The Xbox One's reinvention of television, both hyped and heckled for months, will begin with a baby step, if a recent demonstration of the November console's impact on live sports broadcasts is any indication.
At a fancy rented loft in Manhattan last week, Microsoft reps showed me the incremental progress they are making with the Xbox One and its TV and sports offerings.
The grand vision, forecast last May at the console's reveal event at Microsoft's campus in Redmond, Washington, would position your TV as an all-in-one data display—a voice-controlled, split-screen windshield through which a viewer could see their favorite TV shows, track their fantasy basketball or football teams, and Skype with friends.
The reality as of late August, when I was shown what Microsoft has on tap for sports fans for Xbox One, is that the new console will be able to use a combination of its connection to the Internet and its HDMI-in port to crudely simulate the notion of watching interactive TV. It's not as complex as hoped for, not as tightly integrated. It's actually all pretty simple and hopefully a prelude to something more impressive.
Using the console's Internet connection, the Xbox One will be able to run data-rich NFL and ESPN apps that are stuffed with video highlights, news tickers and personalized player and team info. These applications are beefed up versions of the kinds of apps, ESPN included, that have been on Xbox 360. Here's the ESPN one:
The NFL Xbox One app has three components. It shows the NFL Network on the left, pulls in a feed of NFL Red Zone highlights on the top right along with stats and displays a feed of a user's NFL.com fantasy team's stats. Any highlights coming through the app will go live in the app at the same time that they go live on NFL.com.
All of the stats, streams and data I was shown are also available on NFL.com, a Microsoft rep confirmed to me during my demo. To my eyes, the choice being offered at the moment is whether to see that stuff on a TV screen instead of on a web browser on a laptop, tablet or phone. But, the rep said, a Microsoft partnership with the NFL will eventually feed exclusive NFL content to Microsoft devices, which I inferred to include not just the Xbox One but Windows platforms, Surface and other stuff.
It's not very impressive to see an ESPN or NFL app running on a TV screen, but the Xbox One is capable of a cooler feat than that. Distinguishing itself from other consoles, it has an HDMI-in which lets a user plug in a cable box or, perhaps, even another console (PS3? Wii U? Xbox 360?) to send a video and audio signal through the Xbox One and onto a TV. In theory and in practice, the Xbox One can do things with that signal or, as I was shown during the sports demo, at least in concert with that signal. That should lead to the ability to make content emanating from a cable box—such as an NFL game—feel more interactive. But here there is only the aforementioned baby step.
In the demo I was shown, the Xbox One ran the NFL fantasy app down the right side of a TV screen, allowing other content—presumably an NFL game from a cable box or a TV show or a game spinning out from the Xbox One's gaming processors—to run on the left. The content I was shown on the left was Halo 4, a peculiar choice given that Halo 4 is an Xbox 360 game and that Xbox Ones are supposedly not able to play Xbox 360 games. I was told that Halo 4 was chosen strictly for demonstration purposes and that I shouldn't draw any conclusions about Halo 4's compatibility with Xbox One. Fair enough, though the fact that my demonstrations were running on large pieces of hardware shrouded in black cloth and not on the Xbox Ones in the room—they too appeared to be just for show—led me to think that I wasn't seeing much of a "real" Xbox One experience. That's no great tragedy in August for a November console, but it is a reminder of how cobbled-together a new console's experiences can feel close to launch.
Halo 4 ran on the left, shrunk a little but in its native aspect ratio. The fantasy football ran on the right. One of the new verbs with Xbox One is "snap," and one of the main things to do with the Xbox One is to instantly snap apps in and out of the right side of the TV to mix and match with gaming and TV signals coming in or being generated on the left. You can blow up either the TV show or the app to full screen. You can change either thing on either side, though it wasn't clear how swiftly you can change the signal on the left side of the screen from a full game to a TV show being fed through a cable box.
The vision Microsoft is presenting and that appears to be shown in the official images released with today's news and included in this article is one of 21st-century, interactive, annotated TV. Imagine watching an NFL game and seeing the stats for the game all pop up as they happen, but in an interactive way that a viewer can cycle through and affect.
But it's all really more of a magic trick right now. The TV signal that comes through the HDMI-in port seems to be, for now, unchanged and unaffected by the Xbox One. It's passing through. It doesn't communicate with the apps that can also run on the machine. The apps don't communicate with it, not yet, not as it's been shown. The NFL app that's spitting out fantasy stats is pulling them from the Internet. The NFL app's Red Zone highlight stream can be seen picture-in-picture while a game is running on the left, which is cool, but the Red Zone part of the app can't tell the cable box that the Xbox One is connected to to change the channel. If the user changes the channel, the app doesn't know that and doesn't, say, flip to displaying stats for the NFL game that the cable signal just changed to. The TV signals and the apps sit side-by-side. They do not layer on top of each other. They don't integrate.
In May, Microsoft showed one other part of their vision for interactive TV sports. They showed a feature that triggered pop-up alerts tied to an Xbox One user's favorite players. In an NBA-related example, an alert popped up on top of a broadcast of a basketball game. The alert said that a player from the user's fantasy team had just scored, which compelled the system user to pull up a fantasy app and see how that affected their standing in their fantasy league. That feature, which also—educated guess here—probably doesn't actually pull any data from a cable signal but instead snags it from the Internet, won't launch until next year, a Microsoft rep said.
When the Xbox 360 launched, the console's Achievements system was crudely-implemented. They got better with iterations of the system's firmware and with the efforts of game creators to tailor Achievements for the 360's system. The machine's Netflix app wasn't perfect at the start either.
These things take time, effort and iteration.
The same may be true for the Xbox One's planned reinvention of how we watch sports on TV and how we watch TV in general. There's an extra wrinkle this time, of course. It's not just game makers that Microsoft has to work with. It has to work with sports leagues that control their games' content. It has to work with cable providers to get more than a cable signal that dumbly passes through the Xbox One. What I was shown last week felt primitive. It felt like barely a first move.
There's an interesting destination for the console to get to, if live TV remains as relevant as Microsoft seems to think it is and if sports continues to be a thing people want to see on their TV (the latter's a safe bet!), but all we're getting for launch is a baby step.