Xbox Live is getting a makeover and a swag of new, TV-flavoured tricks. Lee Bradley previews the new face of entertainment.
“Today we have 57 million consoles worldwide and we have 35 million Xbox Live users. That is unparalleled. Nobody else has that many connected devices in living rooms across the world. Our users spend about 2 hours a day, every day, on the console. And that is amazing engagement.”
Xbox Live has come a long way since it launched nine years ago. The interface we use to interact with it has come even further. From the original Xbox's primitive UI, to the 360's Blades and subsequently the 'New Xbox Experience,' the dashboard has had to evolve rapidly to keep pace with Live's ever-expanding library of content and services.
Rohan Oommen should know. Now general manager at Xbox Live EMEA, he was part of the original Xbox Live team established in 2001. A decade on and he's one of the people behind the next step in XBL's evolution: hitting consoles worldwide tomorrow, it promises to be the service's most profound update yet.
“In the US,” says Oommen, “40% of people on Xbox Live spend one hour a day watching movies and TV on their Xbox. On our platform, today's gamers are clearly consuming non-game content. So for us it's about improving how much gamers enjoy this experience, that they can use this one box for all their entertainment needs.”
That, in a nutshell, represents Microsoft's attitude to Xbox Live and their approach to the new update. No longer just a gaming platform, the Xbox 360 is now a multimedia entertainment hub offering music, movies, TV, sports and social networking apps galore. To bring all this content together, they've designed a dashboard built to be as intuitive as possible.
"In the US, 40% of people on Xbox Live spend one hour a day watching movies and TV on their Xbox."
The new operating system employs the tiled 'Metro' aesthetic found in the Windows Phone operating system and soon to be adopted by Windows 8 for PC. It's a bold, clean and unfussy design, with large tiles sitting neatly under a row of about 9 different categories, navigable using a controller, Kinect motion controls, or even voice commands. Kinect quirks aside, each is simple to use.
This is partly to do with the uniformity of design. “Every single application, every single hub that you go through looks and feels exactly the same,” Xbox Live UK Product Manager Pav Bhardwaj tells me later.
“The great thing about this is that not only are all the first-party apps the same, but all the third-party apps too. We've done that purposefully so that people get really intuitive with it, understand how to use it and it becomes second nature.
Speech recognition has been around in various different forms for years, so standard voice command integration into the update doesn't feel particularly revolutionary. Indeed, when you can zip through menus in a split second by using a traditional controller, why even use voice commands? It's a question that Bing integration goes some way to answering.
Shout "Bing: Brad Pitt," and you will be transported to a menu detailing every available film starring the man.
Thanks to extensive Bing indexing throughout XBL's vast library, you can use Kinect voice commands to hunt down content in a surprisingly flexible manner. Shout “Bing: Brad Pitt,” for example, and you will be transported to a menu detailing every available film across XBL's suite of apps starring the man himself. You aren't limited to just barking titles.
It's a shame that this robustness doesn't extend to games, however. As it stands you cannot search for games according to developer, studio or publisher. Well, you can - but it will likely only return indexed instances where the individual names have appeared in, say, 'Inside Xbox.' It won't take you to the games themselves. It's a fixable oversight in what is otherwise a great system.
Perhaps the biggest change arriving tomorrow comes in the form of apps. Available via an integrated Store, these applications will deliver a huge amount of content from the world's very best providers, including the BBC, Channel 4, Sky and YouTube in the UK. You'll also be able to download a LOVEFiLM app, with an introductory offer of a month's free trial.
Beyond video delivery, the new update embraces social networking apps too, with established XBL services like Facebook getting a significant upgrade. Rather than drawing a line through past and future content, Microsoft has made efforts to make the whole Xbox experience seamless. And they haven't finished yet, either.
"This isn't a one-off drop, it's going to be a continuous process of development and improvement."
“We've got 14 new apps launching from the 6th of December all the way through to the end of December,” says Bhardwaj.
Plus there will be new apps launching in 2012 on a regular basis. This isn't a one-off drop, it's going to be a continuous process of development and improvement. We're really excited about what you're going to see going forward.”
Head in the Clouds
So what about the updates that specifically relate to games? Well, they're a little thin on the ground. Cloud saving stands out, however. You now access 511MB of free storage in the cloud, meaning that save game and Gamertag information is retrievable anywhere in the world and, at any time, on any Xbox with an internet connection.
It's a slickly integrated system, presenting itself no differently than if you had popped a USB stick into the slot. All you have to do is click on “Cloud” and away you go. More storage space would be preferable, but as an alternative to Gamertag recovery and lugging around physical storage, we'll take it every time.
Elsewhere, Beacons are the only other real new feature for gamers. These allow you to tell your friends what game you fancy playing, via Xbox Live and Facebook. The reasoning behind it is that the current system can be annoying. This way, your friends can be in no doubt as to the game you really want to play, without bombarding you with invites. It's a handy little feature, one that speaks to the importance of social gaming on Microsoft's service, but it's hardly revolutionary.
Regardless, this is a fantastic update, constituting a brand new operating system and a considerable injection of fresh content, delivered six years into the life-cycle of an ageing console. In that regard it's unprecedented. Attractive and easy to use, the effect is a complete rejuvenation.
“I think we've just touch the top of the tip so far,” says Bhardwarj. “Five years ago, some of the things we're doing now didn't even exist.
"We're going to continue to make our content social, we're going to continue to listen to the user base, we're working with different partners to bring some really exciting new experiences to the platform. I think right now, our imaginations are the limit.”
The new Dashboard goes live on Tuesday December 6, and heralds the arrival of 40 new entertainment channels across Xbox Live's global offering.