Microsoft’s product design process is best described as formidable.
Over the past few years, during which the Xbox One was being designed and prototyped, the company has made huge investment in “user research” - essentially, giant labs where they can watch people play with and respond to things and gather vast amounts of data. The Xbox One is a product of this process; its controller went through over 1000 pairs of hands before its design was finalised.
At the beginning, though, there were some really out-there ideas for what the Xbox One could look like. Carl Ledbetter, the head of the console’s design team, recently shared some interesting details about how the Xbox One came to be - and about the hundreds of prototypes that never did.
The visual idea that the Xbox One design team based the console upon was that of an HD TV, which was embraced as a symbol of “entertainment” - the console was intended to reflect that both in its physical form and its user interface, hence all the rectangular designs. “These are some of the original sketches and ideas that the team started to put together on the form,” says Carl. “You can start to see some of the ideas about how the vent pattern might be, how 16:9 ratio might manifest itself in the design.”
A lot of effort went into that vent, it turns out. “We built over 75 of the vent patterns,” Carl says. “In order for the console to be very quiet and run at a cool temperature, the vents had to be there. Because the vent is so much of the character of the form, we spent a lot of time creating a vent pattern that would look good and perform well.”
As for the form of the box itself, it wasn’t always going to be that black rectangle. In the early stages, the team prototyped everything from futuristic spheres to to bizarre, Sydney Opera House-esque curves. “We started off with the craziest ideas - we had one that looked like an aircraft carrier. We even had a conceptual artist to come in and inspire us with mad shapes that almost looked like they were from the Marvel universe,” Carl remembers. “What if we could express games and content in a completely different way? What could that be?
“Where our studio is in Redmond, right across the street we have a model shop… I think we built over 100 of these models, ranging from being machined out of foam to 3D printed prototypes. The model shop guys would have to find a way to make all these models overnight, they’d bring in piles of them every morning. We’d lay them all out, everyone would gather round and start evaluating them.”
I don’t know about you, but looking at this image of crazy Xboxes, I’m almost disappointed that it ended up as a black rectangle. The reason that happened, predictably, was practicality. “There are the craziest shapes, but what we found is that when we started fitting in the realities of things like circuit boards and chips and fans and things like that, the more extraneous the shapes are, particularly rounded shapes, the more air we’re packing in to fit in the components,” Carl says. “It’s really an exercise in efficiency… how could we create the most efficient console that still had shape and form?”
By the time the next generation of consoles comes around - if there is one - perhaps we’ll be able to fit all the components into a tiny space, and there will be no practical considerations limiting the shape of the actual box. Then, maybe, we could play on something that looks like this. THAT would be the future.
Keza MacDonald is Kotaku UK’s Editor and has very distinctive hair. Follow her on Twitter, if you’re into that.