, and when categories present with different arrays of squares and rectangles, it’s easier to forget where things are, or where you are, or how to get to the thing you need. Door handles go on doors in the same place they’ve always gone on doors for a reason. There’s something to be said for keeping some features apart from others instead of interposing things you’d merely like people to see with things they actually need to.
You’ll still have bookmark-like pins here, of course, just as you did on the Xbox 360, allowing you to custom-build your own wall of application entry-points — to build your own doors and handles, if you like. And you’ll have an ostensibly much-improved version of Kinect, allowing you to speak your way through the interface. I wasn’t a fan of Kinect v1.0′s voice command interface because the gamepad was faster (Kinect v1.0 was also only accurate — and I’m being generous here — two-thirds of the time). With Kinect v2.0, or whatever we’re calling it now, that accuracy looks to be nearer all the time. And with the Xbox One’s busier interface, being able to say “Xbox, go (or do) whatever” probably is going to be quicker than reaching for the controller and cursoring through all these new, multifarious panels.
Notice how fast everything responds in the demo. Consider how long it takes to get in and out of things on Nintendo’s Wii U by comparison — something like 10 seconds just to back out of one area and load another. That time adds up. If you spend several minutes a day waiting on your game system to do things other game systems can instantly, you could throw a full 24-hour day away every year sitting in interface limbo. I don’t know about you, but a day a year is a big deal to me. So it’s nice to see Xbox One now doing what it does — recognizing who you are by seeing your face, signing you in, switching between one user and another — almost instantly.
Then there’s the clever new stuff, like saving a game state and resuming without pause, or saying “Xbox, Internet Explorer” while playing and the system pausing the game and dropping into Microsoft’s browser without a hitch. Or how about making a video call at 1080p (Sony’s new version of the PlayStation Eye camera is only 720p) and the Kinect camera using skeletal tracking to follow you around a room without a motor — it does so by employing a neat little optics trick, like a director intelligently framing the shot, to keep you and anyone else in the room in view. And I love the video editing feature, where you can tweak a clip you’ve just recorded (trim it, skin it, bookend it, narrate it, etc.) before uploading it to your favorite online destination.
My only worry is that there’s an awful lot happening here, and while it may seem cool to be issuing commands while driving and watching little dialogue boxes pop-in as you’re recording video or receiving chat invites and quick-flipping to this or that sub-feature, there’s a reason all the latest studies find that multitasking isn’t an acquired skill (no matter who or how “practiced” you are). It’s not a “genetically” or “generationally” superior thing. The human brain isn’t wired to consciously juggle five or six processes at once — it’s a wiring problem practice doesn’t solve. Sure, we can all talk while casually puttering our vehicles down uncrowded streets in clear weather, but until games can suss whether the thing we’re doing at any given microsecond is mechanically uncluttered enough to allow in distractions, I worry we’ll suffer moments of information overload (and note that some of these pop-ups crowd out potentially crucial information, like the part of the demo where one’s blocking an NFL Insiders overlay).
A kludgy interface can blight an otherwise great platform. That’s not the sense I get watching this Xbox One demo — not at all. My reservations about informational deluges aside, I could get used to this. Forget the games for a second: As the father of a 15-month-old who FaceTimes and Skypes with distant family, amazing as Kinect’s 1080p teleconference-like feature looks, I could see myself buying an Xbox One for that and that alone.