Breaking it Down: Console Evolution

I am likely somewhat biased, but I thought the E3 Xbox briefing was well done. Not only was there a nice mix of hardware and software announcements (with launch dates!), but more clarity was provided on the vision and roadmap for console hardware.

But wait, that’s been the focal point of much hand-wringing and teeth gnashing. Here’s one from Engadget, speculating that Xbox One sales will dry up, because something better will appear next year.

At the macro level, here are the critical take-aways on where the industry is headed:

  1. Expect console hardware to iterate more rapidly.
  2. Expect great developers that make great games to tune for the few “click-stops” of consoles and their respective capabilities, not unlike supporting N and N-1 console generations or cross-platforms, today.
    1. Consoles and PCs are becoming more and more alike, so assets and content should be sharable, but with an extra layer of closer-to-metal API access and specific settings to be tuned for consoles.
    2. Over time, the top-of-line AAA games will raise the min-bar, but expect studios to support N, N-1 and possibly N-2 iterations, to hit the experience-install base sweet spot.
  3. And, like nearly all other industries (TVs, phones, even your toothbrush and home furnishings), potential customers will have a cost-benefit trade-off to make. A novel concept.

For the Xbox family, specifically, the One S is the natural cost and form-factor reduction version of the original One. This time, the deal has been sweetened with additional functionality and hardware (UHD Blu-Ray). The change for next year is that both the One S and Project Scorpio will exist, side-by-side, and unlike compatibility breaks of some previous generations, there won’t be one here.

Some may postpone purchases until next year, for Scorpio, but given the S is incremental and a year earlier than the typical mid-cycle refresh, I doubt there will be significant overall sales cannibalization due to the Scorpio announcement. Instead, the S maintains the new entry-$299 price-point and entices new users with a smaller, nicer-looking console, riding the wave of 4K marketing. There isn’t remotely close to 100% TAM overlap, as some allude to, nor the even more outlandish claim that someone eying an Xbox will now suddenly buy a PS4. Because, why?

Change is challenging for most to accept. So while one might question why console gaming is the anomoly in consumer electronics (recall all those bemoaning that smartphone GPUs were more capable then previous-generation consoles), the fact that it’s about to change is the most anxiety-inducing part.

XBOX One

Disclaimer: I work for Microsoft, but I don’t work on the XBOX team. All opinions here are my own, and I have no advance knowledge of the team’s plans nor does anything you read here indicate a different depth of knowledge of the features than what you can read online, publicly.

It’s one thing Microsoft has done a reasonable job of late: keeping key features of device projects secret. There were numerous rumours of features sets and names of the XBOX One, launched earlier today, but I thought enough unknowns were maintained that the announcement had snap and excitement to it. I could see the barely controlled smile on Don Mattrick’s face as he announced the name for the first time -“XBOX One“.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a hardcore gamer (at one point I was… many years ago). In fact, even when I do play games, it’s primarily strategy games on my PC, with a keyboard and mouse. The drive towards greater graphics power and visual fidelity is great, and I’m looking forward to the visual feasts that surely await, but I was more excited about many other announcements today.

Input

When Kinect first came out, I was more interested in it for the potential NUI experiences than any jumping around in front of it for a game. As it turns out, jumping around with friends is actually a pretty fun and engaging way to play games, but it also didn’t diminish the potential of a great leap in user experiences in the living room. With the hardware constraints, of both the console itself and the first generation imaging solution, things like hand gesture controls and speech recognition weren’t as quick or accurate to make it complete natural. Furthermore, there were still screens and menus that required turning on the controller to bypass. It was a foreshadowing of things to come, but wasn’t quite there.

In steps the One, with its much more advanced vision and greatly improved speech recognition. Always-listening mode is wonderful, no more picking up the controller or talking over to the console itself to turn it on. I’m very interested in testing things out in a less controlled environment than a scripted demonstration, but it sure appeared to work well, and quickly too. Additionally, with much more granular imaging, I hope hand motions and manipulations will be accurately and precisely perceived.

Then, with all the talk of SmartGlass being designed into the experience from the ground up gives me hope that it’ll turn out to be a faster, more fully featured (and less confusing) experience than it is today.

Responsiveness

While I gripe about the responsiveness of it, I have to keep in mind that the XBOX 360 is nearly 8 year old hardware. Do you know what else is 8 year old hardware?

  • BlackBerry 8700
  • My ASUS Z71V barebones laptop with a 1.6GHz Dothan (Pentium M)
  • Canon SD400 digital camera, with a 5MP sensor and 640×480 video recording

It’s ancient in the rapidly changing technology hardware landscape, and the sheer fact that the XBOX 360 has been continuously software upgraded to support new streaming web content, ever-better looking games, and a vision-based input medium is pretty impressive.

All that said, it doesn’t change the fact that it is one of the slowest examples of computing experience I have in the home. The time between turning on the console to being able to view Top Gear on Netflix is on the order of many minutes.

What was shown today shaved that scenario down to mere seconds, with voice activation from across the room. That gets me excited.

Kinect FoV

This one’s pretty simple. I live in an apartment. The short width of my living room is approximately 13.5 ft. The couch takes up just over 3 ft. The TV stand and setup takes up just under 3 feet. That leaves me just about 7 ft to work with. It’s not enough with the current Kinect to do everything without at least in the back of my mind telling myself to be careful not to land part-way on my couch or otherwise.

The new Kinect FoV is wider, much wider. A 6’2″ person demoed standing about 3 feet away, and in full view of the new Kinect. Problem solved, and I don’t even need to buy a new, larger home.

Windows

As I mentioned at the beginning, I’m not a hardcore gamer, but I do enjoy games, particularly the causal, non-serious type on consoles, where the gaming experience is typically more interactive. While called out as the operating system that powers the web experiences on the XBOX One, I hope that it also ushers in some cross-compatibility to open up the world of Windows Store games to the living room. I’ve always thought that the interaction parallels between visual gesture-recognition 10 feet away from a big display and touch gestures directly onto a smaller screen are very high. Apps designed for touchscreens on Windows 8 should have a high degree of mobility to the big screen and hand gestures.

And of course, those web experiences are pretty interesting as well. Tailoring those experiences to the big TV on modern hardware hopefully replaces some of the urge to whip out a laptop or smartphone to check on IMDB reviews, when determining whether watching a particular movie is worthwhile or not.

Wrap

If it’s not yet clear, I am very excited for the XBOX One, and largely for reasons other than pushing forward gaming fidelity. I’ve always been enamoured with the idea of having a smarter television and big screen entertainment experience, but shoehorning HTPC after HTPC together, it never amounted to much more than a regular old PC with one different theme or another. Vision and voice bring the largest advances to that experience since the remote control, and have me salivating over the idea of finally being able to control that experience without intermediaries getting in the way.