XBOX One: Congratulations Microsoft, You Own My Living Room

While the XBOX One is a great gaming console, it is the other features that have more of my interest. Of course these new consoles will play great games but it was the other parts of the story I was interested in. At the end of the day both the PS4 and the XBOX One have to earn a place in consumers living rooms. Both the PS3 and the XBOX 360 are great gaming devices so the story for the new consoles needs to be more than just gaming. Microsoft delivered on that challenge.

The XBOX One is far and away the best piece of living room technology I have ever owned and used. Which is saying something since I’ve been doing connected and digital home analysis for 13 years. I have used everything. Microsoft has done several things with the XBOX One that are very impressive that I want to highlight.

Kinect and Voice

The new Kinect has some sophisticated technology built in. As you set up your XBOX it will ask you if you want to log-in using facial recognition. If you choose to do that the XBOX will auto log you in using your facial and body profile and bring up your custom home screen. What is even more impressive is that the Kinect can log-in multiple people at the same time using facial and body recognition. I set up my account then set one up for my kids with different screen settings and home screen apps for them. When we all sit on the couch it logs us all in at the same time but only allows one person at a time to control the screen.

The voice recognition technology is another leap forward for a living room solution. XBOX is always listening and to turn it on you can say “XBOX turn on” and it will turn in and log-in anyone in the room. This was extremely useful when my friends came over to play who had their own XBOX live accounts. It would instantly log everyone in and allow us to quickly start playing together using our individual accounts. Simple things like that were an impressive part of the overall experience with the XBOX One.

Where Microsoft’s advancements in voice recognition really made an impact was in the TV experience with the XBOX One.

Liberation From My Cable Provider. Almost

The box provided to me by my cable provider is some of the worst technology I have ever used. The only reason I have it is because my service provider makes me use it. While the XBOX can’t replace my cable box yet it has come as close to it as possible. Any living room solution will have to deal with the broadcast TV element. While this is difficult, Microsoft has done the best job yet.

Microsoft has custom built a new guide called the XBOX One guide. This guide is designed to control your broadcast TV experience. If you choose to do so, and I did, you can plug your cable box into the XBOX One and let the XBOX one control it. Where this really becomes powerful is when you use this with Kinect’s built in voice technology.

To see the solution in action check out this video from the Verge.

I saw the same demo live and thought it would never work like this when I got it home and set up. Sure enough it did. Like magic I can say “XBOX watch ESPN” and it quickly tunes to ESPN. I can say “What is on Discovery Channel” and it instantly brings up the guide and shows me what is on Discover Channel. Using voice to navigate around the TV experience opened my eyes to the potential with this experience. Others boxes have tried this and failed. Microsoft’s solution is the first one I have used that works with all cable providers.

At a high level the XBOX One adds quite a bit of value on top of any existing TV provider by providing a better guide and adding the use of voice to change channels and navigate the guide. I was surprised how natural it was to instantly start controlling my TV experience through voice. And amazingly it consistently worked.

Content Matters, Not Its Location

The other element that I was impressed with was the seamless integration with streaming services and other media related apps. The XBOX One continually updates all your content sources so that very quickly and easily you can get to content. Again driven by voice this is quick and seamless.

By integrating search, through Bing, into the entire experience Microsoft made using voice search for content easy and seamless. For example, you can do a Bing search and and say “The Avengers” and it will bring up all content related to the Avengers which you can access. If you are a Netflix subscriber you can choose to watch it from Netflix. Same if your an Amazon video subscriber. If there is a TV show on Hulu about the Avengers you can watch it there. It will show all movies and TV shows related to the Avengers throughout any content services you have access to. It will also bring up and related content which you can rent or buy from the Microsoft media store. And amazingly, it actually works.

The tight integration with all your content sources with the XBOX One and the seamless way you can search, access, and decide what to watch all with voice was very impressive.

For the Gamer

While the games are important, they are a bit less of the overall story in my opinion. Graphics are better and unique titles will come out on both systems. However, Microsoft did do something that as a gamer I thought was useful.

Microsoft built quite a bit of custom hardware and chipsets for the XBOX One. One of them allows you to start and stop video games in mid-action by holding the games state in a virtual machine while you go access other apps. So for example, you are playing a game but wanted to go check the score of a sports team that was currently playing. You don’t have to pause the game you can just say “XBOX watch TV” and it will instantly jump your broadcast TV so you can check the score. Then to get back you simply say “XBOX play Forza” and you are right back where you left off. Instant and seamless transition between media types and content types all with your voice and all on one box.

Microsoft’s goal was to create the one box that works with all your other ‘boxes’ and streaming services. From my week with it, I’d say they delivered and I am impressed. Congratulations Microsoft you own my living room.

Observations about the Future

From a technology standpoint, the XBOX One is the most sophisticated piece of living room technology that I have ever used. It delivers on many promises of the digital living room and more importantly it actually works as advertised. ((I noticed some reviewers were frustrated with the voice elements but once you learn the syntax it works quite well. I’m confident this experience will improve.))

That being said there is still a long way to go when it comes to the full vision of the digital living room. For example, the XBOX, can’t yet allow me to use all the wonderful voice features with my DVR content. That is because that content is locked on my box by my service provider. Hopefully, as we advance the idea of the cloud DVR we may get closer to this future.

The other element is search. While the XBOX has robust search feature to search content from your streaming services, movie purchase and rental options, it does not extend to your TV guide. I understand this is difficult but it will need to be a key part of any box that wants to own the living room.

Skype integration through the Kinect camera was another interesting experience. The Skype experience was one of the best and the Kinect camera can move and zoom in on the person talking. More interestingly is how this experience may evolve to let friends watch sports together and be able to see each other at the same time.

It will be very interesting to see how Microsoft improves these experiences and more over time through software updates. If Microsoft wants to continue to compete to own the living room they can not stand still.

Ultimately the decision to buy an XBOX One comes down to timing. The lack of backward compatibility is less of an issue in my opinion than the lack of ability to play online against or with XBOX 360 owners. This means for me to have a meaningful online multi-player experience with my friends or clan we all need to have the XBOX One. Knowing this is not going to happen my XBOX 360 will have to stay in my living room until all my friends are on the XBOX One.

Console transitions take time. Generally speaking it takes 3-4 years for newest consoles to hit their strides. The media features alone that I outlined make the XBOX One a compelling piece of living room hardware but it also highlights how difficult and how far we still have to go to reach the full vision of the digital living room.

Xbox One and the Future of the Digital Living Room

When I started my career as an industry analyst in 2000, my focus was on the video game industry and the digital living room. We had a belief that at some point in the future rich media and entertainment would collide and set the norm for living room multimedia and immersive experiences. Today with the unveiling of the newest Xbox generation, called the Xbox One, Microsoft has taken another step closer to this vision.

I’ve closely observed each major console announcement since 2000 and at each and every one there was a clear and focused message: this console was first and foremost about a great gaming experience. No longer is that the message. Great gaming experiences are simply assumed. They are the new normal and expected. The question that consoles need to address in order to evolve and appeal the wider audience necessary for broader adoption is: what else can you do for me?

Microsoft spent not only the introduction of the Xbox One but the vast majority of the presentations emphasis not on gaming, but on the what else can you do for me. This is very telling. Not just about where we are as an industry but Microsoft’s living room agenda at large.

I’ve long said, and I’ll continue to state that I believe Microsoft’s best asset to build upon and around is the Xbox. It is, arguably, the strongest and most relevant consumer brand they own today. It is also the strongest from an ecosystem standpoint, and the one I feel they need to build out from with regards to personal computing.

Of course the Xbox One will have amazing games, and I for one am extremely excited about that aspect. But, the most interesting parts of the unveiling were not the graphics, or games, or even the exclusive titles. The most interesting announcements were the OTHER exclusives.

Exclusivity is No Longer About Game Titles

We have a name for exclusive games. We call them platform drivers. The first Halo on the first Xbox was a platform driver. It was the single greatest selling point for that generation of XBOX hardware and it was exclusive to the Xbox. Many other top-tier titles were born as Xbox exclusives and its continued demand and strong sales were tied to those exclusives regardless of whether they stayed exclusive. It was almost always Xbox first or Xbox only with many top-tier franchises. To be fair Sony has many of their own, but the elusive hard-core gamer between the ages of 18-35 seemed to generally gravitate to the Xbox and the exclusive titles that drove the Xbox experience.

Today, however, Microsoft discussed exclusives of a new kind. Of course there will still be exclusive games, but now games are not the only exclusive content Microsoft appears to aggressively going after. Exclusive TV series, and network deals with the NFL, along with unique interactive content with SportsCenter were key parts of this announcement. I get the feeling that Microsot hopes that unique content of this kind may drive platform adoption the same way exclusive titles have in the past.

We keep wondering when our set-top boxes will break free from the mercantilist nature of our cable and TV programing companies. My thoughts on this is that we are simply waiting for an Internet only, or over-the-top-service only, blockbuster success. If that happens we will almost certainly see a paradigm shift. Perhaps Microsoft with the Xbox One will be the catalyst to drive this paradigm shift and create a true leadership position in the digital living room.