The lounge room remains the last bastion of the sole purpose device, a situation Microsoft is looking to rectify with the launch of the Xbox One. Rather than muscle out the traditional players, Microsoft Studio vice president Phil Spencer aims to unify gaming and home entertainment.
Microsoft Game Studios rebranded itself as Microsoft Studios at this year's E3 games expo, reflecting Microsoft's change of strategy as the Xbox One prepares to go head-to-head with Sony's PlayStation 4. Phil Spencer championed Microsoft's new console at the recent Tokyo Game Show, touting the Xbox One's wider entertainment credentials as it aims to steal the PlayStation's title of the digital lounge room all-rounder.
The idea of drawing a line between 'gaming' and 'home entertainment' devices is outdated, Spencer says, considering that games are prevalent on almost every entertainment device.
"I think about games as a very important form of entertainment, so when I hear people say 'games or entertainment' it doesn't sit well with me," he says.
"That said, television is this weird space where you have a dedicated device which plays games and then everything else comes through a Blu-ray player or your TV's smart features. What we want to do is take that gaming console and add the all-in-one entertainment value that you find on many other devices."
Rather than usurp the role of the traditional set-top box or Personal/Digital Video Recorder, the Xbox One features an HDMI input for connecting to such home entertainment gear. The console can then 'pass through' the signal from the DVR to the television, letting you watch live broadcasts and access the DVR's other features as if it were connected directly to the television. The Xbox One will also support features such as picture-in-picture, allowing users to combine live television and recordings with other activities.
The joy of Kinect
One advantage of watching television through the Xbox One is that you can use the console to control your DVR along with your other home entertainment gear. Every Xbox One comes bundled with Microsoft's Kinect controller, which features a built-in camera along with motion, gesture and voice control. The Kinect sensor also acts as an infrared transmitter, allowing you to control your television, DVR and other devices using the Xbox One's voice commands. It can even use face recognition to determine who is speaking and offer them customised content and services.
At its most basic the Kinect's voice commands allow users to turn on their television, adjust the volume and perhaps change channel. But once the Xbox One has access to your local television schedule it gains the ability to search for content. The Xbox One's integrated search features, similar to those built into Samsung's latest Smart TVs, are designed to search across all your entertainment sources. For example, ask the Xbox One to search for Mad Men and it will not only check the Electronic Program Guide for upcoming broadcasts but it will also search through streaming video services such as Netflix.
"My goal is that morning, noon and night there should be something for everyone to do with the Xbox One," Spencer says. "We can even do interesting things such as tell you what the Xbox Live community is watching right now, so you get a sense of what's trending on television."
"Despite all this, we're not trying to remove anybody from the ecosystem. We wanted to integrate the Xbox One into the system that you already have. You can see we're working with the traditional content providers – it's going to be their shows, their channels and their box."
That said, Microsoft is also commissioning original content for the Xbox ecosystem, starting with a live-action Halo TV series, with Steven Spielberg as executive producer. In a sign of its long-term intentions, Microsoft last year snapped up former CBS Television Studios president Nancy Tellem to lead its entertainment and digital media arm.
Late to the party
Spencer acknowledges that the Xbox 360 was late to the party in terms of wider home entertainment features, but the Xbox One bolsters its credentials with support for Blu-ray discs. Streaming video services which eventually made it to the Xbox 360, such as Netflix in the US and Quickflix in Australia, will also be carried over to the new console.
The HDMI pass-through is one of the Xbox One's key points of difference with the PlayStation 4, as Sony has chosen not to release an external television tuner for the PlayStation 4 or to allow the PlayStation 3's PlayTV tuner to work with the new console.
Microsoft's decision to include the Kinect with every console is another key difference. It has pushed up the Australian price to $599, making it $50 more expensive than the PlayStation 4 which offers a camera as an optional extra. While Sony is working to keep the price of its new console down, Microsoft is betting that the functionality of the Kinect will justify the expense.
It has been forced to back down on plans to make the Kinect sensor essential for the Xbox One's operation – responding to those concerned at the thought of their game console watching them night and day.
The fact that developers can't rely on the Kinect to be running somewhat fragments Spencer's dream of a fully-integrated lounge room. It’s also hindered by the fact that Australian consoles will not have access to the Electronic Program Guide at launch – limiting the cross-platform search features.
Spencer was initially confident that Australia would have full EPG functionality at launch in November, but now says details will be confirmed by Microsoft's Australian team closer to the launch date. The fact that Spencer believed Australia was on the launch-day list for EPG access at least gives hope that Australians haven't been forgotten.
Microsoft stopped short of turning the Xbox One into a full Personal/Digital Video Recorder. It was partly a decision to avoid spreading recordings across multiple DVRs in the home, but Spencer also believes that DVRs might move towards online storage.
"When you decide to record Mad Men your DVR might just point you to that file stored in the cloud, so you don't have to store it locally," Spencer says.
"It is a little funny that a million people store exactly the same bits and bytes of the same show on their DVR's hard drive. The truth is that people don't really care if the bits and bytes are stored locally, or even which service they come from. They just want to know that they can find what they want to watch when they want to watch it, and that's the kind of seamless experience we're looking to deliver with the Xbox One."
Adam Turner travelled to the Tokyo Game Show as a guest of Sony.