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New console features heavy voice support, Windows-like features, focus on multimedia

After months of rumors, Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) announced its next generation Xbox console at a rainy 1 p.m. EST event in Redmond, Washington.

I. Meet the Xbox One

Microsoft had endured a rocky couple months after the rumored leaked out that it would be banning used games on its upcoming console.  Arch-rival Sony Corp. (TYO:6758), hot on the heels of its PlayStation 4 announcement, drummed up the issue, saying it would not ban used games.  Frustration boiled over in creative director Adam Orth's tweets to an Xbox fan, posts which got the manager fired, and generated an official apology from Microsoft.

But if there was a scent of fear or frustration in the air, it was well disguised at the launch event, as Microsoft appeared confident its console would emerge on top of both Sony's PS4 and the struggling Nintendo Comp., Ltd. (TYO:7974Wii U console, which went on sale last November.

The culmination of four years of work, Microsoft's President of Interactive Entertainment Don Mattrick announced the Xbox One, which he says embodies his company's vision of a cloud-connected, always-on, "all-in-one" entertainment system.  He comments, "It must be simple, instant, and complete."

Xbox One

II. "Three Operating Systems In One"

Microsoft brags the Xbox One features "three operating systems in one".  The bottom layer (which interacts with the hardware) is the Xbox operating system.  The top level is an embedded Windows kernel, which drives the user interface.  And a third "operating system" glues the two other OS layers together.

The new multi-level OS relies heavily on voice commands to seamlessly switch between different applications.  

The new Xbox turns on via the voice command "Xbox on", which dumps you on your personalized home screen.  The Xbox reroutes TV via the command "Xbox watch TV".  Other voice commands include similar commands to jump to internet explorer ("Xbox goto Internet Explorer"), to play a game ("Xbox play game"), or listen to music ("Xbox play music").

The new Xbox also features application snapping -- similar to that found in Windows 7/8 -- to run to active applications in the display at once.  The console is also remote controllable by Windows Phones with special gestures.  Microsoft also showed off new group video-calling in Skype -- the video-calling subsidiary Microsoft acquired in 2011 for $8.5B USD.  The Skype calls are "snappable".

The console features an in-game DVR feature.  Native editing apps are included to help you edit and post your gameplay videos to the Xbox Live cloud.

For TV, the console also provides voice-searchable local TV listings.  Commands like "Watch SciFi channel.", "Watch MTV", "Show the guide.", or "What's on HBO?" all work as expected.

Xbox One TV Guide
Xbox One's localized TV Guide

Users can pin favorite TV shows to an area called "Favorites".  You can also check out what's trending among other users.

III. The Hardware and Controls

Here's the hardware (as stated by Mark Whitten in his "Under the Hood" presentation):
  • CPU
    > Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (AMD)
    > 5 billion transistors (up from 500m in the Xbox 360)
    > Native 64-bit
    > Variable power states
  • Blu-Ray Drive
  • 500 GB HDD
  • WiFi Direct (802.11n)
  • USB 3.0
  • HDMI out
  • 8 GB of DRAM (up from 512 MB in the Xbox 360)

The console has three controllers -- an upgrade Kinnect, the good old fashioned controller, and "smart glass" (your Windows Phone smartphone). 

A new version of Kinect comes bundled with the Xbox One. The Kinect camera has been bumped to 1080p HD RGB video camera (30 fps) and features some pretty advanced firmware.  It features proprietary time of flight technology, which measures the time it takes photons to bounce off objects in the view to sense depth.  It also features the microphone array that drives the voice commands.

Kinect 1080p
Kinect has been bumped to 1080p and has new depth-sensing technology.

Microsoft brags that it's upgraded "the best controller in the industry" (the Xbox 360 controller) with "over 40 improvements", including integrated battery compartment, integrated "pulse" controllers with features, better ergonomics, and better wireless response.

Xbox One Controller
The Xbox One brings back the good old-fashioned controller

Microsoft appears to have hedged its bets against the Wii U with Smart Glass.  The smartphone-enabled controller technology allows mini-tablet gameplay/gesture control similar to the Wii U.

IV. Software

Electronic Arts Inc. (EA) is a big fan of the console saying it has a "very special relationship" with Microsoft and a shared "common vision".  EA recently made waves dumping Nintendo, opting not to develop titles for the Wii U console.

Andrew Wilson, head of EA sports, showed off four special titles for the console -- FIFA 14, Madden NFL 25, NBA Live 14, and UFC.  

EA Ignite
A soccer stadium in EA's Xbox One Fifa 14 "Ultimate Team"

Driven by a new Kinect-enabled engine called "EA Sports Ignite", the titles will launch within four months (which hints at the Xbox One's launch window).  EA says the new engine provides 10 times more animation detail.  It also features 3D crowds and dynamic sidelines.

EA Madden 25
Xbox One Madden 25

Microsoft Studios promises to release 15 exclusive games in the first year, eight of which will be brand new franchises.  Among the existing franchises showed off included a Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 title, Call of Duty "Ghosts" (which features bruising, cuts, dirt under fingernails, and even fine hairs on arms and legs), a super-detailed upgrade to the Forza motorsports series, Forza Motorsports 5.

A new title from Remedy -- Quantum Break -- was also showed off, complete with time travelling (or teleporting?) little girls, crashing ships, and more.

Xbox Entertainment Studios had one other huge announcement -- Steven Spielberg (a self-professed Pong fan) is heading a project to turn the Halo science fiction shooter franchise into a live-action television series.

Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg, "Halo the Television Series" producer

It sounds like the series will be some sort of directly distributed TV programming for the new console.

V. Wrapup

No official launch date or price for the new console was given, so some of the most important details are still unknown (Sony still hasn't announced the PS4 price either).  Likewise the question of always-on DRM was not directly addressed (although bloggers may get an answer from Microsoft executives in interviews today or tomorrow).

(We do know the launch window is this year -- or within four months (by September), according to EA.)

Otherwise, from what was shown the Xbox One looks to be very strong from a user interface and controls standpoint.  The real test will be how easy it will be for third parties to develop for, and whether Microsoft can avoid backlash of potential DRM decisions such as banning used games.

In short, the Xbox One launch event answered some questions, but left many of the biggest ones to be determined at a later date -- perhaps during the upcoming Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3).

Sources: Microsoft, The Verge

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By hellokeith on 5/21/2013 1:46:33 PM , Rating: 2
Is this acting as a Set Top Box to interface with your fiber/cable/satellite provider? Or do they mean streaming TV?

By Samus on 5/21/2013 1:54:44 PM , Rating: 2
HDMI pass-thru and iR blaster to your cable box

By EasyC on 5/21/2013 2:05:52 PM , Rating: 2
Talk about a jerry rig. Would it have killed them to add a cable card interface? *shakes head*

By chmilz on 5/21/2013 2:10:00 PM , Rating: 2
Pardon me, let me introduce you to the internet...

By karimtemple on 5/21/2013 2:25:28 PM , Rating: 3
Trust me, the last thing Microsoft wants to deal with anymore is CableCard. That there's a nightmare.

By EasyC on 5/21/2013 2:33:54 PM , Rating: 4
I know DRM is, but I've never had any issues with CableCard, and it beats paying the damn cable company for a rental box.

By karimtemple on 5/21/2013 3:52:43 PM , Rating: 3
I have two HTPCs with one CableCard each. It's not CableCard itself that's the problem, it's the service provider's lack of internal support structure for dealing with 3rd-party CableCard.

Every sales, supervisor, and tech support person I talked to tried to talk me out of CableCard because each of them quote "hates it," obviously because the service provider purposefully neglects to build any sort of support system for dealing with CableCard problems. It's torture.

By jjlj on 5/22/2013 11:13:01 AM , Rating: 2
I have basic cable with a cable card through comcast in Houston. They aren't charging me for the cable card. They increased my internet bandwidth to the next level and gave me basic cable for $10 more per month, so it's a wash considering the increase in bandwidth, which now happens to b 50X6. I get all the channels in HD and a few channels that aren't supposed to be included in basic cable like the music channels and velosity.

If I didn't have a cable card I would get a crappy converter box and no HD.

By Etsp on 5/21/2013 4:41:19 PM , Rating: 2
I hope the iR blaster is optional... with CEC enabled devices, all those commands should be able to get passed through via HDMI.

By Samus on 5/21/2013 10:48:07 PM , Rating: 2
Yes its optional. HDMI 1.4 equipment with CEC shouldn't need it.

By Reclaimer77 on 5/22/2013 9:58:09 AM , Rating: 2
Forget iR and CEC. Wtf aren't new devices being made to allow IP control? That's all we really need! In fact it's the BEST solution out there for remote-controlling stuff.

There's 3'rd party products out there that accomplishes this, I'm using an Wifi/IR myself and it works great. But if the electronics industry simply got out of the stone age and embraced IP control it would just be amazing for the end user.

And yes I know, some high end AVR's, Blu-Ray players, and TV's support this function. But it should just be standard across the board imo.

By karimtemple on 5/23/2013 8:19:52 AM , Rating: 2
Far easier said than done; networking is a very different and complex beast. It's also a bit much to expect. If something is on your television, it's necessarily connected to your television, and CEC is much simpler to implement, to maintain, and to use by comparison to network anything.

Having a network control standard would be nice, but in the end it's no substitute for simply pressing a button. Improving and enhancing CEC would be a far better scenario than creating a WiFi control standard.

By Dr. Kenneth Noisewater on 5/21/2013 7:50:41 PM , Rating: 3
Will a USB ATSC tuner dongle work?

By karimtemple on 5/22/2013 8:06:52 AM , Rating: 2
The answer is probably no right now, but I suspect this scenario is not off the table in Microsoft's eyes. Tuning is kind of a pain really, and largely pointless to do without CableCard which is a far larger pain.

MS has been burned super bad in the past with the whole CableCard situation (see: Windows Media Center). This HDMI passthrough setup is far simpler and satisfies every vendor involved. It'll satisfy you too if you stop asking questions and obey.

"This is about the Internet.  Everything on the Internet is encrypted. This is not a BlackBerry-only issue. If they can't deal with the Internet, they should shut it off." -- RIM co-CEO Michael Lazaridis

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