From Kinect motion controls, to voice commands and now SmartGlass, Microsoft is on a crusade to transform the living room into a fluid locus of home entertainment, with Xbox Live right at the center. But does anything set this new second-screen app apart from the crowd?
For one, SmartGlass isn’t just an app. Like anything bent on success in a modern ecosystem that’s oversaturated with software, it’s also a platform. Blending Apple’s AirPlay shared-screen approach with Nintendo’s two-screen Wii U gaming, SmartGlass looks to enrich the web-connected TV experience while eliminating its pain points.
The SmartGlass demo at the Electronic Entertainment Expo showed a Halo 4 player accepting a multiplayer request and viewing game maps on a tablet screen, a complementary view that tied into the larger screen seamlessly. But make no mistake: SmartGlass is no novelty for gamers alone. It’s about the whole home entertainment package, hook, line and living room. A recent Nielsen report found that 45% of tablet owners watch TV while using a tablet at least once a day. And among tablet/TV tandem users, 42% looked up content related to the show they were watching. Leaping on the second-screen bandwagon, Microsoft’s demo depicted some cool companion content for an episode of Game of Thrones, showing a map of the show’s fictional setting as the app tracked the episode’s developing action in real time.
The Path Less Proprietary
Thanks to a wealth of content on Xbox Live, Microsoft’s gaming console has long since transcended its humble gamer roots. With HBO Go, Netflix, Hulu Plus, and soon Microsoft’s reimagined Xbox Music service and its stash of 30 million launch tracks, the black-and-neon-green box has become a media powerhouse. As an Xbox 360 owner myself, I’ve never given other internet TV options the time of day – and why should I? Xbox Live is just getting better and better as Microsoft layers on more content.
While TV manufacturers are hard at work walling off their ecosystems and pushing ill-conceived apps and peripherals (Panasonic Viera tablet, anyone?), Microsoft is opening the Xbox 360 up – not only to more deals with major content distributors, but to connecting with other devices regardless of the software they run. Approaching smart TV from a less foolishly proprietary place than most manufacturers, SmartGlass will be available for iOS and Android, as well as Microsoft’s own Windows Phone platform. We’re happy the company didn’t get hung up on a shortsighted goal to move Windows smartphones or Windows 8 tablets, although typically for Microsoft, devices under its own wing will likely have the best integration.
Browsing the Web Gets Less Annoying
Touch gaming can’t kill the controller, but it can enhance it. Much like the advent of motion gaming with add-ons like the Kinect, video games on touch-based devices such as the iPhone aim to dissolve a layer of artifice between player and game. Microsoft is already pushing for better voice commands with Kinect, both for navigation and in-game enhancements including Skyrim’s spoken Fus Roh Dahs, and SmartGlass is the next natural evolution for Xbox 360 owners telling our devices what to do.
In combination with Kinect’s voice and motion features, SmartGlass aims to turn a smartphone into what Microsoft lauds as “the world’s best remote control” – a blessing for those of us weary of spelling out “30 Rock” with the Xbox controller’s awkward scrolling method. (The company sells keyboard pads as an add-on, but tricking out an Xbox with accessories remains the province of the hardcore gamer.) And with Internet Explorer hitting Xbox Live this year, Microsoft is hoping that people might actually begin to surf the Internet on its Web TV empire in earnest.
It’s too early to know how much Microsoft can deliver on the broad promise of SmartGlass, but a less proprietary approach is a heartening step in the right direction for smart TV. Assuming the feature is half as slick as it looked, Microsoft’s second-screen experiment will be well positioned to take on Apple’s AirPlay and Nintendo’s forthcoming Wii U when it reaches the Xbox 360 this fall.