Microsoft SmartGlass: Xbox Live Companion on steroids?

At E3, Microsoft takes the wraps off its coming SmartGlass application. But what, exactly, is it?

Mary Jo Foley
Mary Jo Foley
Mary Jo Foley has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications, including ZDNet, eWeek and Baseline. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008). She also is the cohost of the "Windows Weekly" podcast on the TWiT network.
4 min read

As many of my readers know, I'm not a video game fan, nor I am I a big TV fan. So sitting virtually through a two-hour E3 keynote address, chock-full of video game first-person-shooter previews...kill me now (pun intended).

But there were a couple of interesting bits from Microsoft at its E3 unveiling. One of these -- about which there had been conflicting earlier leaks -- was something called SmartGlass technology. But despite a few mentions and demos, I still felt as if I had no idea what SmartGlass is after watching the keynote. And it looks like I'm not alone.

As GeekWire's Todd Bishop unearthed over the weekend before E3, Microsoft had applied for a trademark on "SmartGlass." The trademark application described SmartGlass as "computer hardware and software for phones, mobile devices, televisions, video game consoles, media players and audiovisual devices."

Once Microsoft's keynote was over, the company published a press release that provided a little more insight on SmartGlass. It described SmartGlass -- or Xbox SmartGlass, as the technology is actually named -- as "an application for Windows 8, Windows Phone, and other portable devices that connects phones, PCs and tablets with your Xbox 360 console to make your entertainment smarter, more interactive and more fun." SmartGlass will work with Windows 8 PCs and tablets, and iPads, iPhones, and Android devices, Microsoft officials said.

A footnote in the Microsoft press release added the information that "Xbox SmartGlass is available with select games and Xbox Live content and requires Internet connectivity and compatible devices. Xbox Live Gold membership (sold separately) is also required for some Xbox SmartGlass-enabled content and features. Available Xbox SmartGlass features may vary by device." SmartGlass is not available now, from what I can tell; Microsoft officials are saying "later this year," which seems to imply there may be an Xbox Live Dashboard update required to make this work.

The potentially best explanation of SmartGlass comes from WinSuperSite's Paul Thurrott. Thurrott told me he believes SmartGlass to be a souped-up version of the current Microsoft Xbox Live Companion mobile application. Xbox Live Companion allows users to search for movies, TV shows, music, and games, and play them on an Xbox from a smartphone and/or a Windows 8 device. (The version on Windows 8 is currently an app preview.)

For those likening SmartGlass to Apple's AirPlay streaming technology, it's worth mentioning that Microsoft already has technology that allows users to send content from mobile devices to the Xbox for viewing. That's called "Play To." (There's also a Windows 8 technology known as "Play On Xbox" that is coming, just to keep things confusing interesting.)

I'm still confused as to whether the just-announced version of Internet Explorer for Xbox will require SmartGlass to work or if there will be any connections between IE for Xbox and SmartGlass. I felt Microsoft's demos today implied there might be some interdependencies. But no official word back from Microsoft on this one (yet). Note: Updated answer is at the end of this post.

SmartGlass is designed to allow content makers to create supplementary content for display on a second screen (a piece of "smart glass"?). But to me, it seems as though SmartGlass revolves around the Xbox. In the end, SmartGlass looks to be designed to help sell more Xboxes and to complement the Kinect sensor.

Microsoft at E3 2012: Xbox beyond the console (pictures)

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Two updates since I wrote this post:

1. Microsoft is confirming that the Xbox Live Companion app is the predecessor to SmartGlass. The exact quote, via a spokesperson: "Xbox Companion was the predecessor to Xbox SmartGlass."

2. Regarding the question of the relationship between the IE for Xbox and SmartGlass, here are more details.

Users will be able to interact with IE for Xbox using an Xbox controller, Kinect and/or SmartGlass. An IE spokesperson also confirmed that the IE for Xbox code is based on IE 9, just like IE for Windows Phone is. Here's the official statement from that spokesperson:

"We developed IE for Xbox with simplicity in mind and customized it for the television. For example, when you select a link, the drop down menus are in large, easy-to-read text. We made it easy for people to bookmark their favorites and pin them to their main Xbox dashboard.There are a variety of ways people can interact with the browser. With Kinect you can use your voice to navigate, with your Xbox SmartGlass device you can type text, scroll the page, access and launch to Xbox your pinned sites, control the cursor on the screen and zoom in and out, and you can also use your Xbox controller."

Microsoft Xbox SmartGlass
Watch this: Microsoft Xbox SmartGlass