Xbox upgrade looks forward

CorrespondentDecember 26, 2011 

Future historians may well regard our era as The Golden Age of Sitting on the Couch.

Not that there's anything wrong with that - in moderation, of course. A major new update to Microsoft's Xbox 360 console game system, launched earlier this month and still rolling out in waves, is a good indication of where we're heading.

Along with its competitors, the Nintendo Wii and the PlayStation 3, the Xbox 360 is trying to leverage its Internet connectivity features and shed its reputation as just a video game platform. It would much rather you think of it as a central hub for all your home entertainment needs - television network shows, on-demand movies, streaming music, live sporting events, social media ... and, yes, video games.

Starting this month, the console's Xbox Live network is adding content from more than 40 new partners - including ESPN, Facebook, Hulu, YouTube, HBO, ABC, TMZ, Major League Baseball - along with expanded options from current partners like Netflix and Last.fm.

Even more partners will be added down the line in 2012, giving the Xbox a dizzying array of options. Microsoft is calling it "The Future of TV."

As such, Microsoft has also restructured the interface of the Xbox. The main "Dashboard" control screen has been radically rejiggered to reflect the changing nature of the device. Tellingly, in the main Xbox home screen, the "Games" category has been demoted to a spot behind "Social," "TV" and "Video."

Information overload

Such an aggressive ramp-up of content and options has a downside - how do you navigate it all? Scrolling through the new Dashboard already feels overwhelming and cluttered, and much of the new content isn't even online yet.

The most ambitious feature of the Xbox overhaul is the new gesture and voice-control interface designed to eliminate the remote control entirely. Looking for a particular show, or game, or movie? Just ask for it.

The gesture and voice recognition requires the Xbox 360 hands-free Kinect system and is, at first, very impressive indeed. The Kinect camera identifies your body from the background of the room, and you become the controller. Wave to the camera, and Kinect tracks your hand so that subsequent gestures act as directional control. Sweep left to scroll the menu left. Hover your hand over an onscreen button to click it.

Kinect also uses the camera microphone to pick up your voice commands. To wake up the Kinect and get it to listen, you just say "Xbox." General navigation options like "Next," "Previous" or "Cancel" will work in just about any menu, while other voice commands are contextual and depend on whatever you're looking at onscreen.

There's also a universal search function, which leverages Microsoft's Google-esque cross-platform search technology, Bing. In any screen, at any time, you can just speak aloud "Bing" followed by whatever you're looking for - TV show, movie or game. "30 Rock," say - or "Elder Scrolls: Skyrim" or "Kung Fu Panda."

A work in progress

Voice recognition here is surprisingly accurate. The system "hears" your request and displays the relevant Xbox options. Download an episode of "30 Rock," or play "Skyrim" or watch "Kung Fu Panda." This is by far the most promising of aspect of the Xbox overhaul. Theoretically.

As a practical matter, however, the gesture and voice recognition system still has a way to go. I spent several hours over the course of about a week trying to navigate the Xbox without a controller. In some instances, it was amazing - I could boot up "Skyrim," my current video game obsession, just by asking for it. And general navigation between menus is smooth.

Other times, I hit dead ends. Trying to get to "Kung Fu Panda," the voice system found what I was looking for, but then it launched the video trailer - at maximum volume, somehow, so that the microphone couldn't hear me anymore.

My hand gestures further confused things, and I wound up looking at a "Planet of the Apes" promo video.

Bear in mind that you need an Internet connection - wired or wireless - for any of this, and that the various premium services require a membership and a monthly fee (starting at $5 a month). Details on this are changing constantly, as Microsoft decides which services to shuttle between the free and subscription areas of the network.

You can expect the Wii and the PlayStation 3 to expand their options in 2012 as well, as this next phase of the console wars heats up.

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