Microsoft had a rough go of explaining why gamers need the cloud. They are giving every gamer access to the combined power of over 300,000 servers, but why should they care? I had the unique opportunity to sit down with three Engineers from Redmond to get a little Xbox One 101.
Our Xbox One demonstration started off zoomed out and looking at the globe. Jeff Henshaw, Mike and Frank, our Microsoft Engineering team, had purpose-built several tech demos to demonstrate some of the concepts that make up the power and potential of the Xbox One.
The first tech demo was built to demonstrate the processing power of the Xbox One. Exploring the ways that the system can crunch on giant data sets, NASA had given Microsoft all of the celestial bodies down to the asteroid level all the way out to 35,000 light years from our sun. The initial render of 40,000 inter-solar system asteroids, all with their position and orbital trajectory rendered in real time, would require 10 times the processing power to compute. Thanks to the cloud architecture, they could throw far more than that at the equation. Pushing the number to over 350,000 individually computed objects by connecting the Xbox One to the limitless global cloud, they could crunch over 500,000 data updates per second, with the closest being updated locally and most often, and the furthest away being handled in the cloud. Game developers could apply this same technology, pushing items that aren’t updated often into the cloud while letting the system tackle the visible objects. These worlds could be persistent and truly ever-evolving as they can exist perpetually in the cloud. They can change, take damage, be attacked, or anything else – truly the potential to create limitless worlds that don’t power down when you log off.
The second demo, entitled Reflex, was built to showcase the new generation of Kinect sensor. With the knowledge that every Xbox One will have a Kinect in the box, you can open up new possibilities. With both hands still on the controller, the Kinect can be used to detect subtle interactions and movements thanks to the 1080p resolution of the new camera. Reflex is a first person dualstick shooter that utilizes both the Xbox One controller and natural movements to create a new experience. As we shot down targets in the Matrix-like environment, we pulled our controller upwards to raise a forcefield to block incoming fire – a natural defense mechanism seamless to the game. Tapping our temple on our right side of our head enabled a visor in the game that gave us x-ray vision to spot cloaked enemies. By leaning our body 45 degrees to the left and right, our character leaned to dodge incoming fire – our spine became another thumbstick axis for our experience. Jumping to a second level we call in artillery by making a “loading” gesture, aiming with our finger and then saying “Fire missiles”. Pointing at several enemies in sequence we were able to highlight swarms of enemies, unleashing a bevy of missiles against them with the same voice command. These instinctive augmentation of traditional controller-based gameplay had immediate implications – the Kinect just became meaningful to hardcore gamers.
Jumping from gameplay to applications, Mike McCartney from Microsoft Studios stepped up to bring NFL to the screen. Cribbed directly from their recently-launched Windows 8 OS, Mike gave us a quick look at the Snap App. Splitting the screen, we were able to watch two games at the same time. Changing to another channel, we snapped the NFL app to the right hand side of the screen to keep our score, social feeds, standings, and more on the screen as we surfed. Additionally, the app keeps track of our fantasy football team, automatically capturing highlights of the most recent runs that would affect our standing, as well as a queue of any on-demand replay of events we might find interesting. Using a nearby Smartglass device, we pushed all of that information directly to the tablet rather than interrupting the action on the big screen. The objective is simple – create an intelligent and personalized experience for the user. These services are set to launch at some point this year, so I expect we’ll see them slightly after launch.
Before we closed out this in-depth look at the power behind the system we got a chance to ask some questions of the team. The first and most important on my mind was one that you, our readers, posed – data caps. When asked, the team stated excitedly that they were building tools, APIs, data throttling monitoring, and are actively working with providers to make you aware of how, when, and where you are using that bandwidth, as well as working to actively push content as close to the user as possible. Additionally, they are working with local providers to create partnerships for TV integration. We’ll have to see how partnerships emerge as we get closer to launch.
The second question was about Fantasy Football and whether or not this would be available via Silver or if Gold would be required. They didn’t have an announcement at this time, but promised we’d know more soon. With the video below, you can bet it’s a focus:
Another question was regarding the new Kinect and the need to calibrate it. We saw in other demonstrations that the game has incredible fidelity, even in almost complete darkness. Amazingly, this is done without the need to calibrate – it’ll take care of that for you. Additionally, the range of the device has been expanded. It can see 15 feet deep and an extra two two feet higher and lower than before.
The last question for the day was on 4K resolution and whether or not there were proposed partnerships for broadcast to support this. They once again stated that they are building the hardware to embrace the brand new output level, they were very excited about it, but they couldn’t talk about it quite yet.
I came away from this demonstration feeling a lot better about the Xbox One. While they may have lost the PR portion of the show, they didn’t lose the war by any stretch. The cloud and how they intend to embrace it spells a revolutionary approach to the gaming world. It wasn’t enough to simply give us a more powerful Xbox 360 – they wanted to give us the near limitless power of a vastly-expanded infrastructure of the cloud. It’s revolutionary – far more than they’ve shown us so far- and it’s why the team at Microsoft easily earned our Best New Tech of E3 2013 award.