What to expect from the Xbox One’s interface

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While Sony showed off its PlayStation 4 User Interface during its Gamescom conference, Microsoft has been a little bit more coy about publicly releasing details of how it all looks, feels and works on the Xbox One. That really hasn’t changed, but I did get to see it in a behind-closed-doors session at Gamescom yesterday. The interface, how Kinect works with it all, the built in video capture capabilities. All of that. And I walked out actually a little bit impressed.

Demoing the rather far from being final dashboard, Senior Director Product Management and Planning at Xbox, Albert Penello ran us through the interface.

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As you’d expect, the interface has that flat, Windows 8 Metro look to it; tiles, thin fonts and exactly zero curved lines. It’s just far less colourful, sticking to that lumo green we’ve come to associate with the Xbox brand.   It actually looks a heck of a lot like the current 360 dashboard, just a lot more simplified – making it easier to navigate. The top level., your home, as I mentioned before looks like a cleaner, more streamlined version of the current dashboard. Navigating left will give you system settings and apps – along with your pinned favourites , while a jump to the right grants access to a simplified store for media and games.

Once Albert stepped in front of the Kinect sensor, the system recognised him and signed him in  – and then reconfigured the dashboard to his preferences – pulled from the magical cloud. It really took very little time at all, and it was done through no prompting on Penello’s side. It’s actually pretty impressive – and the system will allow for up to 6 people to be signed in at any time, switching to the active player on the fly just through facial recognition. Switching between signed-in players on the current Xbox is a bit of an awkward affair, and this makes that all go away.

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Anyway, once it had recognised Penello, we could see his rather paltry Gamerscore, displaying recent achievements and a list of those fancy new dynamic ones that developers can throw in to games even after they’ve shipped. You can also see the achievements your friends have acquired. On that topic, there’s now a new friends system that’s a little Twitter-esque in how it’s done. While you can still have your friends, now increased to 1000, you can also have followers; a nigh unlimited number of people who can track your achievements, but aren’t really the sort you’d consider friends.

We then got to see the next-generation Kinect working on navigating the system – and it really works as advertised. During a gameplay segment of a tech demo, Penello screamed out “Xbox, Record that” and that last bit of gameplay was automatically recorded. The Xbox continually buffers and stores the last 30 seconds of whatever you’re playing in 20p at 30fps, ready for your voice. “Xbox snap upload,” he bellowed,  and the game continued, joined in a panel on the right that allowed for a more robust recording; up to 5 minutes of play. All of which can be edited on the console and uploaded to that damned magical cloud.

For all you “Let’s play” folk, this won’t be of much use to you unfortunately, as we confirmed that it would only be shared to your profile in the sky, and be watchable by your friends. You wouldn’t for example, be able to export that video to YouTube or Twitch. That “snap” feature though, works with just about every app, so saying “Xbox snap Netflix” for example, and you’d have the game you were playing shown side-by-side with that wonderful streaming service.

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The voice commands can also be used to switch between games – but you won’t be caught off-guard by little shits shouting random commands in to throw you out of games and kill your progress. It’s got a slight, but intentional delay, allowing you to dismiss erroneous commands. We also got to see a proof-f concept game that used Kinect, and I was actually pretty impressed with the speed at which it picked up movement. In this concept, a shooter, certain enemies could only be seen when a visor was engaged and when Penello put his hand to the side of his had, as if to press an invisible button on his temple, the world view instantly shifted to one that showed the previously invisible enemies. It was as close to instant as it could be, really – and something I could genuinely see as able to add immersion to games. Not make them better, per se – but certainly more immersive.

Another thing we saw that I had absolutely no idea was actually a thing is that the Kinect functions as a crazy infra-red blaster as well. Pre-matched via code to a TV, amp or other deice that uses infra red, Kinect voice commands can actually be used as a vocal remote for your other devices as well. “Xbox Mute,” Penello said, and the TV’s volume was nixed. Penello says that the IR signal the Kinect outputs is so strong that it really doesn’t matter where in the room your devices are – even if they’re above or below the Kinect unit, or separated from it by shelves it’ll work.

It was still a little buggy, but the Xbox One interface really does seem to work as advertised. And it wasn’t a canned demonstration either; it was running on an actual, near-final Xbox One unit. As a final note; this session was at the very end of the day, and the Xbox unit, which had been running all day long, was still quiet, with little heat or noise output from the fans.

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Geoffrey Tim

I'm old, grumpy and more than just a little cynical. One day, I found myself in possession of a NES, and a copy of Super Mario Bros 3. It was that game that made me realise that games were more than just toys to idly while away time - they were capable of being masterpieces. I'm here now, looking for more of those masterpieces.

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