Xbox One moves Microsoft closer to living room hub

The next-generation gaming console from the software giant is about much more than gaming. It should help Microsoft realize its vision of being at the center of consumer computing.

Microsoft's Don Mattrick at the unveiling of the new Xbox One video game console at the software giant's Redmond, Wash., campus. James Martin/CNET

REDMOND, Wash. -- Perhaps the most telling detail of Microsoft's media event to unveil the new Xbox One was the fact that the company didn't even get around to talking about gaming until halfway through the presentation.

It's hard to overstate the significance of that. Microsoft sees the Xbox One, more than any other version of the Xbox, as a device for everyone, not just hardcore gamers. There's no doubt Microsoft was pushing into that direction, even with the original Xbox that debuted in 2001.

But Microsoft's focus during the Xbox One event demonstrates the company's bid to secure a digital hub in living rooms from which consumers will use all sorts of other Microsoft technologies. It's the centerpiece of Microsoft consumer devices and services strategy.

When Don Mattrick, the president of Microsoft's Interactive Entertainment Business group, took the stage today, he talked first about the company's efforts to "harmonize" the living room, where technology remains "fragmented." Those are the marching orders for the Xbox One.

"Team Xbox is on a new mission," Mattrick said, adding that the console is the "ultimate all-in-one-home entertainment system."

The entertainment group's chief marketing officer, Yusuf Mehdi, put the Xbox One through its paces, demonstrating just about everything but its gaming capability. While he noted that the company would go into more detail on games at next month's E3 gaming convention in Los Angeles, his focus on TV viewing, video conferencing, and music listening are key to understanding the strategic significance of Xbox One.

"What if a single device could provide all your entertainment?" Mehdi asked. "What if it was always ready and connected?"

With voice-recognition technology developed by Microsoft's research group, Mehdi turned on the console with the words, "Xbox on." He quickly navigated to viewing "The Price is Right" by saying, "Watch TV." To hear music, he said, "Go to music." The Xbox One snapped from entertainment experience to another in a flash.

The non-gaming demo didn't stop there. Internet Explorer is baked in to let users surf the Web. The Net is weaved into Xbox apps so that fantasy sports fans can watch a football game, for example, and watch how their fantasy team is doing in real time, with their scores updated the instant a player runs for a touchdown or kicks a field goal.

Mehdi showed off integration with Microsoft's Skype video conferencing technology, which Microsoft acquired two years ago, too. Xbox One users will be able to have video calls with Skype right from their sofa.

To enable Skype and all sorts of other voice and gesture commands, critical for the non-gaming applications, Microsoft is requiring its Kinect controller for every Xbox One.

"The all new Kinect is now an essential and integrated part of the platform," according to an FAQ Microsoft posted regarding the Xbox One. "By having it as a consistent part of every Xbox One, game and entertainment creators can build experiences that assume the availability of voice, gesture and natural sensing, leading to unrivaled ease of use, premium experiences and interactivity for you."

The new Kinect, which comes with every Xbox One, has been completely redesigned. Its field of view is some 60 percent larger. That allows as many as six people to fit into the field of view, rather than the two allowed by the current Kinect. What's more, it works better in smaller rooms because people can be closer and still fit in the frame.

Microsoft eventually did get around to talking about games at the Xbox One debut. An EA executive trumpeted new sports titles, and an Activision boss gave a demo of its upcoming Call of Duty: Ghosts. More gaming titles certainly will come. But make no mistake, gaming for the Xbox One is only part of the strategy. Microsoft wants this next Xbox to be core of consumers' entertainment world.

 

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