The current UI is a bit different from this concept shown off earlier, but it gives you a general idea of the flavor of things.
At the Tokyo Game Show this week, Microsoft showed off an early demo of the Xbox One's revamped user interface. The demo was behind closed doors and the live beta testing code being shown was "not even close to final," according to Microsoft Director of Product Planning Albert Penello. But it still showed off what Microsoft is calling a chance to start over and remove some of the cruft that has accumulated as the Xbox 360 interface bloated up over the years.
"The 360 got a lot of features added to it unexpectedly," Penello said, "so there were reasons we had to do things in the dash because we didn't anticipate the way things were going to work in 2005 when you had the blades [as the Xbox 360 tabs were originally called]. So now we've been able to reset that and dramatically simplify it."
"Simple" is a good word for the Xbox One interface. Rather than explicitly separating features into different tabs as on the Xbox 360, the menu is now a grid of square and rectangular items that scrolls as a continuous horizontal line. It's a setup that will be immediately comfortable to anyone who has used Windows 8 or Windows Phone 8, and the explicit similarities are designed to provide "familiarity" to many users, Penello said.
In general, the top level of the Xbox One menu feels a lot less cluttered than the Xbox 360's dashboard. For instance, the friends tab has been removed and replaced with a dedicated app that users can load up to see what their connections are doing. The top level of the Marketplace is now contained on a single screen that links to sub-stores for Games, Movies, Music, and Apps.
There are a couple of columns for settings options and an area for "pinned" favorites, a "main" screen showing your current and recent apps and games, and a small "What's New" section highlighting some recently added content. That's all there is to it; it's very clean and sparse.
There is no more pop-up "Xbox guide" when you tap the Xbox button on the controller, either. The system instead pops right back to the home screen, where your current app or game can be seen still running, live, in a large rectangular box. That app will continue running in the background even when you open up another; the system can handle up to four apps and one game running in active memory before it needs to start shutting stuff down.
This multitasking capability allows for extremely quick switching back and forth between different tasks; when Penello said "Xbox Friends," the system took a brief moment to interpret his words and then flipped to the friends list app almost instantly.
The exception to this is when you switch from playing one game to playing another. Only one game can run in memory at a time, so the system gives a buffer of a few seconds between these switches to allow users to cancel the switch instead of accidentally ending a play session (and to prevent your little brother from griefing you by running in and shouting voice commands).
PORTABLE SETTINGS, LOCAL FACIAL RECOGNITION
Penello made special note during our demo that we were running on a box that Microsoft happened to have lying around in Japan, yet all of his personal settings were easily accessible through the cloud. Everything from his Gamertag and friend notifications to his pinned favorites, saved games, and purchased apps were automatically downloaded onto the new machine in the background. All he needed to do was log in with a Microsoft Live ID—there was no lengthy "recover profile" download like the one required on the Xbox 360, he said.
The one exception to this rule is the Xbox One's Kinect facial recognition features, which can be use to automatically log players in to their Xbox Live accounts. That data is stored locally on each machine and is not transferable via the cloud, a decision that Penello said was much debated inside Microsoft.
"We're about 50/50 on that, and we decided to take the more conservative course," he said. "We've had a lot of people ask us if we can do that. We also know that a lot of people are concerned with privacy, we hear the jokes, so we don't actually store any of your personal physical information in the cloud—that is stored locally on the console… We know that some people have asked for that, but we don't do it."
Microsoft showed a simple demo game (similar to the tabletop marble-rolling game Labyrinth) that continued to run at 60 frames per second even as more apps were added to run in the background. This was meant to show that gaming doesn't take a performance hit when other apps are running simultaneously, but it was hard to tell from the demo just how well this will hold up in the real world.
Aside from quick switching, Xbox One also allows for more active multitasking—running Xbox Music in the background while playing a game, for instance, or "snapping" an app to a thin column on the side of the screen, Windows 8-style. In the latter case, the primary game screen becomes letterboxed in the larger area, which could get annoying when used for a long time. I can see snapping being useful for quick functions like starting a gameplay recording or calling up a check of your friends list without actually interrupting the game.
Though Penello was holding a controller, he mostly used voice commands to do everything from opening apps to snapping them to the side. He had to repeat himself once, but for the most part the Kinect microphone understood him quickly and accurately, at least in the somewhat idealized demo environment. The development version of the UI shows a "confidence" score for the voice recognition every time a command is offered—as a percentage, this scored in the high 90s every time during our demo (this confidence display will not be in the final release, Penello assured me).
The Xbox One UI also supports Kinect-based hand gestures, of course, which seem much more streamlined and integrated than on the Xbox 360. You wave your open-palmed hand in front of the screen to get a little pointer icon that creates a gentle highlighting effect over whatever option is underneath it. Close your hand into a fist to grab the interface and drag it left or right, or push your palm forward to gently select an option, as if you were pushing an oversized button. The additional sensitivity of the new Kinect seems put to good use here, though I'm still not sure I'd want to hold my arm up to control the system for extended periods of time.
Microsoft also showed off how the Kinect will use an IR blast to control the volume of the TV or basic controls like play, pause, and fast forward on a DVR. Though the IR blaster is on the front face of the Kinect, the signal bounced off the walls and back to the TV behind it when Penello said "Xbox Mute" in our demo. I have to admit, I can see using that particular feature a lot rather than fumbling around for a TV remote while holding an Xbox controller.
While it's hard to get a good sense of how an interface really works in practice from a short, hands-off demo, the Xbox One interface I saw seems clean, polished, and tightly focused. Throwing out most everything Xbox 360 users find familiar and replacing it with a Windows 8-inspired design is a bold choice, but it's one that I think will pay off for Xbox One users in the long run.
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Xbox One interface a clean slate inspired by Windows 8
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