Microsoft shows off SmartGlass and lots of shooters at E3 Press Conference

Microsoft kicked off E3 today with its annual Press Conference. With no new hardware to talk about (they'd said in advance that they wouldn't be talking about Xbox 720) I was wondering what they'd do to keep excitement levels high.

It turns out that with one exception, Microsoft seems to have rolled back the clock a few years. Today's event felt targeted almost exclusively to the 16-25 male demographic, with established shooter franchises (Halo 4, Splinter Cell, Gears of War, Call of Duty) and sports titles (Madden and FIFA) getting the majority of screen time.

I counted exactly one family-friendly game; a Kinect enabled game called Wreckateer that had you flinging rocks at castles to knock them down. Think of it like a first person Angry Birds powered by Kinect hand-gestures.

Kinect was actually downplayed in terms of gaming. The titles that were announcing Kinect enabled features all focused on voice commands. Fable: The Journey, a Kinect controlled game first teased last year, was shown in trailer form but not being played. There was a distinct lack of hand-waving and certainly no little girl playing with her virtual cat "Skittles."

Overall from a gaming point of view I found the conference pretty meh, but I'm not a shooter fan. If you enjoy shooters then, well, you're going to have a good year of gaming.

They did also show a new clip from the new Tomb Raider game which continues to look intense. In this game a young Lara is continually getting the crap knocked out of her by enemies and environment but keeps bouncing back for more. In some ways this game reminds me of the Uncharted series a little bit, only Lara's on-going injuries leave marks. It'll be interesting to see public reaction to this game; culturally I just don't think we're used to seeing a female protagonist put through such hell and showing the results. At least not in games.

Anyway, what was really interesting aside from the gaming parts of the conference was the announcement of Microsoft Smartglass, a way of connecting your Xbox 360 to your smart device so that the two systems can share data back and forth. In a lot of ways Microsoft just stole Nintendo's thunder, because in theory, Smartglass lets you do on your existing tablet or smart phone a lot of the things Nintendo is promising to bring to the Wii U Gamepad.

Microsoft says Smartglass will work on iOS, Android and Windows 8. One game-play example of the technology at work showed someone 'drawing' a Madden play on their tablet and then sending it into the game on their TV. For video, a nifty example was watching A Game of Thrones on the Xbox 360 via HBO Go and seeing an interactive map of where the action on-screen was taking place, on your tablet. Of course this was probably a unique example since HBO offers an 'enhanced' Game of Thrones experience on the HBO iPad app already. A simpler example was watching a movie on a tablet, then sending it to the TV and having the tablet automagically switch to meta-data about the movie being watched (synopsis, cast, director, etc.).

Along with Smartglass Microsoft confirmed IE's pending arrival on the Xbox 360, and the two work together in an interesting way. Essentially you can use your phone/tablet like a giant trackpad for your TV display. Rather than try to browse around using an Xbox controller you just touch your device and you'll see a pointer on the TV. Drag around and tap to navigate. It was a pretty impressive demo.

Microsoft is also still pushing its platform as the new media hub for your living room. They say they're adding 35 new partners for streaming content this year. Specifically called out was NBA Live and NHL. Once those get on the Xbox the NFL will be the only major league that Microsoft isn't offering, and via ESPN we'll even get some NFL content.

Microsoft's long-rumored new music service, or re-branding of Zune (depending on how you want to look at it) was announced but not a lot of time was spent on it. It wasn't at all clear how it'll differentiate itself from other digital music offerings.

As much as the Smartglass stuff looks interesting, I didn't come away from the conference all that excited about the Xbox 360 as a gaming console. It seems like Microsoft was really playing it safe this year, rolling out new iterations of established franchises and not doing very much more. We all know Xbox 720 is on its way and I guess Microsoft is holding back its really innovative new franchises to launch on the new hardware.

Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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