SAN JOSE – It’s entirely possible, and reasonable, that the controllerless Project Natal technology Microsoft is developing will replace a remote control on Xbox 360-powered TVs, Marc Whitten, the general manager responsible for Microsoft’s Xbox Live service, told attendees at the Streaming Media West show. Whitten highlighted four areas – content, community, curation, and control – governing the evolution of the television and video content. “I don’t believe we are currently in the golden age of the television or the golden age of the game console or the golden age of the Internet; frankly, five years from now I don’t know that you’ll be able to tell the difference between those worlds,” Whitten said. Not surprisingly, Whitten used his talk to highlight recent additions to the Xbox 360 platform.
With Netflix running on top of Xbox Live, consumers and gamers alike have access to hundreds of thousands of movies. Whitten called the shift between the Xbox 360 as a gaming platform and its evolution to a video platform as the “biggest surprise” of his job. Microsoft implemented the Sky Player on the Xbox 360 in the U.K. in late October, adding Sky TV’s video content and on-demand programming for a subscription fee. While Whitten said that the service is now available to all, he also added that it was a “mistake” to launch the service as a full-fledged option, rather than roll it out on a limited basis. The service crashed three days after launch under an unexpectedly heavy bandwidth load. It’s difficult to think of “community” as an addition to the service, Whitten said, since the Xbox originally launched as a matchmaking service allowing gamers to play and interact with each other over the Internet. In June, for example Microsoft signed deals to integrate Facebook, Twitter, and Last.fm, which the company recently rolled out. In the areas of curation and control, however, Whitten looked more to the future than the recent past. In the 1950s through the dawn of cable TV, Americans shared TV experiences, whether it be the network news or the annual viewing of The Wizard of Oz. Now, Whitten said, users have to think in terms of 2.1 million people watching a billion channels of experiences. “It’s hard for me to think of that even in terms of a programming or channel guide,” Whitten said. “It’s hard for me to think of a channel 1 billion. I imagine you’d need a really good ‘up’ button on the remote control.” In the future, content will be organized according to brand and/or user, Whitten said. When a user views a Nancy Grace or “The Daily Show” or a Bill O’Reilly, a user has a pretty good idea of what content will be associated with that particular name. But that direction will have to intersect with automated recommendations by Netflix and others. “The context is not 1 billion channels, but one,” Whitten said. “One channel, with what I want, when I want it.” And as Microsoft and its partners become more sophisticated about trying to determine what content users will be interested in, the methods of controlling or providing input to that content will become more sophisticated. “With the flick of my wrist I can change a channel,” Whitten said. “With the power of my voice I can start a movie.” Watching a movie is a passive input, but a TV should understand what you’re trying to do, Whitten added. “Laughter is an input,” he said. “Yelling at the TV when I know an answer on ‘Jeopardy’ is an input. Attention is an input. The number of people in the room at one time is an input.”
Microsoft’s goal is to make it easy and simple to find the content consumers want, and to share it with friends, Whitten said, and to enable experiences they care about. “It won’t be a remote control” that consumers use,” Whitten said. “A remote control is already too hard.” Instead, Whitten said he envisions a future where Natal recognizes the users in the room, and their voices as well. Knowing the identity of the users will coalesce the content they’re interested in, and allow one of multiple users to control the interface. (In one recorded demonstration, Natal picked up on a user’s voice to control a game.) “I believe that this will be the largest leap of TV experience since the remote control,” Whitten said of Natal.