A new source e-mails me several days ago. The source has access to a development kit for the next Xbox 360—the codenamed Durango. Accurately describes the look of the new controller, but mentions something he's confused about. The Durango he's seen doesn't just send a signal out through an HDMI port (that's normal). It has an HDMI-in. That's not normal.
Another source backs this port thing up—as does an official Microsoft document we were leaked some time ago which sketched out the "retail system block diagram."
HDMI ports are used for consoles transmit high-quality video and audio signals, usually from the console to a TV and/or surround-sound system. But current consoles haven't needed to receive an HDMI signal. Why would a Durango?
It could be a game development/prototype-hardware thing, though it's an open question what special need a game developer would need with an HDMI-in. Plus, the diagram we'd seen earlier this year indicated the retail machine would have one. (See above) The new source assumes that, since Xbox 360 development kits were nearly physically identical to Xbox 360s, Durangoes should be, too.
So the better question worth asking is, what would we—gamers, regular people—need with an HDMI in?
Cue Tom Warren, tech site The Verge's ace reporter on all things Microsoft (he's got a very good track record with this stuff). This afternoon, he reported:
Multiple sources familiar with the company's Xbox plans have revealed to The Verge that Microsoft will introduce a feature that lets its next-generation console take over a TV and set-top box in a similar way to Google TV. We understand that the next Xbox will require an online connection to use the entertainment services, allowing them to be always-on for streaming and access to TV signals.
The functionality will work by taking a cable box signal and passing it through to the Xbox via HDMI, allowing Microsoft's console to overlay a UI and features on top of an existing TV channel or set-top box... Extended support for various cable services will be rolled out gradually...
Now that? Yeah, that'd be a good thing to use an HDMI-in for.
Microsoft's interest in using the Durango to enhance TV-viewing also tracks with information our own secrets-digger Superannuation presented this morning:
A profile of the Video Cognition team on Microsoft's career portal hints at how the VideoSurf tech will be applied to the [next-gen] Xbox platform. One Video Cognition engineer reveals that the team's aims are "to radically change the way we watch TV," and to leverage advances in gestural and voice control to "streamline the way viewers search, consume, and share content, minimizing the time spent searching for programs, while maximizing the viewing and sharing capacities." Additionally, a recent job posting described Video Cognition as "one of the most strategic assets at Microsoft," and the team is "building scalable services that enable magic scenarios for tens of millions of users worldwide."
This could possibly suggest that the new Xbox will somehow integrate television content in a more meaningful manner (Netflix/TiVo-esque recommendations based on content analysis, maybe?), and perhaps lend credence to the constant rumors that Microsoft's vision is a bit more broad than a mere games machine.
This is all very interesting, but is that Verge report by Warren also a glimmer of hope up there that maybe this always-online stuff might just be for video services and therefore not be mandatory for playing games?
Warren has said that he believes Durango's always-online requirement is for the console, but not necessarily to play games. (If that confuses you, you're not alone. Unless always-online is an optional mode, a la the Wii's 24/7 mode, it's not clear how the former wouldn't become a requirement for the latter). He also said on Monday "nobody knows how this always online Xbox stuff works," referring to non-Microsoft folks, obviously.
We're still waiting for any good source of our own to tell us always-online isn't for games. Since our report last week about top sources saying the Durango needs an online connection to start games and apps, we've heard from yet another gaming industry source who says the requirement is for games—and yet another who says they simply haven't heard one way or the other. All these people would be in a position to know, but not necessarily be in a position to have to know, not yet, not at this stage in the console's gestation. We continue to allow for the possibility that Microsoft may—or has—changed their plans, which would make more sense than multiple sources for multiple outlets being so far off the mark.
It sure would be nice, albeit confusing, to hear a trusted source (or Microsoft, god forbid) say that always-online isn't required for starting games and apps. For now, we'll just keep trying to put the pieces together as best we can and keep you posted as we do.