E3: Xbox One Looks Beyond Games
Microsoft's new console, the Xbox One, will function as a comprehensive entertainment center.
When Microsoft first revealed the Xbox One, it faced some backlash for its lack of focus on games. In response, game announcements dominated the Xbox One's E3 presence. The system can still do much more than play games, though, and three tech demos at E3 showed some of the device's potential.
Microsoft's first demo showed a photo of the Earth floating in space. The presenters zoomed out to reveal that a user could explore the entire solar system in intricate detail. Not only did the program display pictures of planets and other celestial bodies, but it could show their speed and trajectory as well.
To create this program, Microsoft went to NASA and requested comprehensive, accurate orbital data for all of the planets and asteroids in our solar system, as well as a number of stars beyond.
The Xbox One displayed a moving image of more than 40,000 asteroids in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. This was not a video from NASA, but rather a projection calculated by the console based on NASA's data. Although 40,000 asteroids were visible in the view onscreen, the system was actually calculated simultaneous trajectories for 300,000 asteroids — requiring the processing equivalent of ten Xbox 360s.
With an online connection (the Xbox One requires a broadband connection of at least 1.5 Mbps), the system could outsource data processing to the cloud. With this kind of power, the Xbox One achieved over 800,000 updates per second, calculating an almost perfect facsimile of the full asteroid belt.
Microsoft believes that this realistic environment simulation will have applications in games. Instead of building finite levels that suspend themselves when users log off, developers could harness the cloud to create infinite worlds that experience weather and the passage of time persistently.
The second tech demo was the only "game" of the three, although it exists only to showcase some finer points of the new Kinect and will never see a full release. "Reflex," a first-person shooter, demonstrated how the Kinect can be used to augment traditional games rather than replace a controller entirely.
In the first level, the presenter faced off against a number of laser-shooting drones. Microsoft found that FPS (first-person shooter) players will instinctively raise their controllers to their chest when opponents shoot at them. In "Reflex," raising the controller also raises a shield to block enemy fire. In order to tackle invisible drones, the presenter activated x-ray vision by tapping the side of his head. [See also: The 10 Most Stunning Video Games]
The second level demonstrated how the Kinect essentially treats the human spine as a third analog stick. Microsoft discovered that while playing racing games, users tend to lean in the same direction they turn their cars. In "Reflex," leaning slightly to one side allowed the presenter to strafe a little more quickly. Leaning all the way allowed him to dash to the side even more quickly than a controller could.
In the last level of "Reflex," the presenter targeted a number of aerial opponents by pointing his finger at them. When he said "fire missiles," a fiery barrage rained down on the enemies, leaving him free to focus on a ground assault.
Finally, the presenters discussed how programmers could incorporate multitasking into watching TV with the Xbox One's "Snap" feature. In the demo, the presenter turned on an NFL game, then switched over to "Game of Thrones" by saying "change the channel."
Even after the game disappeared, he could still monitor its progress by "Snapping" an NFL app to the side of the screen. This displayed game scores, and notified him of any game-changing highlights. The app could even display instant replays without interrupting "Game of Thrones" and monitor his fantasy football team to inform him of any important developments about his players in real time.
Since Snap features work with games as well as TV, Microsoft believes that it might help frustrated players get through games more easily. Snapping a YouTube tutorial or walkthrough for a difficult part of a game is much easier than consulting a second device or having to exit the game and launch a separate Xbox app.
Given how Microsoft has split its time between discussing games and non-games for the Xbox One, it's hard to say what the device's primary purpose is: a game machine or an augmented television. Either way, it will have plenty of power and flexibility to accomplish its goal.