Xbox One: Microsoft focuses on managing content, not gaming

May 21, 2013 | 5:39 p.m.

Microsoft Corp.'s Don Mattrick unveils the next-generation Xbox One entertainment and gaming console system, Tuesday at an event in Redmond, Wash. It's been eight years since the launch of the Xbox 360. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Don Mattrick, president of Microsoft Corp.'s Interactive Entertainment Business, reveals the new Xbox One console at the company's headquarters in Redmond, Wash. (Microsoft / PRNewsFoto)

Microsoft Corp.'s Don Mattrick unveils the next-generation Xbox One entertainment and gaming console system. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Microsoft Corp.'s Don Mattrick unveils the next-generation Xbox One entertainment and gaming console system. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates is shown in a video during the unveiling of the Xbox One entertainment and gaming console system Tuesday, (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Xbox One users will be able to watch TV while chatting with friends. (Microsoft)

Xbox One users will be able to watch movies while chatting with friends. (Microsoft)

A scene from the upcoming Xbox One game "Call of Duty: Ghosts." (Activision / Microsoft)

A scene from the Xbox One game "Call of Duty: Ghosts." (Activision / Microsoft)

A scene from the upcoming Xbox One game "Call of Duty: Ghosts." (Activision / Microsoft)

Microsoft unveiled its new Xbox One console Tuesday, May 21, 2013. (Microsoft)


At this morning’s Xbox One reveal in Redmond, Wash., the new “Call of Duty” game received an extended preview and a new game titled “Quantum Break” was given a giant promotional push. But the biggest star of Microsoft’s news conference to showcase  its Xbox 360 successor was a film director, one who spoke only via a pre-filmed video.

Steven Spielberg, it was divulged this morning, will executive produce an original “Halo” television series based on the popular video game franchise that’s long been tied to the Xbox ecosystem.

“For me, the ‘Halo’ universe is an amazing opportunity to be at the intersection where technology and storytelling meet,” Spielberg said, adding that he’s been interested in games since the era of “Pong” and that they have now evolved, technologically speaking, to a point where interactive storytelling is at its most compelling.

Details of the series, like much of the content for Xbox One, won’t be revealed until a later date. How it will play with upcoming “Halo” games is also tabled until the future. But that was indicative of Microsoft’s ambitions for Xbox One, which aims to further blur the lines between games, television, film and Internet content.

It wasn’t new games or new ways to play them that dominated today’s conference, but rather ways to integrate a gaming device and gaming technology such as the motion-based Kinect into our family rooms. You turn the device on by saying, “Xbox on.” You find out what is on ABC by asking the machine. Or, if you prefer to game, just say “game.” You can also jump into a game while watching a movie simply by using hand gestures,  a process Microsoft has dubbed “snap mode.”

The new Xbox One console, sensor and controller. (Microsoft)

The new Xbox One console, sensor and controller. (Microsoft)

The idea of using a game system as a sort of Trojan Horse to take over the living room is nothing new. The PlayStation 2, for instance, was released in 2000 with DVD playback capability. Last year, Wii U aimed to fully integrate TV and Web functionality into the machine.

Some have worked better than others — I’m happy utilizing the Wii U format for services such as Hulu, and using the Wii U’s Gamepad as a TV remote is a nice bonus now and again, but as someone without a cable subscription most of the add-ons are superfluous. It’s simply quicker to access what I want when I want without using the game system (or in the case of my home Xbox, without needing a Xbox Live subscription).

Xbox One hopes to make cross-media functionality easier than ever before by working closely with your cable box and incorporating a retooled Kinect that better recognizes movement and voice into the console. What’s more, today Microsoft said Xbox One essentially runs three operating systems, making jumps between games, Skype apps, movies, the Web or television happen instantaneously on the same screen (or by accident, depending on what Xbox trigger words you say, although Kinect upgrades are promised to have pitch-perfect voice recognition).

Examples shown illustrated how users could split their screens to use Skype while watching TV or playing a game. Partnerships with the NFL will bring more Web content onto the screen and it looks as if users can search for movie times or scroll through TV guides without having to leave a film or a game. By connecting with your cable box, the Xbox One, in theory, will more powerfully and seamlessly allow for mergers of online, linear and interactive entertainment.

These are all nice features but until the Xbox One is in our living rooms we won’t really know how beautifully they all intersect, although the 8-core x86 processor, 8 gigabytes of system memory and a 500 GB hard drive will certainly help. Unlike Sony’s PS4 announcement, which emphasized sharing content and better accessing games through streaming, Microsoft today tried to pitch the Xbox One as part game machine and part smart TV overlord, seeking to house all the distribution channels we use for entertainment in one ecosystem. And tools like Smartglass automatically pair the game console with compatible smartphones and tablets, so these portable devices can interact with the TV as a remote control.

A view of the movies screen on the new Xbox One. (Microsoft)

A view of the movies screen on the new Xbox One. (Microsoft)

Whether that excites you or not likely depends on how dependent you are on your current multi-screen setup — TV, laptop, tablet, etc. — and how comfortable you are talking to your TV. Or if you agree with Microsoft that the family room has become “too complex” (I think it’s pretty simple, personally.) Or, finally, how comfortable you are with the fact that the Xbox is always listening to you, since its operation is keyed by certain voice commands such as “Xbox on.”

Microsoft has already tried to squash any privacy concerns, but since Xbox One’s “advanced noise isolation lets Kinect know who to listen to, even in a crowded room,” it can hear you. Suddenly it seems rather meta that Ubisoft’s upcoming game “Watch Dogs,” based on a premise of listening to civilians by hacking personal devices, is coming to Xbox One. And it’s important to note that unless the Xbox One has DVR capability it may still be an accessory for most people.

While the current iteration of Kinect is a bit sloppy — it’s more or less useless in my small living room, in which the TV is about five feet from the couch — Microsoft went out of its way to show that new advancements will ensure its usability has improved. It is so powerful that it can supposedly read a heartbeat, which may sound odd but should make for more accurate fitness games.

What the presentation was lacking were specific examples of what the Xbox One is supposed to do best — offer an enhanced gaming experience — though one of the most exciting bits of news today was that Microsoft Studios is currently developing eight original titles to release within a year of the Xbox One launch.

In the words of Microsoft Studios head Phil Spencer, “The groundbreaking tech at the heart of Xbox One will broaden the landscape and canvas for the storyteller.” Hopefully. More content — and content that isn’t a sequel or tied to an already known brand — is good news indeed, especially considering that Microsoft, like Sony, made the mistake of not ensuring the system is backward compatible.

Most of the games shown this morning were sports-related, and the sports did indeed look impressive, although it’s unknown whether what we saw was actual game play. Spencer did single out “Quantum Break” from “Alan Wake” developer Remedy, which looks to integrate lots of live action content into its game play.

It seemed a little bit like a TV show and a little bit like a game, with a young child who has the ability to seemingly plug-in to other’s minds and send players into the graphic world of the game. No doubt this is  what Spielberg, whose name was tied to LucasArts classic “The Dig,” means when he talks about the intersection of interactivity and storytelling.

Ultimately, when it comes to the question of whether to invest in a new game system (no pricing info was divulged), it’s the stories that matter and not the voice commands that can switch on a split-screen.

Oh, and more Spielberg and “Halo” doesn’t hurt.

– Todd Martens

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex


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