The Xbox One—Microsoft’s new console announced yesterday—will have eight times the graphical power of the last Xbox, connect to more than ten times the global servers to push content from the cloud, and deliver an Internet-integrated television experience that’s faster and more fluid than any other system we’ve seen.
But while these are all exciting ideas, they’re all just launch features of a next-generation game console. What will the Xbox One look like in, say, three to five years? Marc Whitten, Microsoft’s chief production officer of interactive entertainment, shared his vision for the future with us. And that future largely resides in a platform that his team has casually dubbed Home 2.0.
“I’m not saying it’s a good name,” Whitten laughs, indicating that it will most certainly change when the project goes public. But he imagines that Home 2.0 will allow the One to be more than an entertainment device for your living room. Rather, it could be your home’s gateway to the Internet of Things—the missing link for the inevitable future of interconnected lights, appliances, and more.
Home 2.0 may not be some official name, but the project is more than a hobby for Microsoft. Whitten points out that you can actually see its origins in Microsoft’s acquisition of id8 Group R2 Studios—specialists in home automation—earlier this year.
Home automation, of course, is a rapidly evolving idea. As dumb objects in our homes become smart, the role of home automation will become one less of window-blind opening than domestic-life coordinating. “You need those [devices] in a central hub as an experience to bring all these things together,” Whitten explains.
If Home 2.0 combines id8’s existing platform expertise with the Xbox One’s promised “open” support of third-party apps (support that hasn’t been entirely clarified just yet, but seems more in line with the Windows 8 app model), it could end up with a variety of discrete apps that represent the myriad of digital devices in our lives, all juggled underneath the central Home 2.0 umbrella.
As the dedicated homebound PC has melted away, the Xbox—tethered to your TV—will make a natural fit as a hub for these objects. A console lives predictably in one spot (unlike your laptop or your phone), it’s naturally fitted with the largest display you own (your TV), and as it’s always on—or at least one “Xbox On” verbal command away from being on—communicating with the system requires very little human commitment.
Microsoft, of course, isn’t the first to take interest in the “Internet of Things” market. Products like SmartThings are attempting to be our connected device platform for the future. But the advantages Microsoft has over most companies are, maybe a bit obviously, their supreme software and hardware expertise.
"There will never be one single protocol for connected devices," Whitten insists, citing that any such smart hub will need to speak a variety of languages. Say what you will about Microsoft, but few companies can rival its experience in pure interoperability. This is a company that has supported and networked with basically every piece of hardware under the sun for the last two decades.
And as for the issue of convincing the public to invest in such a futurist platform, “Games like Forza subsidize the experience,” he adds a few moments later, pointing out that the Xbox One will represent an embarrassment of riches in local processing, networking hardware, and cloud support. They’re the powerful by-products of the Xbox’s entertainment experience—or what I imagine as the digital equivalent of buying a Ferrari for cruising around on the weekends, but using its engine to run your washing machine during the week.
Aside from Kinect, Whitten teases a few developments that might solidify Home 2.0’s general usability. For one, SmartGlass—the Xbox-to-tablet/phone integration that came out this year—will receive a major overhaul. While no one has seen it in action yet, Whitten promises the new SmartGlass works much better than the laggy, unpredictable experience we’ve seen on the current generation of 360. And SmartGlass will allow you to control your Home 2.0 devices from a Windows, Android, or iOS device—pretty much any touch screen you have in your pocket.
Then, aside from Wi-Fi and maybe Bluetooth connectivity, Whitten alludes to a lot of potential in “advanced IR blasters” (that’s communication based on infrared, which is the same invisible light technology that lets your TV remote change the channel and the Kinect scan you in 3-D).
"I hate to use the word ‘blaster’ because it gives you a lousy image,” Whitten admits, no doubt referencing the unreliable universal remote adapters of yore. Then he shares an anecdote that when the Xbox team was first testing Kinect, the IR was so powerful that it was shutting off TVs from halfway across the office. I began to piece together the potential of Kinect (along with a few IR extenders, maybe) blanketing rooms with odorless data. And while line-of-sight limitations seem like more than a challenge to design Internet-connected devices around, I’m intrigued by the possibility. (Besides, IR has a fantastic benefit beyond all others: It requires extremely little power to operate.)
So, no, Home 2.0 won’t be available at launch, and it won’t be called Home 2.0 when it inevitably arrives on the Xbox One a few years from today. But even still, Home 2.0 has the potential to prove that the One isn’t just another video game console or entertainment device, some stubborn antique in a world gone mobile. With Home 2.0, the Xbox One is slated to become our first, widespread anchor to the promised Internet of Things. (Though, sure, it’ll play Halo, too.)
And I can’t overstate its importance: As Google tracks and anticipates our needs through search and Android, and Apple leverages countless iOS devices to learn about all of us, Microsoft has spotted its advantage over both companies in one key spot: The living room, and every bit of our domestic lives, connected to it.
[Illustration: Kelly Rakowski/Co.Design]