Microsoft's next-generation console, the Xbox One, must phone home at least once a day or its gaming features will become unavailable. But what do you tell someone who has a poor, or unreliable Internet connection? Someone, say, who lives in a rural area at the bottom of the world? If you’re Microsoft, the rehearsed recommendation is to tell them to “go buy an Xbox 360”.
It's another staggeringly dismissive statement from a company which seems to have caught a serious case of the PR shakes this year, and one fed directly to journalists this afternoon. Safely in a WiFi zone, gathered in a booth behind closed doors on the E3 showfloor, Gameplanet was given a first-hand (yet not hands-on) glimpse at the powerful features of Xbox One.
First up, an engineering boss at Redmond showed off the raw computational power of the AMD Jaguar CPU. Using a dataset of stars and celestial bodies sourced from NASA, Microsoft showed floating blobs moving in orbit relative to the sun. While the demo appeared smooth, there wasn’t a lot of technical information given.
Citing some figures, the Xbox One is apparently 10 times more powerful than the 360 when tasked with tracking 40,000 meteorites across space - something that a similarly powered PlayStation 4 would also be capable of achieving. With the press of a button, however, the number of objects being modelled rocketed to 250,000 - with the help of a cloud processing cluster somewhere out in the wild (although the server address on screen appeared to be in the 172.16.0.0 private range, implying 'the wild' was probably the next room). The applications for this level of dynamic computing power available to developers have not yet been devised, although one could easily imagine an RPG wherein the AI for non-player characters is outsourced.
When we asked about the implications of latency on this architecture, the answer was a diversion; our engineer claimed the scope of the question was too broad to be answered in the available time. With a round trip time from Auckland to Sydney taking roughly 50ms, a gamer could hypothetically expect somewhere between 60 and 120ms of latency when interacting with content from the cloud, something which will need to be carefully considered by designers in the future. Assuming cloud content for Asia Pacific isn’t solely located in Microsoft’s Singapore datacentres (approximately 200 - 300ms latency), the future of this technology could be impressive and relevant for those in the Antipodes.
Kinect "2" is a major focus for Microsoft this year, and as the old technology has failed to engage anyone other than the mumcore gaming set, the Xbox team are keen to impress. The next tech demo on offer introduced new subtlety to the Kinect, showing the ability to read gamers' natural reactions to stimulus on screen. Pulling the controller up in defense is a common movement, according to Microsoft, who showed a demo where the movement will activate a shield in a first person shooter. Don't flinch. Similarly, leaning from side to side when racing can mean games treat the player’s spine “like a third thumbstick”. Disconcerting imaging aside, the Kinect did appear to have the fidelity to register these movements from a standing player (although, it did appear to work correctly when demoed in 2010 as well).
After Kinect and cloud were displayed, Microsoft’s new favourite thing, the TV, popped up in the presentation. Showing the TV-watching capabilities of the new console along with the associated “Snap Apps” from approved channel partners was deemed worthy of a third of the session. Gameplanet was shown a slick UI for switching between live shows, applications related to various TV networks, websites and franchises, and integrated fantasy football.
Much of this content won’t make it to New Zealand on launch (or at all), and information on the curation of apps to work alongside TV is still, for reasons unknown, a closely guarded secret. A situation where TV from a Freeview decoder could work alongside a social Shortland Street app is technically feasible, yet there's an unavoidable sense that Microsoft will not be simply opening the platform up to every Tom, Dick and population of small South Pacific nations.
The Xbox One certainly has some impressive technical specs and the heft of Microsoft behind it. The platform is capable and has a solid line-up of games. It’s the surrounding attitudes and perceptions that need to be reassessed. While Sony faces the relatively easy task of quietly achieving with the PlayStation 4, the overwhelming sentiment here at E3 is that Microsoft will need to drop some major bombs to get its next generation back on track.