"This is the time we’ll always remember for the rest of our lives. Entertainment is being more transformed than it’s ever been. What I spend all my time thinking about is, with so much content streaming into the living room, how can we make that experience natural enough that people will enjoy it?" That’s Marc Whitten. He’s the head visionary behind Xbox Live. And in an era when Microsoft is facing living room competition from, not just Sony and Nintendo, but Google and Apple, he’s been assigned a preposterous task of keeping an aging console platform competitive with whatever Tokyo, Cupertino, and Mountain View could announce next.
In light of this impossible competition, Microsoft’s new strategy for the Xbox 360 is both shocking and totally obvious. It’s called SmartGlass, and while Sony, Google, Nintendo, and Apple are all presenting walled-garden products, SmartGlass will welcome them all with open arms. (Well, those that have open APIs, at least.)
SmartGlass will be an app for iOS, Android, and Windows 8 devices—connecting up to four devices simultaneously to an Xbox 360. You load it, and the app syncs with your Xbox 360 and the Live cloud. From there, SmartGlass can let you touch-navigate around your dashboard like a Wi-Fi remote, but that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. In apps like HBO Go, SmartGlass will provide an entire second screen of content—not just DVD extras, but dynamic content like revealing a map of Westeros that tracks the location of each scene in Game of Thrones in real time.
Since SmartGlass can stream data from the 360 or the cloud, the bounds of content are limited only by the imagination of the Internet. "Look at all the reality or sort of music shows on TV, and think about how that content can be augmented by having deeply synchronized simple experiences," Whitten teases. Immediately my mind buzzes with the first successful integration of all those TV 2.0 scenarios we’ve been promised for decades, like playing along with Jeopardy from the couch, only to be interrupted when Alex Trebek knocks on your door with a giant check.
But the brilliance of SmartGlass isn’t just that it’s capable, it’s that the experience always configures itself passively. "Entertainment is there for people to relax," maintains Whitten. So SmartGlass isn’t filled with menus and app icons; instead, it just auto-propagates content to correlate with anything on the 360.
The other, loosely related capability of SmartGlass is that it’s Microsoft’s long-sought solution to browsing the web from a TV. The 360 will be getting a version of Internet Explorer that will be clickable through the trackpad-like controls of a tablet. And maybe more importantly, iPads/iPhones, however ducking flawed their keyboards may be, may finally solve the problem of typing from the couch.
"I’ve worked on text input in the living room for literally a decade now. I can talk about more reasons on why it won’t work than anybody," Whitten tells us. "Meanwhile, I have this phone, and I actually use the keyboard on that phone to write hundreds of text messages a day. Why can’t I use the same mechanism I use all day [on the couch at night]?"
That basic philosophy—"Why can’t I use the same mechanism?"—is the driving force behind SmartGlass. It’s consumer-friendly because no one has to buy another controller that’s clearly a crappy iPad knockoff. It’s user-friendly because many UI elements will mimic whatever device you already own. And it’s a digital coup, as Microsoft is enlisting the hundreds of millions of touch-screen devices sold by their competitors to innovate their own platform.
But most importantly of all? SmartGlass will keep TV a relatively lazy experience. Because while I may want to choose who gets the Bachelor’s next rose, I sure don’t want to find myself out in a field picking it.