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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

May 21, 2013 at 10:01 AM

Microsoft reveals Xbox One, an “all in one” entertainment system

Microsoft hosted a raucous tent revival for the game industry in Redmond today, promising its salvation through a powerful new version of its Xbox console that will bring sci-fi controls to home entertainment and run a new generation of ultrarealistic games.

Called the Xbox One, the console will go on sale later this year bundled with a more accurate version of the company’s Kinect motion sensor, redesigned controllers that flutter on the fingertips and interactive TV features, all tied to an upgrade online network powered by 300,000 servers around the globe.

The console will compete against Sony’s upcoming PlayStation 4 and Nintendo’s Wii U, though the broader competition is for the attention of consumers whose dollars and leisure time are increasingly taken by tablets, phones and inexpensive apps and games.

Unlike previous versions of the Xbox that initially targeted game enthusiasts, the Xbox One is designed from the start to be both a game and entertainment system that adds Microsoft’s technology to users’ televisions, including motion-control, voice recognition and online entertainment services.

Don Mattrick, president of the company’s interactive entertainment business, said the One was designed to be “simple, instant and complete.”

“We believe we can evolve what you love to make it decidedly better and deliver breakthrough innovations,” he said.

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Mattrick declined to provide a sales price or specific launch date beyond “later this year,” saying more details will be released at the E3 game conference in June.

The console leans heavily on a new version of the Kinect sensor to advance home entertainment.

Microsoft sees the Xbox One as the heart of the living room, where the TV and video services can be controlled with voice commands and gestures recognized by the Kinect sensor. The console also blends broadcast and online services, such as fantasy football games that surface during live broadcasts of games.

Microsoft showed a new TV guide that will be provided by the console but didn’t say anything about supplanting cable TV services as some had speculated it would do with the console. The console is intended to be the “one” entertainment box in the home, but owners will still need to connect it to a cable box for broadcast and cable-exclusive channels.

“It’s pretty impressive – I think it’s going to sell well,” Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter said at the event.

Pachter guessed the console will sell for around $400. He said its new capabilities are likely to attract buyers and potentially help Microsoft hold onto its current lead in the console business.

“They address something the masses will get excited about,” he said.

Eric Hirshberg, chief executive of mega game developer Activision Publishing, said Microsoft did a “great job” integrating TV while also producing a “superb” game machine.

“I admire what we saw from Xbox today because I thought it was a very compelling, complete package,” he said.

Hirshberg noted that game hardware already has a leading position in the living room, with hundreds of millions of households using consoles that connect to online services and stream video.

“There’s a broad fight to become the connected device that owns the living room coming from a lot of vectors and a lot of different industries at once,” he said. “I think that gaming is the right tip of the sword.”

During a demo by Xbox vice president, Yusuf Mehdi, the box was used to turn on a TV set with voice controls. On startup, the TV displayed the Xbox tiled menu with services such as Skype and Netflix.

“What if that device can turn on your TV and talk to all the devices in your living room?” Mehdi said.

“Xbox, watch TV,” Mehdi then said to the box, launching a TV show, “and with that simple command, I’m watching live TV.”

Mehdi also demonstrated “instant switching,” by saying “Xbox game.” The console then switched immediately to a racing game. Switching between games, movies and TVs is as quick as switching channels on a TV, Mehdi said.

This fast switching is accomplished by the power and architecture of the console, which basically runs several virtual machines.

One partition powers games while another powers apps such as Skype, search and social networking. Since they’re running simultaneously, apps can be run alongside games or TV shows for those who want to chat during a game, for instance.

Having these virtual machines both running, and the ability to switch back and forth, provides the feel of instantly changing modes, Boyd Multerer, Xbox development director, explained during a session in the tent.

The console also uses supercomputer-like technologies with memory caches on chips to speed data flow. It’s also designed to offload computing tasks to online networks, which could improve the performance of the hardware over time as software takes advantage of this capability.

Multerer said the technical hallmark of Xbox One is its dynamic nature and ability to evolve and adapt as new services appear, while still giving game developers a consistent platform to work with.

“This generation is about embracing change and growth while still providing predictability the developer needs,” he said.

The console is designed to be left on at all times and has an ultra-low-power standby mode, in which its sensor is still listening for voice commands and can be used to control a TV.

Microsoft’s also pushing the envelope by requiring that the console be connected the Internet, except when doing things like playing a single-player game or watching movies.

“A connection to the Internet is required,” said Craig Davison, senior director of Xbox marketing, adding that “we will have workarounds and we will have contingencies, should your Internet go out – we won’t shut down your experience.”

That may limit use of the console but Davison said Microsoft expects most buyers will be people who own the current Xbox 360, and an “overwhelming majority of our 360 customers today do have Internet access so we’re not too worried.”

A persistent connection enables developers to build new types of games. It could also be used for new copyright protection techniques, such as limiting the use of used games. Davison said used games will be playable on the system but more details will be released next month, at the E3 game conference in Los Angeles.

Inside, the console has 8-core AMD processsors, a Blu-ray disc drive, 500 gigabyte hard drive, USB 3.0, WiFi Direct and 8 gigabytes of RAM.

The console itself looks like a stereo receiver or a large DVD player, with a disc slot in front of the silver and black box. A new, more accurate version of the Kinect sensor system is contained in a separate, rectangular device.

Controllers are similar to the current models but with improved precision and speed, plus new vibration motors in the triggers, providing fingertip sensations such as fluttering when flying a helicopter.

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The new Kinect sensor tracks more joints and can guess your emotional state and read your heartbeat, Xbox Vice President Marc Whitten said, calling it the “binding power” between devices connected to the console. (The image above is from a Kinect demo later in the afternoon.)

Mehdi also demonstrated a group video calls using the Skype app on the console. He also showed a new interactive ESPN TV application that blends live TV and fantasy sports; if you’re watching a game and one of your players scores, a small window surfaces with the update.

The new console will arrive with a new version of Microsoft’s Xbox Live service powered by 300,000 servers – “more than the entire world’s computing power in 1999,” Whitten said.

New features of the service include a “game DVR” that saves games online, improved matchmaking and achievements, and bigger matches with more players, Whitten said.

Andrew Wilson, head of EA Sports, said his company is developing four games for the new console – Fifa, Madden NFL, NBA Live and UFC. They run on a new game engine called Ignite that’s designed to “help us blur the line between real and virtual” and provide ten times more animation detail, he said.

Exclusive new titles for the console include Microsoft’s “Forza Motorsport 5,” an even more realistic version of its photorealistic racing game.

The platform’s enabling developers to build new types of games, such as cloud-powered games that change based on the actions of the gaming community, with visuals so real you’ll see imperfections from wear and tear, Phil Spencer, head of Microsoft’s game studios said.

Spencer showed a demo clip of a game called “Quantum Break” that started with a filmed, movie-style opening with real actors before transitioning back and forth between animated sequences of mass destruction.

Microsoft is investing heavily in studios around the world to “jump start” the new generation of gaming Spencer said.

“We have more titles in development now than at any other time in Xbox history,” Spencer said, adding that 15 exclusives will launch in the first year after Xbox One arrives, including eight entirely new franchises.

The platform will also be used to further blur the line between games and TV. Microsoft’s working with Steven Spielberg to produce a live-action TV series based on the company’s “Halo” franchise. Spielberg appeared via video to announce the project.

Inside the tent, Hirshberg provided a peek at “Call of Duty Ghosts,” a new version of Activision’s blockbuster action game. It’s coming to multiple platforms but Xbox will be the first to receive some downloadable add-ons for the game.

“Ghosts” is based on the story of an elite group of special forces soldiers. It has cinematic graphics taking advantage of powerful new consoles plus a new character – a dog, modeled on Navy SEAL service animals, that plays a greater role in the game.

“This will be the most beautiful ‘Call of Duty’ game we’ve ever made,” he said.

Microsoft’s also working with the NFL to add new interactivity features and bring exclusive content to Xbox One. While watching a game, real-time fantasy football stats can be displayed on the screen and people can chat with friends via Skype, for instance.

Mattrick said the partnership with “redefine” the NFL experience for fans using the console.

“We’ve an ambitious vision for Xbox One to become the all in one system for every living room – the one system you’re going to use and love every single day,” he said.

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