When Microsoft revealed its next-generation video game system last year, it barely mentioned video games. The company spent the first half of its hour-long event speaking to a broader audience: anyone who watches TV.
Microsoft wants its new Xbox – called the Xbox One – to be the digital heart of your living room. The set-top box can juggle live television, Web browsing, streaming movies, music, Skype video calls, and games – and hop from one to another through voice commands. No remote control required.
"The living room has changed radically over the last eight years with the addition of the 'cloud'-powered Internet, voice and gesture, and more devices," said Don Mattrick, Microsoft's former head of interactive entertainment, at the system's unveiling in Redmond, Wash. The company has since rolled out an full lineup of games, but it still brags that its box can do so much more.
Every Xbox One comes with a Kinect, Microsoft's camera and microphone peripheral. The device can recognize voice and motion controls. For example, the company imagines you walking into your living room and, instead of reaching for the remote, saying "Xbox on." Kinect has learned to distinguish your voice and physique from those of the rest of your family, so it pulls up a personalized home page.
From there, Microsoft wants you to shout out requests: "Xbox, watch ESPN." "Xbox, go to Internet Explorer." Or, by reaching out with your hands and grabbing the imaginary borders of the TV image, you can shrink the size of the cable sports network and have Microsoft's Web browser open in a sidebar. This way, you could watch your favorite team while eyeing fantasy football statistics at the same time.
Many companies have tried these all-in-one entertainment boxes before. Most have flopped. But Microsoft's move may be a sign of the times. Nintendo released its next-generation system, the Wii U, in November to disappointing sales. In an age when games live on smart phones, tablets, and social networks, the market for high-powered and high-priced console games may be constricting.
There's also precedent for companies using home-theater features to sell video game systems to nongamers. In 2000, Sony's PlayStation 2, which played both games and DVDs, debuted at a price below that of many stand-alone DVD players. In 2006, Sony bragged about the PlayStation 3's top-of-the-line Blu-ray player. Maybe the Xbox One can fill that roll for online video.