It took decades of work and billions of dollars, but Microsoft may be close to achieving one of its early goals.
The combination of its Xbox console, Xbox Live network and new “SmartGlass” technology may finally make the company’s software irresistible to movie and TV studios trying to make their content more interactive.
SmartGlass is a software platform that links an Xbox and Xbox Live to smartphones, web tablets and other “smart” devices in the home.
I first saw SmartGlass when it was unveiled last month at the E3 game conference in Los Angeles. For a closer look, I went to Microsoft’s campus and spent time with Marc Whitten, vice president of Xbox Live, getting a further demonstration and talking about the system’s potential.
SmartGlass will be released this fall when Microsoft does its annual update of the Xbox software. In addition to downloading new software to the console, Microsoft will release a SmartGlass app for Windows, Apple and Android phones and tablets.
SmartGlass apps will connect the devices to the Xbox and the Xbox Live service. When you’re watching a movie or TV show with extra SmartGlass content — such as cast biographies or background story material — the system will notify your devices so they’re ready to display supplemental material.
If your Android phone or iPad has the SmartGlass app, you’ll be able to use the device as a powerful remote control for an Xbox. To browse the web on the TV, you’ll launch the console’s browser and move the cursor with your finger, gliding across the device at hand.
Game developers can use SmartGlass to extend their games onto auxiliary displays. A phone could be used to control the playlist during a dance game, or an iPad could be used to control a drone in a battle game on the Xbox.
The software is impressive and seems to have huge potential. But it was still finicky, with minor glitches in the demos I received both in Los Angeles and in Redmond.
Microsoft’s not the only company bringing more advanced multitasking to the living room. In some ways SmartGlass is helping Microsoft stay abreast of Nintendo and its Wii U console going on sale later this year with an auxiliary display screen that extends games and video content from the big screen. Sony’s also going there with the PlayStation 3, Vita handheld and Android devices, but it’s not as far along.
They’re all following consumers who are already used to multiscreen entertainment. In the U.S., 88 percent of tablet owners and 86 percent of smartphone owners use the devices while watching TV at least once a month, and 45 percent use their tablets while watching TV every day, according to a Nielsen survey in April.
SmartGlass and the Wii U may help console makers defend their beachhead in the living room from these encroaching mobile devices.
For Microsoft, it continues a decades-long effort to make Windows an entertainment platform. The effort spans entertainment PCs, cable-company investments, Windows cable boxes and even TV sets with Windows software inside.
Microsoft also had pushed for a new DVD standard — the short-lived HD-DVD format — that included interactivity features and the ability for movie studios to stream additional content into the living room over the Internet.
Now it’s finally getting there with SmartGlass.
Here’s an edited transcript of my conversation with Whitten.
Q: Is the Xbox becoming the cable box for the rec room?
A: My goal is to make it the box on all your TVs. Certainly it started in the rec room but I think you see more and more people using it on their main TV … when they want Netflix. When they want broad video content, they’re using Xbox more and more. It’s clearly out in front in terms of usage of many of those services.
Q: Microsoft has been trying for decades to make its software the hub of entertainment in the home, hasn’t it?
A: It’s a great example of the company being really invested for the long term and really working at problems for a while.
Q: You’re also going after consumers using phones and tablets on the couch, right?
A: It’s part of the way that you’re going to be entertained, for sure. The truth is we all have these devices but today they don’t really work well together. You’re responsible for finding the content on this device, or moving to your slate and doing something, or when you go move to the TV it’s a completely different experience. And if they do connect, you have to manage all of that. Really what our perspective is, we should take more advantage of all these devices we have with us, and it should really work for the end-user by being simple.
Q: Before the iPad, people were doing this with laptops, especially those playing fantasy sports while watching games.
A: I think you’re going to see tons of examples like that.
Q: How will SmartGlass fare against Nintendo’s Wii U and Sony linking its Vita and PS3?
A: I don’t think there’s that much strategic insight in the world. All screens are going to be smart and connected. And the question is, what are you going to do about it? How are you going to think about this ecosystem that’s evolving? Every major entertainment company — either device maker, service maker or content maker — is going to be thinking about the way that world is going to come forward.
I will tell you I feel very good about where we are. We have been focused for a long time on building the set of services that we believe will power the next generation of entertainment. What you see in voice search through Kinect going to the cloud, connecting with Bing to get the right content … to get it to SmartGlass to allow you to control it, is this huge investment that we’ve made over the last decade in cloud services and in the devices that are going to be great “tuners” for those cloud services.
Q: People used to wonder if Microsoft would make a portable Xbox device. But it turns out you’ll just use other company’s hardware?
A: The beauty of the Xbox SmartGlass approach is it gives you a really large set of devices that are going to work. You don’t have to hope that someone’s got the exact right pair of devices. We start by being as broad as possible, with devices you already own.
Q: Are the big games coming out later this year going to work with SmartGlass, or will see a few tests this year and more extensive use of it in 2013?
A: You’ll definitely see some game examples at launch. You are right that because we’re adding it to our toolbox, people will get better and better at it. Part of what the value is in building out this tool kit is it will be a great part of the ecosystem from here on out.
Q: “Call of Duty: Black Ops II” prominently features a wrist computer. Will that be controlled through SmartGlass on a phone or tablet, or will there be similar features in “Halo 4”?
A: I don’t have anything to announce yet.
Q: Will SmartGlass apps for Android and iOS devices be ready when SmartGlass games come to Microsoft devices?
A: It all launches with our fall release of the software on Xbox Live.
Q: Will it launch before Black Friday?
A: That’s when we typically do it. We’ve been on a cadence where we do a pretty big update in the October-November time frame every year. While we haven’t announced it, that’s a good time.
Q: Will SmartGlass enable more mobile gaming — taking Xbox Live in the direction of Facebook — or is it more for the home and living room?
A: I feel pretty encouraged about where we are and where we’re going with Xbox and living-room entertainment.
Q: A decade ago, Microsoft pushed the HD-DVD format to compete with Blu-ray discs, because HD-DVD included its technology for delivering enhanced content, interactivity and other features similar to what SmartGlass will do on mobile devices.
A: This idea that I can have a deeper experience with my content — if I want, it can just help me find other content, make it more social, find out what’s going on — it is absolutely the future.
The truth is when you talk about a game like “Halo” it is both a content experience and a community — there is a community of Halo players and there always has been.
When you talk about other types of content we tend to talk about them as audiences and not communities. The content is one thing and then they are on their own to go connect and have a deeper experience. That idea of turning audiences into communities — to get you deeper into the show — that is the future of entertainment for sure.
Q: You’ve been working up to this with Xbox Live?
A: A lot of what we pioneered with games — getting people to have friends, to connect easily, to be able to use voice to communicate — those aren’t gaming things; it’s just that that was a really early, great way to prove out the concepts. This idea that I want to be social with people around football, or fashion, or TV or whatever — it’s the same thing. Communication and social and community is the very first entertainment scenario that ever existed.
Q: Movies are now multiplatform releases — Disney launched “Brave” with games, social media and websites. If “Brave 2” comes out next year, will SmartGlass be used for things like giving people a trial of the game if they stream the movie on Xbox?
A: That is the scenario.
Q: Are you working toward extending content from the console and the cloud onto other small screens, such as headsets?
A: Who knows. I’m super focused on getting it out there for the TV, the Xbox, and connecting my phones and slates and seeing where it goes.
Q: Then there’s work by Corning and others to make window panes “smart glass” that can shift from clear glass to PC displays.
A: We’re going to see all of this. If you could put graphics on it, it’s going to become a smart surface for us in some way or another.