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The Xbox One Provides a Peek at the Connected Home of the Future

Dec 16, 2013 10:53 AM, By Jason Bovberg

Are we ready for it?


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As I wrote last month, if you’re truly interested in the possibilities of a media-converged “connected home,” Microsoft’s Xbox One provides a forward-thinking experience in many respects. I’ve been playing around with mine for a couple weeks, and I’ve come away with some impressions about the console that I didn’t expect. The interesting thing is that these impressions aren’t merely compliments or criticisms about the device itself but mostly thoughts about how my admittedly conservative tech mind is reacting to features that change so much about how I’m used to doing things.

You know me: I’m resistant to change in many ways. That’s well documented in this space. I still listen to disc-based music—even LP—and I have never read an ebook. My movies are more Blu-ray-based than Netflix-streamed. You might call me nostalgic about physical media but still excited about the prospects of a digital future.

You can see why I’m fascinated by the promise of the Xbox One, which touts itself as a powerful media hub for the living room. My wife is jazzed about the music possibilities, I’m excited about the many varied apps and high-resolution games that will be coming our way, and the kids are eager to check out the apps and play with the Kinect-based games. My recent immersion in the Microsoft ecosystem that includes Windows 8 Surface tablets, Windows Phone, and our Windows desktop system paved the way for the placement of Xbox One in the living room, where it would interconnect with all these devices to provide a seamless media and computing and storage experience across all devices. I was prepared and eager for all that.

What I wasn’t prepared for (what I’m perhaps still not prepared for) was the way Xbox One, once I started setting it up, wanted to take me by the hand and essentially yank me into the future.

It started off fun. The kids and I sat down, very excited, and let the friendly system menus begin walking us through the setup process. I imported my gamer information, and the home screen blasted onto the screen, vivid and beautiful. Then the Kinect took over, pointing its camera at me, displaying my living room on the TV, and asking if that handsome fellow on the brown chair was indeed me. I hesitated, gave my kids a look, and said, “Yes.” Then the Xbox walked us through the process of creating family accounts for my kids, and the Kinect recognized each child as they sat and waved at the machine from the living room floor. I quickly set up some accounts—Xbox Live, Netflix, Skype—and started customizing the system for what our entertainment and communication needs would require.

“OK,” I thought. “I can handle this. This is pretty cool.”

It was when we began playing with the Xbox One’s voice and gesture controls that things began to seem strange. Once all the family accounts were programmed in, the Xbox recognized each member of my family whenever entered the living room. You’ve probably seen the commercials: The Kinect identifies you on sight and greets you onscreen. In my case, it was an ebullient, “Hi Jason!” A quick vocal command, and I had instant access to all my stuff. I admit that when I saw those adrenaline-laced commercials, I experienced a bit of a disconnect. It won’t be that smooth, I thought. It won’t work like that.

But it does, and pretty seamlessly.

Seeing all this functionality unfold before me, I sat in my chair in a state of instinctual distrust. It had started off as a celebration of technology, a sense of wow, but had become more of a nagging inner question: Are we ready for this? Because it represented a radically new way of interacting with the entertainment I enjoy. Heck, it has the potential to reinvent the way I interact with my family! So, yes, are we ready for this?

Which is an interesting question to ask, because whenever tech types think of the connected home of the future, it surely involves this kind of near-effortless media manipulation. In those movies that show living rooms of the 22nd century, there’s invariably a voice-controlled TV, a central computer that responds to you and your gestures—in short, a media hub that offers any kind of entertainment you need at any time. Everything is seamless and available at any time and any place.

That’s what the Xbox One is going for. As you start playing with these features, you have the strong sense that you’re taking a big leap into the future connected home.

I am getting accustomed to literally telling my TV what channel to turn to. I’m enjoying the ability to turn the system on and off with only my voice—along with a rather astounding array of other voice commands. I am just starting to play around with the Kinect swipe technology that lets me browse through menus such as Netflix simply by waving my hand. I am getting used to how seemingly eager the Xbox One is to give me the media experience I want. It’s a pretty heady thing.

It’s also a little scary and sure, a little buggy.

Sometimes the Xbox doesn’t recognize a family member right away, and sometimes the cable signal that passes through the Xbox via HDMI goes black for no reason, and sometimes the device can’t hear our voice commands. Microsoft has been remarkably helpful with answers to these problems. I’m afraid my first reaction to any little hiccup has been to back off. To unhook. To disable that feature. To regress. To reroute cable directly to the HDTV rather than through the Xbox. To consider using the Xbox as only a gaming device—which it’s obviously great at.

Isn’t that interesting? What is it about us that retreats in the face of something new? Toss a minor bug at us, or make something a little too initially complex, and we say, “Never mind.” When we first got the Xbox, my family was over the moon about the voice features, giddily trying new phrases, and now they’re more frequently asking, “Can’t we just use the remote?”

Perhaps we need innovation to creep up on us, to happen in gradual steps. The Xbox One can seem like a lot at once. Each app, each converged experience, offers a new, forward-thinking wrinkle to ponder and test, and it can seem overwhelming. You might argue that Microsoft and other tech innovators are always evolving toward the marvels that they introduce in new products, and a lot of the time, we take those evolutionary steps for granted. But every once in a while, a new device comes along that brings a lot of that innovation to bear, and tests the limits of what its audience is open to experiencing. The Xbox One is such a device. I remain totally impressed with its ambition.



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