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Kinect the Dots: Piecing Together Xbox One

Durango Unchained

So just like that the transient names are gone; Xbox 720, Durango and Infinity have all been replaced with the equally strange Xbox One. It’s always a relief at this point in the whole silly charade of console announcements to finally see what we’re in for and get at least a semblance of how this three horse race will once again play out. Yet, despite all of the rumours that have surrounded Microsoft’s new console over the past few months, seeing some of the more serious facts barely solidify in Tuesday’s announcement was, more than anything, deeply worrying. This wasn’t so much because of the content of the presentation; anyone who’s been following Microsoft’s last few E3 showings is all too aware of their obsession with Kinect and focus on multimedia functions. Thus, while the presentation was exceptionally bad at convincing us that the console was in any way good for playing games, such developments seem to be par for the course by now.

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Reports of fake applause during the conference are uncomfirmed but no less amusing.

Microsoft’s Vow of Silence

No, what was worrying was Microsoft’s apparently intentional attempts at denying us a clear impression of exactly what we’re dealing with here. There’s a stark irony in the console’s name; the ‘one’ in Xbox One suggests unification, simplicity and clarity; the confluence of various entertainment forms into one big, ugly box. This is fair enough in theory, yet in practice the impression of the console that Microsoft gave at their announcement was anything but clear. Most coverage of the Xbox One has been unified by one thing: confusion. And we’re not talking about mixing up a few details here–this is serious stuff, ranging from whether the console requires a constant internet connection, to whether it will play preowned games, to how users’ privacy will be protected in light of mandatory Kinect usage.

Answers have been provided by Microsoft in obfuscated and often ominous fragments. For instance, we now know that all games will need to be installed on the console’s 500GB hard drive but, despite Microsoft’s assertion that they intend to ‘enable customers to trade in and resell games’ they aren’t forthcoming about how exactly this will work and word of a full-price unlocking fee for second-hand games is floating around the internet. Of course Sony haven’t been clear on this issue in regard to the PlayStation 4 either and one has to wonder; with the internet’s negative reaction towards the Xbox One, how will Sony handle the issue when treading amongst the fallout of Microsoft’s bungled answers?

Big Brother is Watching You

Similarly, it’s not entirely clear how truly invasive the Kinect will be this time around. Although it has been confirmed that the sensor must be switched on in order for the console to function, a plethora of questions remain about how mandatory the device will be and how consumers’ privacy will be protected, particularly in light of claims that its microphone will always be active.

Most damning of all, however, is Microsoft’s official word on whether or not the console will require a constant internet connection. Answers have been outright contradictory, with Microsoft execs stepping on each others’ feet. First Microsoft Vice President Phil Harrison told Kotaku that the console needs to connect to the internet once every 24 hours, before Microsoft emailed Polygon to say that this was ‘only a potential scenario’ with the somewhat cold following statement: ‘we have not confirmed any details today, nor will we be.’ Most confusing of all, however, is the answer given to us courtesy of a short Q&A on the official Xbox site: ‘No, it does not have to be always connected,’ says the site, ‘but Xbox One does require a connection to the Internet.’

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Apparently this thing can now detect your heartbeat, presumably so Microsoft can send you targeted ads for life insurance when you’re about to kick the bucket.

This bizarre answer evokes some form of Orwellian Doublespeak, which is rather fitting considering the always-on-always-listening-always-watching nature of the Kinect and the fact that Xbox One’s name amusingly evokes Airstrip One, the totalitarian setting of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s almost tempting to imagine a scenario wherein an ostentatiously suited Don Mattrick shouts at you through your TV early in the morning, ordering you to do your Kinect Sports exercises. It’s a facetious comparison, sure, but from the monolithic appearance of the console itself to the sinister gaze of the new Kinect, the aesthetic of the console is anything but friendly.

Nonetheless, what this caginess suggests is that Microsoft is having trouble making the console’s features appear palatable. It’s easy to see why when you consider how its core ethos–unification, simplicity and, most importantly, control–seem to benefit Microsoft more than anyone. On the one hand it promises the consumer control and choice over their entertainment habits, but more importantly it gives Microsoft control over how they enjoy that entertainment. Of course Microsoft isn’t the first company to want to control your entertainment habits, but they are the first to stick a camera and microphone in your living room.

There have even been reports of Microsoft patenting a system that could utilise the Kinect to track the number of people simultaneously watching content on the Xbox One. If that number exceeds a threshold, then–you guessed it–they may have to pay a fee. No mention of this has been made by Microsoft themselves and as a concept it sounds like a step too far but the fact that such negative speculation is rife proves exactly why Microsoft should step in and give some clear answers.

Meet Microsoft, Your New Housemate

With the ominous doublespeak around how much freedom the consumer will have with the Xbox One’s functions, combined with news that Microsoft won’t allow indie developers to self-publish on the console, it seems that Microsoft is intent on creating the ultimate closed system. The Kinect gives them a direct conduit to the consumer, literally placing Microsoft in their living room as another member of the family. The console’s multi-faceted, all-encompassing nature provides an almost insidious level of penetration into every facet of the our entertainment and lifestyle habits, whether it be watching television or talking to their friends on Skype, all the while collecting their Xbox Live Gold fee.

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This screenshot depicts what we can only assume is some next-gen server-side fish AI in action

Furthermore, the details that Microsoft are leaving vague aren’t fun little surprises or incidental details. They are going to define the Xbox One and, more importantly, define Microsoft’s relationship with its consumers as either one of mutual symbiosis or animosity. These aren’t details to be left as bullet points at an E3 conference, they should be made crystal clear so that, frankly speaking, people know what they’re getting themselves into. After all, you really want to get to know someone before you invite them to live in your house.

What is Microsoft Playing at?

So why is Microsoft doing this? Is all the bad press worth it? In a word–probably. It’s certainly nothing new. Reports have suggested that Microsoft is internally surprised at the backlash against the Xbox One announcement. But this is rather uncharacteristic of a company that has received much the same response for their past few E3 showings. They are undoubtedly accustomed to the gaming media’s negative reaction at their shift towards a Kinect-focused, multimedia-centric model.

But it must be remembered that, for every gaming media outlet bemoaning the Xbox One announcement, there is another mainstream news site looking straight past all of its blemishes and praising its multimedia focus. Like it or not, the Xbox One isn’t aimed at those who profess themselves to be ‘gamers.’ It’s for those who are unfamiliar with–and more importantly–uninterested in the politics surrounding the games industry. The fact that Xbox One plays games is merely incidental at this point because, from a business perspective, it makes perfect sense for Microsoft to have as many fingers in as many pies as possible. It follows quite naturally that Microsoft would want to exercise as much control as possible over these revenue streams.

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Not a Lynx, Coors Light or LoveFilm advert in sight. But will it last?

For Nintendo and Sony, who are focusing more intently on the gaming side of things, the bad press Microsoft have been receiving could prove disastrous. But for Microsoft it’s merely a drop in the ocean. After all, what are a few disgruntled gamers in the face of so many concurrent revenue streams? It’s a tactic that has worked for Microsoft before. Consider Internet Explorer, one of the least stable and least compatible web browsers out there, yet also one of the most widely used. Why? Because the mass market simply doesn’t know any better–or even care–as long as Microsoft meets their basic needs.

Microsoft’s World Domination

With reports suggesting that Microsoft will take a cut of all preowned Xbox One games sold, we can see Microsoft’s model begin to solidify. If such practices somehow pass savings onto the consumer then perhaps all can be forgiven. But in reality that isn’t feasible; we need only look at the Xbox 360, where advertisements are plastered over the console’s home screen regardless of whether or not you pay for Xbox Live Gold. And now, by forcing a Kinect into every Xbox One purchase, Microsoft has guaranteed that the console itself won’t be cheap.

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Oh well, at least one good thing came out of all this.

How Microsoft will handle all this once the Xbox One is actually on shelves is still a mystery. It’s always tempting to give a new console the benefit of the doubt, but this time Microsoft have handled the situation too poorly for that to be an easy option. Their stubborn refusal in giving anyone straight answers about the machine suggests that they’re fully aware of the dangerous territory in which they’re treading. They know that many aspects of the console are outright hostile towards consumers, but they want to have their cake and eat it; a finger in every pie and complete dominion over how you’re going to enjoy it. For some (and quite possibly the Xbox One’s main demographic) this won’t represent an immediate problem, but for the videogame medium as a whole it just might. Depending entirely on how successful Microsoft’s game plan eventually turns out to be, we may be looking at a precedent for the future of the games industry–and perhaps even the entertainment industry as a whole–wherein our entertainment is controlled and fed to us through a single, console-shaped tube. Sound crazy? Perhaps, but keep in mind, although there’s a chance Nintendo and Sony might not follow a similarly draconian model right now, it must be remembered that, while history may be written by the victors, so too is the future.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in April 2010.

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