Xbox One: Captain Kirk’s Google TV, with Extras

By Adil James, TMO


I already know what you are saying to yourself.  “What the heck is this article doing here?” But I am inordinately interested in gaming systems and television, so my position is that I have a right to write this story.

Anyway one of the main presenters at the Microsoft presentation was Muslim, Yusuf Mehdi–he is still young although he has been with Microsoft for about eleven years, serving as senior vice president of the Online Audience Business Group at Microsoft Corp.; Yusuf Mehdi oversaw the team charged with building Microsoft’s online audience of approximately 500 million unique users through MSN and Microsoft Live Search. he lead Microsoft’s marketing for Bing (impossible to miss the ubiquitous ads).  Now he is in charge of Xbox marketing.
Mehdi graduated from Princeton, worked at Reuters and helped them build their first PC-based Reuters terminal, then moved to Microsoft in 1992, where he has held top managerial positions ever since.

Microsoft announced, from its Seattle (excuse me, Redmond, WA) campus on Tuesday May 21st 2013 some tantalizing details regarding the long awaited successor to the Xbox franchise.  In 2001 they launched the original Xbox.  In November of 2005 they launched the successor, the Xbox 360.  Some tantalizing hints of the follow-on box had come out in recent weeks, and many of us were expecting the “Xbox 720” to be launched yesterday.

However, the new name is the “Xbox One.”  I assume the name is meant to symbolize the device’s seemless integration of many technologies (TV, gaming, internet, music) through Xbox’s slick new console.  On the fateful day, Microsoft’s presentation on the Xbox One began with some flashy advertising involving unnamed gamers touting what they wanted in a game system, with some luminary star-power in support of the advertising hype by Bill Gates and Steven Spielberg.

The main presentation in person began with Don Mattrick, who gave a general introduction and finally gave us our first actual look at the device (which looks like an A/V receiver with a separate squarish Kinect and a slightly newer-looking controller).

Yusuf Mehdi followed, providing a walk-through of some vital features of the Xbox One like its fast switching capability, its ability to recognize the gamer, and the ability to control music, television, and internet searches by gestures and voice command, in real time. Finally Marc Whitten introduced the physical infrastructure of the device which support its ability to do all its magic.

This was followed by some gaming demonstrations by game development companies.

Reviews for the Redmond presentation were decidedly snarky and dissatisfied. Reviewers complained that the demonstration was short on substance, not giving enough details about the functioning of the system or about its price.

All this misses the point that, first of all, the presentation did give adequate information about the technology, with Microsoft announcing the inclusion of what is essentially a powerful PC with a Bluray player and USB 3.0, 8 gigabytes of RAM, with integrated voice operation and gesture recognition–more than what we need to know anyway since we care more about how fast the metaphorical man can jump and how well he can dance, rather than the technical details of his sinews and intestines.

Microsoft also succeeded in demonstrating that they have a working prototype which is robust enough to reliably demonstrate impressive results on the fly in front of an audience that would have turned decidedly hostile if faced with failure.

What Microsoft is selling through this new box is a new vision of entertainment.  While the 360 is already capable of serving as a gaming console (of course) and a point of access for displaying web content on TV (accessing networked videos and music through DLNA or accessing Netflix or other online content), the Xbox One brings that entire experience higher by one or two levels of magnitute by enabling real time reaction and channel switching and tuning to games or other content by gesture and voice command, robust voice recognition that operated flawlessly in the tense situation of a worldwide demonstration, and face and voice recognition and motion tracking software that works even in the dark.

Perhaps the other reviewers watching the Xbox One demonstration did not realize the full implications of this device.  For example by exploiting the picture of a person the Xbox One could certainly be used to estimate the body weight of its user and could track that over time if the gamer is for example using conditioning games.  Or consider the implications of using the device to monitor security.  There are in fact unpleasant implications for intrusions into our privacy by a device capable of living stealthily and silently in our living rooms and recognizing us and what we are doing as we obliviously go about living our lives in supposed privacy.

The Xbox One enables the user to switch by voice commands and gestures, seemlessly, from games, to web content, to television watching, and enables changing channels through voice commands.  This device in fact potentially enables the user to put his collection of remote controls into semi-retirement.

The Xbox One is to the Xbox what a computer is to handwritten mathematical calculations.  The implications of having a device able to recognize people outside of physical contact is more than just eerily reminiscent of the HAL 9000 in 2001, A Space Odyssey.

The real point of comparison is probably not Sony’s Playstation Four. Rather it is Google TV, which is still whimpering off to a slow and embarrassing death by strangulation.  Google TV was released in physical form in late 2010 to brilliant fanfare, promising to revolutionize the manner by which people use their televisions, integrating television and web search into one seemless tool.

But the television networks rebelled. The device that would have enabled the world’s largest advertiser to display content from the television networks was stillborn because it was blocked at the outset by every provider of content that depended for its revenue on advertising.  What is Google TV without access to NBC, ABC and CBS? Without access to their online content, and without access to the phone-based android apps that might have made it truly earth-shattering, Google TV became a mere novelty, giving users the ability to control their televisions and cable and satellite programming with a large keyboard and enabling the viewer to search on the web for answers to “pressing” questions that come up as he is watching television.

I obtained one, a Logitech Revue, when the device’s sales plummeted and I was able to obtain the device for $80.  I am not complaining–I use it and I value it. But relative to what it could be, it’s a novelty.  It works with some apps that are useful, primarily Netflix.  Revision 3’s app works but is buggy and crashes.  My children like some games.  The device provides a keyboard for doing searches through your television.  It crashes sometimes for apparently not much cause.

Another flaw is that Google TV fails to leverage or even accurately know the content available to its users–the implication of the Microsoft presentation yesterday is that it will accurately enable users to switch by voice commands to specific shows or to specific channels.  Google never pivoted and made the most of their situation after they were stonewalled by the networks.  My Google TV has never truly known which channels I get and which channels I don’t get, although I did go through the setup questions, answering them truthfully.  It consistently thinks I have access through Dish Network to content that I have not subscribed to.

Google TV, in comparison to Xbox One, is weak.  Keyboard based searching pales in comparison to Star Trek style voice commands.  Not to mention gesture based control, which was beyond the imagination only three years ago when Google TV was launched.  Where Google TV was blocked by networks, Xbox One is (first of all) not a competitor to the networks as Google was and (second) the Xbox One does not directly access television content over the internet, rather it controls satellite and cable devices. 

Where Google TV is buggy and crashes, presumably the Xbox One will reflect Microsoft’s ongoing record of generally excellent if expensive quality.

It remains to be seen whether the Xbox One will be capable of reliably displaying online video (for example on Hulu or on the networks’ website feeds of previously aired shows) or whether it will be blocked–but to be honest even if this is blocked the magic of the device is not gone.  The real potential of Google TV was blocked by the apparent foresight of the networks in preventing Google’s leveraging of their audience and advertising base, not to mention by Google’s obtuseness and lack of foresight in failing to truly free the power of their device by allowing all of the wild-west development android market apps to operate on the Google TV.  As a Muslim, for example, it would be excellent to have Google TV integrate prayer time reminders through the television, or provide any of a thousand other religiously useful apps to operate, providing an overlay of useful information over the television content.  Or it would be nice to install Dish Network’s or Comcast’s phone app on my Google TV to watch their content through the device, operating as a cloud-based automatic DVR–but those apps are not available.

In fact modern cloud-based technology has already outpaced the DVR, and yet because the television providers are able to charge subscription fees for DVR receivers, there is an economic incentive for continued use of this outdated technology.

More information about the Xbox One should emerge at E3 (less than one month away, June 11-13 2013 in Los Angeles)–hopefully this new information will include the price.  Even if the price is above $500, I would believe the device will outsell every other console, and I believe it will revolutionize television, for non-gamers as well as gamers, for years to come, likely ushering the way for cheaper imitation devices that will provide similar but lesser capabilities–because after all most companies cannot compete with Microsoft.


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