REDMOND, Wash. – Dec. 6, 2011 – After a long day at work, you plop down on the couch with your favorite beverage and put your feet up to unwind with the evening news, or maybe last night’s episode of your favorite show.
Not bothering to search the couch cushions for the remote, you give your Kinect sensor a little wave, bringing your Xbox to life.
“Xbox, Bing: The Office,” you say, and by the time you take a sip, the episode is ready to watch. You tell Xbox to play, and it does. Then you tell Xbox to pause while you walk to the kitchen to check on dinner, and it does.
This is not a scene from an episode of “Star Trek” – it’s the all-new Xbox LIVE.
This morning, Microsoft launched a free update that “revolutionizes” digital entertainment, putting all your movies, TV shows, music, sports and other types of entertainment in one box. The update also brings voice control to your Xbox experience, and with the simplicity of Kinect and the intelligence of Bing voice search. That’s just the beginning – the update also includes a complete dashboard redesign, a bevy of new content from partners around the world, and a variety of new social features and parental controls.
The Xbox LIVE update also features cloud-powered saves so users can roam across consoles and take their content with them, new family content controls for parents, and “beacons” that alert users when a friend would like to play a game. Now when your son tells you he can’t come home from his friend’s house because he needs to finish his “Forza Motorsport 4” race, you can tell him to save it, come home, and finish playing after dinner.
“It’s a major evolutionary step forward – people are going to feel like they’re getting a whole new Xbox 360,” said Emma Williams, general manager of Xbox Experiences for Microsoft’s Interactive Entertainment Business.
The update – the first in a series of enhancements coming to Microsoft’s entertainment service – makes it easier and more natural than ever for people to interact with Xbox, Williams said. The update also substantially expands Xbox’s entertainment experiences for the living room. While Xbox LIVE is fundamentally the same entertainment service that 35 million subscribers and counting have come to know and love, the service has changed from top to bottom.
The Xbox “dashboard” has been completely redesigned (in the Metro style made popular by Windows Phone), Williams said. Using Kinect, Xbox users will be able to use gestures and their voice to navigate through their entertainment. Add to that the ability to use Bing’s voice search capabilities, and finding content in Xbox LIVE’s burgeoning library of entertainment is as easy as saying “Xbox, Bing: Grey’s Anatomy.”
Say Hello to TV
Xbox LIVE is also giving its entertainment offerings a major enhancement by expanding current partnerships as well as building new partnerships with more than 40 leading TV, movie, sports and entertainment providers worldwide.
What that means is many TV subscribers will enjoy being able to watch their favorite channels live on Xbox, including customers of Verizon’s FiOS digital television service in the United States.
“We think there’s going to be a lot of interest around this,” said Pete Castleton, executive director of corporate marketing at Verizon. “It’s a new way to interact with live television, and Xbox LIVE is an ideal platform to manage gesture and voice interaction. We have a compelling content lineup that aligns with the Xbox LIVE community.”
Verizon will offer a selection of popular live television channels to its customers via Xbox LIVE, including MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, Cartoon Network and Cinemax.
Integrating Verizon’s traditional digital television service with Xbox LIVE’s innovative capabilities takes the power of both and creates something new and exciting that reaches beyond what either offers on its own, he said.
“I think it’s exactly what customers are looking for,” Castleton said.
AT&T U-verse TV is a leading TV provider that is already delivering live TV, Total Home DVR recordings, interactive apps and more to the Xbox. As the first TV provider in the U.S. to launch live TV on Xbox 360, AT&T also plans to use Kinect to transform how its customers can interact with its TV service.
“Enabling U-verse TV customers to use voice and gesture controls to manage their TV experience will unleash a new wave of interaction with our service,” said Jeff Weber, vice president of video services, AT&T Mobility and Consumer Markets. “Xbox is a key part of AT&T’s multi-screen strategy for TV entertainment, and our work with Microsoft to take full advantage of Kinect in the living room will bring more personalization, more control, and an even better TV experience to homes across the country.”
Marcien Jenckes, senior vice president and general manager of video and entertainment services for Comcast, called the Xbox LIVE update “compelling.”
“Comcast is thrilled to be bringing its on-demand television and movie offerings (the largest selection in the industry) to Xbox LIVE,” he said. “We’ve made huge strides over the last five years to realize our vision of making every movie and TV show available to our customers when and where they want it. The great thing about this initiative is that we’re delivering a great combination of the video entertainment our customers love, with the Xbox LIVE experience they enjoy.”
Williams said the update will make Xbox LIVE better equipped than ever to deliver what users want, whether it’s live television, movies, music, sports, social connections, or the platform’s growing diversity of video games (from hardcore gaming to casual, family-friendly Kinect games).
All the new content and the new natural user interface capabilities combined will set Xbox LIVE apart from all other entertainment services in the field, according to Williams.
“It’s radically different from what people are used to today, and from anything else in the industry,” Williams said. “No single device has put all the entertainment people want in the living room in one place like this, or delivered it in such a fun way where people can connect in a relaxed way with a gesture or the power of their own voice.”
‘A Game Changer’
Gesturing and talking to a device. Having a broad universe of content available at your fingertips, or called up at the sound of your voice – these experiences were once science fiction, available only to the likes of James T. Kirk on the deck of the Starship Enterprise. The Xbox LIVE update makes experiences once considered “futuristic” available in every living room to anyone with an Xbox and a Kinect.
“Science fiction has become science fact,” Williams said.
Xbox LIVE users without the Kinect device will still be able to enjoy the updated user interface, but the controller-free device adds to the experience, she said.
Pete Distad, vice president of marketing and distribution at Hulu, said Hulu Plus has updated its interface to “synchronize and optimize” with the new Xbox dashboard.
“Thanks to the magic of Kinect, you become the controller and can play, pause, fast forward, rewind and search for TV shows and movies with the sound of your voice or the wave of your hand,” Distad said. “You can also use your voice to find and discover Hulu Plus content on Bing.”
Hulu Plus now has more than 1 million paid subscribers who stream current episodes of popular television shows such as “Glee” and “Family Guy” and full back seasons of TV series such as “Lost” and “Battlestar Galactica” as well as hundreds of movies.
“Our goal is to be everywhere, on every device where people want to watch TV,” Distad said. “We see a lot of consumption of content in the living room on TVs through Internet-connected gaming consoles, so it makes perfect sense to partner with the talented teams at Microsoft and Xbox to reach a broader audience and innovate ways to watch TV when, where and how our customers want.”
Mark Greenberg agrees. He is the CEO of EPIX, a premium U.S. television channel owned by Viacom and its Paramont Pictures unit, MGM, and Lionsgate. EPIX, soon to be available on Xbox LIVE, has more than 3,000 movies, concerts, comedy shows, boxing and mixed-martial arts offerings available on-demand to its subscribers. They’ll be able to watch popular movies like “Rango,” “Star Trek,” “Iron Man,” “Thor” and many more, all in high definition on the Xbox LIVE service.
“I think it’s extraordinarily cool what Microsoft has created,” Greenberg said. “And the cool factor is just as strong as the functionality.”
Greenberg said gesture and voice-controlled entertainment in the living room could be a “game changer” akin to TiVo, which revolutionized the television viewing experience almost a decade ago with its ability to record and pause programs without having to pop in a VCR tape.
“I think this is an opportunity for all of us,” he said. “It’s definitely a sea change.”
Building an Entertainment Hub
The notion of adding the major updates that became available on Xbox LIVE today grew out of the launch of Kinect last year – when Microsoft was looking to take Xbox’s strong gaming heritage, the exponential growth of Xbox consoles and Xbox LIVE subscribers, and the power of Kinect’s natural user interface to make Xbox a better entertainment hub for the living room, Williams said.
After the new Xbox LIVE was tested internally by about 4,000 employees worldwide, Microsoft had a public preview. The update was released to more than 65,000 customers, who updated their Xbox LIVE with changes each Friday for them to use over the weekend. The feedback provided by those employees and customers, as well as in Microsoft’s usability labs, helped make the final product what it is, Williams said.
The new Xbox LIVE connects people to each other – whether they’re in the same room or across the world from each other – and also connects them to the entertainment they love. Every Saturday, Williams wakes up and logs on to see what her nephews in London are up to, and using Xbox LIVE she’s able to chat with them, see what games they’re playing, and watch what shows they’re watching.
“It’s personal, and it’s magic, whether you’re five or 85 years old,” Williams said. “I am excited that we live in a world where there’s no need to learn a controller or to use a remote to change channels. People can feel passively relaxed, immersive entertained, and actively engaged, and it’s super simple and fun.”