Windows XP Media Center Takes Digital Media Out of the Home Office

REDMOND, Wash., Oct. 29, 2002 — It’s a familiar routine to digital media enthusiasts: invite some family and friends over to the house, grab some snacks and drinks, and plop down in that comfy spot in front of the television, somewhat close to the stereo, and within eyeshot of the computer in the extra bedroom. Don’t forget the TV remote. And the DVD remote. And the stereo remote. Oh, and be prepared to herd everybody down the hall to crowd around the computer if you decide to check out those digital vacation photos.

More and more people are enjoying digital entertainment, and demand is rising for a way to centralize digital media formats and make it easier for users to manage. Many people today turn to the PC for that solution. A May 2002 report by Forrester Research found that in the U.S.:

  • 60 percent of consumers listen to music on their PC

  • 65 percent use their PC to manage their photos

  • 63 percent use their PC to copy or write audio CDs, and 44 percent use their PC to watch DVDs

While computers can do all these things well, that still leaves many people accessing some of their digital media on their PC, but other media, like television or movies, on their television. So, how can users find a simple and easy way to access all their favorite digital media from one central place?

Microsoft’s Windows eHome Division tackled this very problem, and developed Windows XP Media Center Edition to make digital media and entertainment easy, convenient and fun. This new member of the Windows family is the result of more than a year’s work by the division to bring integrated digital media entertainment experiences to consumers via a simple remote-controlled user interface on their home PC.

Microsoft developed Windows XP Media Center Edition to turn a PC into a media center, with entertainment options that include:

  • playing DVDs

  • watching, recording and pausing live television

  • browsing home video collections

  • listening to entire music collections

  • creating slide shows with digital photos and music

By consolidating access to all these different media, Windows XP Media Center Edition can be a great solution for digital media enthusiasts and people with small space-constrained living environments, such as dorm rooms, teen bedrooms, or small apartments, and don’t have room for a sprawling entertainment system.

Keeping the Consumer in Mind

The development team of the Windows eHome Division, under the direction of Windows XP user experience guru Joe Belfiore, spent more than a year creating Windows XP Media Center Edition. Belfiore, who has been with Microsoft since 1990, helped spearheaded the user interface design for many of the company’s key projects, including Windows NT, Windows 95, Internet Explorer 4.0 and Windows 2000.

The team’s goal was very clear: create a great, easy-to-use digital entertainment experience for the consumer. To do that, the development team continually thought about Windows XP Media Center Edition from the consumer’s perspective. They focused their knowledge, resources and creativity on making the Media Center interface appealing, intuitive and responsive to the way the consumer thinks — and as an entertainment gateway on the PC, it needed to be cool.

“The Media Center’s interface comes out to meet you, and from step one it says, ‘Hey, I’m a little different,'”
says design manager Bill Flora.

The background of this onscreen portal’s
“Start”
menu is a television-style shade of blue, its depth the result of subtle lighting techniques, its color shifting and intensifying. On top of the blue background, the user has quick access to six buttons to launch the Media Center experiences: My TV, My Music, My Pictures, My Videos, Play DVD and Settings. The letters and icons are designed large enough so the user can easily read and navigate through the system from ten feet away.

John Elsbree and his team wanted tot ensure that Windows Media Center was easy and intuitive for consumers to interact with, so they eschewed the more traditional mouse and keyboard devices for the most familiar and created a remote control to interact with the onscreen Windows menus.

“Our focus was on making the PC relevant to the entertainment experience once you leave the two-foot radius,”
says Elsbree.
“This is a PC experience that doesn’t require being hunched over the keyboard. Someone on our team described it as leaning back rather than leaning forward.”

The
“Start”
menu’s buttons are synchronized with the remote control, and selections are made by moving up or down the menu using the remote. Though Windows Media Center brings together several digital mediums and options for users, the development team didn’t want users to have to sift through layers of options.
“When someone’s in the mood to be entertained they don’t want to be overwhelmed by complexity,”
says Elsbree.

“We focused on making it easy and quick to get to your media, whether it’s television, music, digital pictures, DVDs or video,”
adds program manager Molly Scoville Rhoten,
“There aren’t a lot of layers in the interface, so consumers don’t have to do a lot of clicking to get where they’re going.”

Bringing It All Together

To help ensure that Windows Media Center would deliver what consumers want in a digital entertainment system, the team wanted to get direct feedback from users at each stage of product development.
“We brought people in and asked them to perform tasks with the new interface,”
says Scoville Rhoten,
“and we watched in order to understand what was easy and what wasn’t and make adjustments accordingly.”

In addition to usability testing, the team reached out to consumers via focus groups, one-on-one interviews, surveys and beta testing. The product’s development process benefited from the feedback received from more than 5,000 consumers via 20 separate studies and outreach efforts.

Another way the developers ensured they were hitting the mark with consumers was to take early versions of Windows XP Media Center Edition home. In Bill Flora’s living room, Media Center kept his three-year-old entertained with episodes of her favorite TV shows
“The Little Mermaid,” “Dora the Explorer”
and
“Sesame Street”
on demand. Flora used the Media Center’s electronic program guide to record each series episode automatically every week, saving it to the hard drive for later viewing. Media Center’s uses information from the guide to be “smart” about how it records, skipping repeat shows and adjusting for rescheduled programs.

Flora says he believes that Windows XP Media Center Edition is the first step toward a fundamental shift in how people receive media. They will no longer have to rely on television or other pre-programmed networks to tell them how and when to enjoy their entertainment.
“Ultimately,”
Flora says,
“people will become their own networks.”

The most important thing to developer John Elsbree was making sure he could easily access and listen to his collection of over 400 music CDs using Windows Media Center.
“Having your music instantly accessible changes the whole experience,”
he says.
“You can use the remote control to find an album or song titles or artists’ names. You end up rediscovering music that you’ve had in your collection for a long time and forgotten about.”

Taking it Home

The last round of user testing came from a group of customers that signed up for a program to test beta versions of Windows XP Media Center. Chris Hassler, father of three who lives in Sandpoint, Idaho, thinks Microsoft hit the mark with Windows XP Media Center Edition and so do his kids.

Hassler, who has been testing a beta version of Windows XP Media Center Edition since June, connected the PC to his home’s cable and satellite hook-ups and put it to his ultimate test.
“I test things by seeing what I can accomplish by skipping the directions and just pushing buttons,”
he says. Hassler’s three daughters — ages 10, 12 and 14 — approached Windows XP Media Center Edition the same way.
“Our girls took right to it,”
he says.
“It’s so simple.”

Windows XP Media Center Edition came in handy for Hassler’s middle daughter, a seventh-grader. A program about climatology on the Discovery Channel that aired at 1 a.m. was saved to their PC’s hard drive for later viewing as a resource for a paper she was writing. Hassler’s oldest daughter enjoyed the ease with which multiple episodes of
“Friends”
could be recorded.

Hassler also appreciates the ability to switch quickly among different applications.
“If I’m doing a report in Word, I can minimize the TV and keep up with the game I’m watching,”
he says.

Most of all, Hassler likes the convenience.
“The remote control is just like having a mouse or a keyboard,”
he says.
“But now I can sit in my recliner with the computer 12 or 15 feet away. I don’t have to move to change functions or get something recorded. And the picture is really good.”

Windows XP Media Center Edition is available to consumers on HP Media Center PCs at over 1,400 retail outlets in the U.S. and Canada on October 29. Windows XP Media Center Edition-equipped PCs from Samsung will be on the market in Korea this holiday season, and in Japan from NEC by the middle of next year.