I don’t think I’ve ever hated a piece of cloth so much in my entire life.
It’s Monday morning in mid-April, and I’m sitting in a many-couched conference room at Microsoft’s campus in Redmond with three other entities: chief product officer Marc Whitten; senior VP of marketing strategy Yusuf Mehdi; and a pedestal in the corner with a cloth draped over it. For 30 minutes, the two executives have been talking about the future of Xbox—about the need to “re-architect the living room for the 21st century,” about “a new generation of entertainment,” and other lofty corporate statements that tend to go hand in hand with many-couched conference rooms. They’ve also been pointedly ignoring the pedestal. I know what they’re doing, and it’s working. I want to see what’s under that cloth, and it’s driving me crazy. Little-kid-on-Christmas-morning crazy. Very-nearly-squirming-in-my-seat crazy. Finally, Whitten takes pity on me, and he walks over to the pedestal. “Here it is,” he says; he lifts the cloth.
And here’s the Xbox One.
My first thought, honestly, is how boxy it is. In 2010, Microsoft released a “slim” version of the Xbox 360 that was literally streamlined, with a curvilinear X-shaped form that made its predecessor feel clumsy in comparison. The Xbox One is a bit bigger than the 360 and as rectangular as it gets. It’s not without its flourishes, though. It’s a deep, glossy black that the industrial design team calls liquid black. The top of the console is subdivided into two 16:9 rectangles, derived from the traditional aspect ratio of widescreen televisions—one is solid and glossy, the other a matte panel that’s entirely vented to help as much air pass through the system as possible. The front is nearly without embellishment; even the optical disc drive slot blends into the frontpiece of the box. On the whole, it looks more like a TiVo than any gaming console I’ve ever known.
A deep chamfer at the base of the front panel makes it appear to levitate, and similar touches on the Kinect sensor make it look almost cantilevered, like Wright’s Fallingwater. Both are squatter than their predecessors, with a powerful heft. The controller, too, is noticeably changed: the humplike battery pack on the underside is all but gone; the odd circular directional pad has been replaced by a more precise cross-shaped one, the triggers and shoulder buttons are carved from a single graceful swath of material that extends from one side to the other. Over the next two days at Microsoft, I’ll see just about everything that went into making the Xbox One, from laser-printed controller mock-ups to Kinect-enhanced game prototypes. But standing on that pedestal right now, it’s all just a cipher.
When the 360 launched, smartphones hadn’t yet trickled out of the corporate world; Netflix was strictly a DVD delivery service; the “cloud” was something that got in the way of a suntan. (Hell, in 2005, people suntanned.) And a big part of the 360’s longevity was Microsoft’s ability not only to develop games but also to forge partnerships that took advantage of these new staples of online life. So as those deals proliferated, so did the things the Xbox 360 could do. People played Halo 3 on their Xbox, but they also watched Netflix. They bought Kinect sensors for controller-free experiences, but they also burned through seasons of Deadwood on HBO Go and caught sports highlights on an ESPN app. But all of this new functionality was built on patches and firmware updates. The 360 simply wasn’t constructed that way, so when the Xbox One was greenlit in the fall of 2011, “the decision wasn’t, ‘We need a gamebox,’” Whitten says. “It was, ‘We need a living-room experience.’” Built that way from the ground up.
So the charge was twofold: the new Xbox had to deliver enough horsepower to fuel a generation’s worth of gaming—but it also had to deliver everything else: live TV; an OS architecture that allows for smartphone-style multitasking; a new Kinect sensor that can handle hi-def Skype calls and monitor your heart rate. The Xbox One isn’t just a console. It’s an entertainment borg that hopes to assimilate everything from your Blu-ray player to your cable box.The Hardware
But still, first it is a game device. And to that end, it needs to feel like a step forward. For seven generations now, consoles have delivered increasingly sophisticated visual experiences, from the soundless and rudimentary Magnavox Odyssey in the pre-Pong mid-’70s through the Nintendo-Sega wars of the ’90s to the lens-flare and motion-capture effects of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 today. As we brush against photorealism in our games, though, we also reach the problem of too perfect. It’s a corollary of the uncanny valley, that conceptual chasm that induces a faint feeling of disgust when we see virtual humans that are not quite right: the ideal is actually not ideal. So early demos of racing game Forza Motorsport 5 for the Xbox One try to skirt that issue by modeling imperfection itself: scuffs on wheels, orange-peel pattern on paint, tire marks where Armor-All has worn away.
Quantifying graphical performance is notoriously squishy. That being said, Microsoft touts the Xbox One as delivering 8 times the graphic performance of the 360. If you were to go by raw transistor count, that performance jump would be closer to tenfold: the Xbox One boasts 5 billion to the 360’s 500 million. More concretely, those paltry 512 MB of memory have been boosted to 8 GB.
Allow me a few sentences of total geek-out on this: A new 500-GB hard drive was designed in-house, likewise a custom-built Blu-ray–capable optical drive. A single 40-nanometer chip contains both the CPU and GPU rather than the two dedicated 90-nm chips needed in the 360. In fact, a custom SOC (system on a chip) module made by AMD contains the CPU/GPU chip, the memory, the controller logic, the DRAM, and the audio processors, and connects directly to the heat sink via a phase-change interface material. Whew.
Perhaps most intriguing, however, is that Xbox One gives game developers the ability to access Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing platform. That leads to a few obvious and immediate applications: All your downloaded and installed games and achievements are synced to the cloud and can be accessed and played without interruption on any Xbox One you sign in to; stable, dedicated servers for every multiplayer game rather than the notoriously fragile practice of hosting matches on one participant’s console; even multiplayer matches that can grow to 64, even 128 participants, rather than the usual limit of 16 or 32.
But other possibilities also come to mind. If developers are able to offload significant chunks of processing power to the cloud—conceivably even fundamental game mechanics like physics engines or collision-detection systems—that frees them to use local processing for even more intensive processes. In other words, the possibilities are limited only by the imaginations of thousands of game programmers. “It’s not like on day one, everyone will have figured out how to take advantage of that power,” Whitten says. “It’s just one of those stakes we’re placing.”The Kinect
The original Kinect sensor, introduced in 2010, arguably extended the 360’s lifespan by attracting an entirely new audience: 8 million Kinect units were sold in its first two months. But while the sensor’s gesture and voice control allowed for controllerless gameplay and the admittedly Jetsons-era ability to say “Xbox, pause” to interrupt a Breaking Bad binge, its internals were clearly a first draft. So if the revision of the console consisted mostly of upgrades to its components and architecture, the Kinect received a head-to-toe retooling.
When the original Kinect launched, apartment dwellers lamented that they had to move couches and tables just to be recognized by the its depth sensors, let alone play a physically involved game like Dance Central. The restricted field of vision also made it next to impossible for different-sized people, like parents and kids, to play the same game. This time around, a 1080p camera enlarges the sensor’s field by 60 percent—a fact that the entertainment division’s lanky hardware guru, Todd Holmdahl, demonstrates for me by walking his 6′ 4″ frame toward the sensor. Even 3 feet away, the Kinect’s onscreen display clearly registers his entire body, and he still has room to lift his hands above his head.
The camera can also capture video at 60 frames per second for two-way services like Skype—but more impressive still are the Kinect’s tracking capabilities. It’s now so sensitive that it can measure your pulse by monitoring pigmentation change in your face. (It’s partially done via infrared light, which means it works regardless of skin tone.)
The original sensor mapped people in a room using “structured light”: It would send out infrared light, then measure deformities in the room’s surfaces to generate a 3-D depth map. However, that depth map was lo-res to the degree that clothing and couch cushions were often indistinguishable. The new model sends out a modulated beam of infrared light, then measures the time it takes for each photon to return. It’s called time-of-flight technology, and it’s essentially like turning each pixel of the custom-designed CMOS sensor into a radar gun, which allows for unprecedented responsiveness—even in a completely dark room. (See the video for the evidence.)
In fact, the Kinect will be used for that most fundamental of tasks: turning the whole thing on. Xbox One utilizes multiple power states; it can thus ramp up as needed and consume different amounts of juice depending on use, whether games or movies. And it also possesses a low-power standby mode, allowing Xbox Live and game updates to be pushed to the Xbox One overnight — or whenever the box knows your usage is lowest — without keeping the console all the way on. (Don’t worry; you can still play a single-player game without being connected to the Internet.) It also means that when you walk into your room and say “Xbox on,” the Kinect sensor hears you and turns on your entire setup via infrared blast: TV, Xbox One, even your cable box.
But why, you may ask, your cable box?The Entertainment
Live television is the main competitor of any online gaming service. Take Xbox Live: 48 million people use the service, whether for gaming, Netflix, or anything else, an average of 87 hours a month. Meanwhile those users are watching television somewhere around 150 hours a month. Microsoft wants to be part of those 150 hours. Its gambit: Turn the new Xbox into a TV conduit.
Last year, Nintendo’s new Wii U console delivered some television tuner functionality, but it was a kludgy and fragile experience, and many users (like me, with my cablecard-equipped TiVo) were shut out. Xbox One will utilize a few different methods to deliver live TV to the Xbox universe. Chief among those—at least in the US—is HDMI pass-through, in which the cable box, satellite box, or similar device (e.g., the aforementioned cablecard-equipped TiVo ) connects directly to the Xbox One, which then passes the mediated signal to the television via an HDMI-out port.
Because of that direct pipe from your TV provider to the Xbox One, you can watch TV with varying degrees of Xbox overlay. It can look exactly like your plain old TV interface, being controlled with the original remote. Alternately, you can use Xbox’s electronic programming guide, which presents a lineup based on your favorite channels or tells you what your friends are watching and can be controlled via voice, gesture, and game controller. Or, thanks to Xbox SmartGlass, the second-screen functionality that Microsoft introduced in limited capacity last year across multiple mobile platforms, you can use your smartphone or tablet to change channels with a no-look flicking motion. (For more granular control, SmartGlass will eventually be able to turn your phone into a skeuomorphic remote control, able to emulate any other control device.)
Ashley Speicher, principal development manager of Live TV, walks me through a demo. The team has been working feverishly to get it ready for the official unveiling, but this is clearly an early build; when she turns on the program guide, the green screen of the developer’s OS screen shows through in the gaps between tiles. “Xbox,” she says, and a small faint Xbox logo in the upper right-hand corner of the screen begins to glow; the Kinect is listening. “ESPN,” she finishes. The guide, which is currently highlighting Seattle’s local channel 4, switches to channel 206: ESPN. Because the Kinect’s voice control is already engaged, she doesn’t need to prompt it again, so she just says “watch.” There’s a flash as the connected DirecTV makes the change, and all of a sudden SportsCenter comes on the screen. The most shocking part about it is the ease; there’s no more hunting through your guide for FX or Travel Channel or whatever network or show you’re looking for. You can just say “Xbox, watch Travel Channel” or “Xbox, watch Sons of Anarchy,” and you’re there. If the show itself isn’t on, a global search will collate all of your options for watching it, from on-demand to streaming services.
But then Speicher goes one better. She goes back to the Xbox One’s home screen—a mashup of the 360’s Xbox Live environment and the Microsoft design language so familiar from Windows 8 on PCs and Surface tablets—and opens Internet Explorer instead. Now the TV is filled with Bing’s landing screen. “Xbox,” she says, “snap in Live TV.” A sidebar slides onto the screen from the left; at its bottom is a list of her favorite channels, and at the top is SportsCenter, playing live. “Switch,” she says, and the sidebar is highlighted, allowing her to pick and watch any of those favorite channels. “Watch,” she says, and the sidebar takes over the whole of the screen. Back to SportsCenter.
“Snapping in” is the Xbox One’s task-switching mechanism, and it’s made possible by some serious operating system kung fu. The Xbox One simultaneously runs three separate operating systems. First comes the tiny Host OS, which boots the machine and then launches two other hard-partitioned systems: the Shared partition, an environment that runs any apps (Skype, Live TV, Netflix, etc.) and helps provide processing power for the Kinect sensor and its gesture and voice controls; and the Exclusive partition, which is where games run. Because of the way memory is apportioned in the Shared partition, you can switch between apps with little to no load times, and even snap them into another app or game to use both at the same time.
This, more than anything, is the Xbox One’s killer app: instant access to all the entertainment services you already use, and true multitasking. Skype calls while you’re playing a game? Sure. The Kinect already uses a combination of noise- and echo-cancellation and waveform “beam steering” to hear you over the sounds of anything you’re playing and watching, so you won’t even have to raise your voice above normal conversational levels. Keeping an eye on your fantasy football team while you watch Monday Night Football? Done. It’s the second-screen experience—all on one screen.The Future
At this point, fewer than 2 million Surface tablets have been sold. Windows Phone has a 3.2 percent share of the smartphone market. The Xbox 360, on the other hand, has sold 77 million units and has been the bestselling game console in the US for 28 straight months. Not to take anything away from Microsoft’s other consumer products, but there’s no longer any question which side the company's bread is buttered on. And if the Interactive Entertainment Business division gets this right, the Xbox One is going to be a very, very big piece of bread.
We have no idea what the videogame landscape will look like seven years from now, just as we had no idea in 2005 how foundationally streaming and smartphones would change everything. The very concept of any physical media box may well be obsolete within a decade. But even if this is the last true console we ever see, one thing is for sure: Gaming isn’t just games anymore. And the Xbox One intends to keep it that way.
The real question, though, is what that means for Microsoft’s future plans. Apple’s a hardware company, and Google’s a software company, but they both offer an integrated experience that takes place within their walls (whether or not you look at those walls #throughglass or not). Microsoft makes both hardware and software—and does it well—but the company also knows that it doesn't have the install base to lock down the experience. And more important, it's lacking connective tissue. If its investment in Azure lets the cloud become that tissue, then the Xbox One could be the hub of the integrated experience Microsoft sorely needs.