What do you want your home console to do – to be – in five years’ time?
It’s a question that appears to drive the design imperative behind the Xbox One. Its predecessor, the Xbox 360, has endured some eight years as a game console despite its origins in the context of a 2004 world. And if there’s something that Microsoft can take away from this experience, it’s that modern hardware now – more than ever – needs to evolve with rapidly changing times. Simply put, it must not only fulfil the needs of today, but it must be flexible enough to accommodate whatever might lie ahead.
“Xbox 360, even though it’s a relatively recent device, was only ever designed to have, really, one thing operating at any one moment in time,” begins Phil Harrison, corporate vice president of Microsoft’s Interactive Business, EMEA. “We gave away a little bit of the operating system to achievements and Xbox Live and some other system things, but fundamentally, it only did one thing at a time. If you wanted to… go from playing game A to game B, you effectively had to power the machine down and start back up again, or you had to unload one and load up another. And that was time-consuming, it was pretty inelegant from a user’s perspective and as a result, users were not particularly incentivised to do lots of different things with the device.”
Microsoft believes this is something that consumers, generally speaking, have developed a taste for as technology has marched ever forward. And it’s something the company intends to capitalise upon with the Xbox One – not just now, but as consumer tastes continue to evolve. “Xbox One… was designed from the get-go – from the very first principle – to be a multi-operating-system, multi-context device where you would have instant switching between functions,” explains Harrison. “I can be watching TV, I can switch to playing a game, it can elegantly pause, I can switch to watching a movie or going to the web or whatever other functionality. The connectivity to the cloud with Xbox One gives us longevity. It gives us a great time horizon for functionality and capability updates on the device that, I think, are… We actually don’t know how far it will go.”
Is this One for New Zealand?
While the connectivity requirements of Microsoft’s upcoming hardware aren’t as stringent as many may have feared, there was perhaps still cause for concern out of the One’s reveal. For those of us who might reside in regions with data caps and less-than-desirable Internet connectivity, talk of drawing computational resources from the cloud may have sounded a few alarm bells. Harrison, however, insists such concern is unfounded. “Don’t confuse bandwidth with connectivity,” he warns.
“A connection to the cloud doesn’t necessarily have to be a very wide bandwidth. You could send data to the cloud, it can be processed and it can be sent back. That isn’t something that necessarily requires the fastest, fibre-optic broadband. [Also] it’s not necessary, but we hope games take advantage of it, because we think it’s a fantastic advancement of the gameplay. These will be real, tangible benefits to the player that will just make their games more amazing and more fun.”
During the era of the Xbox 360, Kiwis became accustomed to feeling short-changed on the content stakes as all manner of entertainment apps surfaced for other regions, particularly the US and UK. With the Xbox One’s entertainment-heavy focus in its reveal (particularly the cable functionality and the NFL partnership), no one can be blamed for thinking it just might be a case of history repeating. “I understand that concern,” he begins. “We know that television is a very local medium. It is essential that we solve, for every country, as quickly as we can, a very compelling, localised, regionalised, culturally relevant entertainment option wherever you live, however you consume your TV. And that’s what we’re doing.
"It won’t be everywhere on the globe, day one; I’ll be very clear about that. But we’re committed to solving it. You can see the commitments we’ve made on 360, that we’re already developing some very powerful regional and local partnerships. We want to continue to develop and deepen those relationships, and we have teams around the planet who are working on that right now.”
Kinect – the motion-sensing, voice-recognising peripheral that increased the Xbox 360’s features set during the tail end of the console’s lifetime – will make a return appearance with the Xbox One. However, this time around, it appears to be an integral component of the whole experience, which might sound further alarm bells for some.
But while the initial implementation encountered its fair share of teething problems, Harrison insists that the new, improved version delivers on the promise of its predecessor. “I’m not sure [we learned] lessons so much as… everything changed. We redesigned it completely to take advantage of technology that was not available to us when Kinect was designed for 360,” he explains.
“We’ve put a 1080p camera in the Kinect sensor, we’ve changed and improved the voice-recognition model, we’ve totally redesigned the sensor sensitivity so that movement is now measured in millimetres and nanoseconds. In turn, that means game designers can develop much more subtle implementations of the technology into their games, and they don’t actually have to use movement or gesture at all.”
Red Ring Redemption
“That was a very painful experience for the company, as you can imagine,” says Harrison of the notorious ‘Red Ring of Death’ technical fault that resulted in an extraordinarily high failure rate for the Xbox 360.
“The company learned a lot in the way that it designs and manufactures and tests and distributes its product. I’ve spent time with our hardware teams and our manufacturing teams since I’ve joined Microsoft, and I’m firmly of the belief that they’re the best on the planet. We have some incredible people inside this organisation who are committed to building products of the absolute highest quality, and I think you will see that with Xbox One.”
Sharing is caring
Citing the confines of a 60-minute presentation, Harrison contends that Microsoft didn’t detail everything that the One is capable of during its reveal. “We made a fantastic investment in something that we call Game DVR, which is your achievements become video moments that you can save to your personal cloud, share with your friends, push to your social media,” he says. “And not only does that become a great way of showing your magical gameplay moments to the world, but it also becomes a great way for the world to discover new games. And that’s a really big challenge and opportunity for the development community right now; if I create this wonderful game, how do I get the world to play it? How do I get the world to see it? So things like Game DVR dramatically help the socialisation and distribution and discovery of content.”
A platform established
Microsoft has made very clear that the One’s reveal was, first and foremost, about the platform itself – much to the chagrin of much of its core gaming audience.
The games, it assures us, will feature prominently at E3 in June this year. But it was important to cement the Xbox One as a multifunctional, multimedia device at this early juncture because, quite simply, a dedicated gaming device just doesn’t cut it anymore.
“On a simple level, [our competitors are] anything with pixels and an operating system, because we’re seeing so many devices that can play games, that can play music, that can stream or play back linear video content,” says Harrison. “But I think it’s only when you see the technological capabilities of Xbox One that you realise that we’re kind of moving the competitive discussion into a new space, because it’s only our unique combination of the performance of the chips in the box, the investment we’ve made in the sensors, and the investments we’ve made in the cloud – nobody else is doing that.”
Microsoft has set the table with its vision for the Xbox One as an all-in-one living-room device; now the company only hopes that come E3, consumers will understand that this living-room device just happens to play host to some incredible gaming content as well.