Microsoft kicked off its E3 press event with a Master Chief-sized bang with a Halo 4 trailer, and the exciting news did not stop there. About halfway through the event, the president of Xbox Live, Mark Whitten, stepped on stage to demonstrate a new way of interacting with the Xbox 360 that Microsoft is calling SmartGlass. An evolution of the existing Xbox Companion app for Windows Phone 7 and Windows 8, SmartGlass will allow users to interact with the Xbox using an iOS, Android, or Windows mobile device. Devices with SmartGlass technology can share media, control the Xbox, and act as a secondary display for complementary information such as media playback controls, maps in strategy games, and a touchscreen controller for the upcoming Internet Explorer browser for Xbox.
From the outset, SmartGlass appears to be an attempt to beat the Wii U’s tablet-based asymmetric gameplay to market — but in reality, once we strip out the punditry and hyperbole, Microsoft’s new tech isn’t really comparable.
In simple terms, Xbox SmartGlass is a platform for developers to build upon that allows them to tap into displays and inputs from sources beyond the Xbox 360 itself. Microsoft is encouraging partners to bring together all those bits of hardware to enhance functionality with games and in other Dashboard apps. The company used the E3 event to demonstrate what is possible with its new platform, but the only Microsoft-developed software that users will get their hands on is Internet Explorer for Xbox. Beyond that, it is up to third party developers to tap into their imaginations and push the boundaries of the “Xbox 360 experience.” SmartGlass opens the doors to lots of possibilities for more control and immersion with just about everything users can do with an Xbox, including watching movies, listening to music, playing games, browsing the web, and interacting with the Xbox Dashboard and its apps.
PC gamers have had multi-display gaming readily available for several years now, and before Nvidia Surround and AMD Eyefinity brought multiple displays under a single canvas to be used as one large screen, gamers used the secondary display(s) to house chat or VOIP clients, in-game maps, and other related information while gaming on the primary display. Microsoft’s SmartGlass is bringing similar functionality to the Xbox, but instead of another TV or monitor, it harnesses smaller displays in users’ mobile computers and smartphones. In a way, this is a better approach for Xbox as it allows developers to not only have a second (or third, or forth) display to play around with, but it also provides access to touchscreen inputs and internal sensors like accelerometers.
The example that Microsoft provided during its E3 keynote was new functionality in a Madden football game, which would allow gamers to use a touchscreen device to draw up plays and then run them, while also playing the game using a controller. For the most part, SmartGlass devices are not meant to be a replacement of the Xbox 360 controller. Rather, it’s meant to be a supplementary input device for areas where the controller isn’t well-suited (like drawing plays or typing). Other possibilities include using secondary screens for codex pages (like those in Mass Effect and Dragon Age); menus; game maps; and more pixel space for additional game and/or character stats. In that vein, Microsoft showed off a SmartGlass device being used to display additional information on the Halo 4 UNSC ship Infinity. Then, the Xbox tossed a Xbox Live friend request up on the SmartGlass display without interrupting the game on the main display. From there, Mark Whitten was able to accept the friend request and enter a multiplayer match, all without breaking out of the game.
Having more screen space and additional input methods will allow users to get more immersed in games and have more control using the best input for the situation, whether it’s voice, touch, gesture, or the traditional Xbox controller. Some sites have suggested that the SmartGlass technology is a response to the Wii U’s secondary display, but it seems to me to be a natural evolution for the Xbox 360 by integrating all platforms of Microsoft devices (computers, tablets, smartphones) into one cohesive beast. Microsoft’s PC system has had mutli-display gaming for years, and it is now the console platform’s turn. Further, game developers now have the opportunity to integrate not only Kinect gesture and voice input but touchscreen, GPS, accelerometer and other sensor data.
Although primarily a gaming machine, in recent years Microsoft has been pushing the multimedia capabilities of the Xbox 360. Everything from the music and video applications to television programming are available on the Xbox 360. SmartGlass takes that functionality even further by allowing the Xbox to play streamed video from mobile devices and Windows 8 computers — functionality that was hinted at with the “Play on Xbox” option in the music and video applications in the Windows 8 Consumer and Release Preview builds — allowing you to carry your media in a portable form while watching it on the big screen. Further, SmartGlass works the opposite way by using secondary displays as remote controls (play, pause, rewind, fast forward) and context-sensitive informational displays. For example, the Xbox will be able to present actor information, plot explanations, maps, and other content on your tablet or smartphone while the TV show or movie is playing on the TV.
Considering people already use smartphones and tablets while watching TV at home to browse the web, allowing those devices and the Xbox to share information with each other is a smart move. Also, the ability to seamlessly stream and control media playback is something that other technologies (such Intel’s WiDi, for example) have so far failed to provide.
Navigation and web browsing
The final demonstration showed the changes SmartGlass has made to navigation. Users can now use touchscreen devices to control and navigate around the Xbox Dashboard. This represents yet another method to control the Xbox in addition to voice, gestures, and the Xbox controller — and it looks very promising. So promising in fact that Microsoft has decided that it’s time to try its hand at delivering the internet on the TV screen (again) -– for the first time on the gaming console. Thus, Internet Explorer for Xbox was born. Using Kinect voice commands and a touchscreen-equipped tablet or mobile phone, users are able to navigate the internet. Except for the voice input, navigating the web on the Xbox’s browser is the same as on a mobile phone. Users are able to click on links, pinch to zoom, and watch videos using the browser. Your Xbox displays the website on the TV screen while allowing cursor–and gestures–control using the touchscreen as a touchpad.
Competing consoles such as the PlayStation 3 and Wii have had web browsers for years, but Microsoft has held out, and for good reason. Navigating the web using controllers is a pain, and needing a keyboard console accessory (that generally can’t be used to control games) is a big barrier to entry. Microsoft tried a long time ago with MSN TV (WebTV) to make it work but people did not like it. However, smartphone and other touchscreen devices are now common and they do represent a portable keyboard and mouse that will give Microsoft the best chance possible for Xbox IE to catch on.
SmartGlass helps to keep the Xbox relevant
The Xbox 360 has now been on the market for seven years, and a lot has changed technology-wise. While Nintendo is on the cusp of releasing the Wii U, Sony and Microsoft’s next-gen hardware platforms aren’t coming any time soon. As a result, Microsoft has a lot of pressure to keep the Xbox 360 relevant. Kinect has helped to extend its life in the form of new games and features, and SmartGlass is going to further that goal by giving developers yet another avenue of technologies to pursue when creating new games despite the aging hardware.
Even if the number of new games do start to drop off, Microsoft is banking on its multimedia features to keep customers engaged (and subscribed to Xbox Live) with new cable TV apps, its set-top-box feature with AT&T U-Verse, and streaming music and video applications. SmartGlass is a platform that will certainly help Microsoft to differentiate the Xbox from other living room streaming boxes like the Roku, Apple TV, and even the competing consoles. At the very least, it provides new options and alternative input methods and should it catch on it could change the way games and media are played on consoles.