May 22, 2013, 6:00 AM —
While we've been speculating about the next Xbox gaming console a lot of potential names have come up, but for me at least, the actual name took me completely by surprise: Xbox One.
Yesterday Microsoft did their initial reveal of their new home entertainment system. And I chose those words deliberately since MS seems determined to move far beyond what we think of when we think of a 'gaming console.' In fact most of the presentation was devoted to the hardware itself and its media capabilities, with just a few games shown (many more will be seen in a few weeks at E3).
The Xbox One is a fairly large black box. The new controller is a refinement of the existing Xbox 360 controller though Microsoft says there are 40 innovations in it, including feedback in the triggers. Every Xbox One comes with Kinect 2; a version of Kinect that has much higher input fidelity than the old one did.
Kinect is a required part of this system (the Xbox One won't work without a Kinect plugged in) and for the most part yesterday's presentation focused on voice commands, starting with powering on the system (or really, taking it out of standby mode I imagine) by saying "Xbox On" and then navigating around the system using primarly voice, but we also saw gestures like doing the equivalent of pinch and zoom using two hands. Gestures were done by standing presenters and I always wonder how well they'll work while sitting down.
As rumored, Xbox One does have HDMI pass-through and the on-stage demo was very impressive as the presenter used Kinect's voice commands to switch from a running game, to live TV, to music, and back to TV just by voice. There's a guide for the TV service and you can change channels by saying "Watch SyFy" or bring up the guide by asking "What's on HBO?" There seemed to be a few ways to issue commands, making it feel more like natural language than the current Kinect supports.
Really the TV integration reminded me a lot of Google TV, but that in itself had me feeling a little skeptical. There were few details about how all this is going to work. Will the Xbox One have cabled IR blasters that you have to tape to the front of your cable box? Let's hope not (and I'd be very surprised if it was that low-tech of a solution). And the channel changes during the demo happened very quickly. As a friend pointed out, IR Blasters tend to be much slower.
So how will Xbox One control your cable box, and will it require a partnership with your cable provider? Will it know what's on your DVR? Why isn't the Xbox One itself a DVR? I assume that Kinect can search live TV as well as Netflix and other services, but there was no mention of this kind of feature (it exists on the current Xbox 360 though). There are a lot of questions here. Remember that Nintendo TV looked pretty nifty during early presentations.
If it works as advertised, though...well that's going to be pretty neat. There's a Snap Mode that let's you, for instance, run live TV on most of the screen but have a narrow window with IE running on the rest of the screen. When you're watching live TV or a movie, and you return to the Xbox One dashboard, your content keeps playing in a window on that dashboard.
[Update: After I finished this post, The Verge shared some info on how TV integration will work on Xbox One and the news is not good. There's an IR Out port on the back and most of us will have to use IR Blasters at least for now. Newer cable boxes can accept channel changes upstream via HDMI and presumably over time more and more of us will get this kind of cable box, so the situation should improve some. The Xbox One has no DVR functionalities nor any way to control your existing DVR, so it's mostly of use for channel surfing, if anyone still does that.]
Yesterday's presentation was really sports-heavy and they talked a lot about integration with ESPN and fantasy sports, so if you're watching a game and one of "your" players scores you'll get a pop-up and can then quickly open your fantasy sports listings to see how you're doing.
Skype was a big deal too, and again, you can video message someone at the same time live TV is playing. It was all very flashy though I always wonder how much these features are actually put to use with the average consumer.
The Xbox One does play games of course, and we saw a few. EA Sports says Fifa, Madden 25, NBA Live and UFC are all coming to Xbox One in the next 12 months. Microsoft Studios is working on 15 games for release during the first year of Xbox One's life cycle, and eight of them are new franchises, which was very encouraging news.
We saw some video from Forza 5 which is a launch title. We also saw a teaser for Quantum Break, a new IP from Remedy. And of course the presentation ended with a lot of talk about Activision's Call of Duty: Ghosts.
As far as specs, details are still a bit sketchy. The presentation itself had little to say but Engadget uncovered some facts: as rumored there's an 8 core CPU based on AMD's Jaguar architecture, 8 GBs of RAM, a 500 GB hard drive, a Blu-ray drive, USB 3 ports and built in 802.11n with WiFi Direct support. It's running, they say, 3 different OS's: the Xbox operating system, a Windows kernal, and an unnamed third OS that marries the two.
So that was the presentation. It was a very "dude-bro" oriented pitch. Sports games, live sports, an NFL Partnership, and Call of Duty. And of course it aired on Spike TV. Hopefully at E3 we'll see a more rounded presentation with a lot more games.
A few other odds and ends that trickled out after the presentation.
First, the Xbox One will not be backwards compatible with either Xbox 360 or Xbox Arcade titles. I don't think most of us expected it to be, but now it's official.
Second, Microsoft has debunked the "always connected" requirement pretty clearly, but there's still a lot of confusion about whether or not the system has to connect on a regular basis. Kotaku interviewed Microsoft VP Phil Harrison who said that the system has to connect at least once every 24 hours to do...something (refresh licenses?). In the meanwhile over at Polygon Microsoft is refuting, or at least downplaying, what Harrison says. So for now we can be confident that if your Internet connection goes down on a Saturday afternoon you'll still be able to play single players games. We're not yet sure if you can take your Xbox One to that cabin at the lake where there's no internet connection.
Now let's talk used games. It sounds as though every game you buy will be installed to the hard drive, after which you won't need the disk in the system in order to play. But that means that somehow that game is registered to your account. Microsoft isn't completely forthcoming about this situation, but they told Wired that if a disc was used with a second account, that owner would be given the option to pay a fee and install the game from the disc, which would then mean that the new account would also own the game and could play it without the disc.
Wow. I've long dismissed the idea that Microsoft (or Sony) would prohibit used game sales, but this sounds very close to them doing just that. Depending on how much this 'fee' is, and if this information is accurate, then they have, if not blocked used game sales, at least dealt them quite a blow.
But that's not the end of the confusion. Check out this post at VentureBeat that quotes Microsoft reps saying you won't have to pay a fee if you borrow a game from a friend. Then it quotes Harrison as saying you will have to pay a fee:
“You can purchase a game in two ways,” Harrison told Eurogamer. “You can purchase it from a retail store or you can download it. So the act of putting the bits on the hard drive — the Xbox One doesn’t really know or care what method the bits got into the machine. If it was from a disc or downloaded from Xbox Live, but obviously the users will then have to purchase that content.”
Clearly there is some conflicting info out there and I can't for the life of me understand why, just 3 weeks from E3, Microsoft can't just give us clear answers to these questions.
We still are waiting to hear a specific launch date (they're just saying 'this year') and price, too.
I wasn't over-whelmed by the presentation, personally. I'm not a huge sports fan and I don't play many military shooters so I didn't feel there was a lot there for me to get excited about. But I'm reserving judgement until E3. I do say if Microsoft can nail the connected TV experience, I'll be very interested. Something like Google TV but less fiddly would be very welcome in our household.
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