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.

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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.