Microsoft PR was at pains to point out that today’s Xbox One event was not a launch but an ‘unveil’. That means that while we couldn’t get our grubby hands on the console itself, we did get to see it up close and experience some of the technologies behind it.
Microsoft continues the elegant, understated design language of the Surface, with the Xbox One showcasing a fantastic retro-futuristic look. About the same size as a 360, but with only a subtle Xbox logo marring its glossy black front, this is a device that looks made for the modern living room. As Microsoft shoots for a more grown-up audience with the Xbox One, it’s toned down the lighting effects and pushed all the gaming stylistic elements to the new controller. Even the new Kinect could pass for a Lytro-esque system camera.
The One is consciously cutting its link with the past. It won’t play Xbox 360 games and you can’t stand it vertically any more (well, we bet you could, but it doesn’t come with the little rubber feet). The Blu-ray drive is a flap-less slot and there are vents everywhere – expect this sucker to run very hot. But also very quiet – we’re promised "near-silent" operation.
We did get eyes and hands on with the new controller – though sadly not on live game footage. Think of the controller as a refresh rather than a reboot. All the buttons, sticks and triggers you’re used to are present and correct but with 40-odd tweaks and refinements under the bonnet.
The thumbstick takes 25% less force to operate, the D-pad has been reconfigured to allow sweeping motions and the triggers have magnetic linkages for, er, well, we couldn’t really tell on the static demos we tried.
Big changes include properly integrating the battery pack into the controller so it no longer bangs your knuckles when you get excited, and new vibration motors built into the triggers. These can be activated separately from the main rumbler, giving some nice immersive effects when engines start or guns fire. We’re also promised higher speed data transfer to the console, allowing for more and better accessories like headsets.
The second technology demo was the new Kinect camera – and it’s a giant leap forward. Not only is the camera’s field of view wider, it also focuses closer to the camera itself, enabling it for use in much smaller rooms. In use, it allowed us to walk to about a metre from the camera before the wireframe skeleton broke up.
The 3D depth camera now has three times the resolution, so it can pick out more detail – not quite down to finger level, but the One will be able to recognise whether your thumbs are up or down. We predict a fine business in gladiatorial combat sims.
The colour camera is now Full HD at 1080p, for truly scary Skype calls, and the Xbox One will have a built-in active infrared camera so you can play in almost pitch darkness. Behind the scenes, the Xbox One is doing way more analysis on the images, too. Algorithms infer the behaviour of your muscles and skeleton in real time, so it can tell when you’re balancing and detect the power of your air punches and kicks.
The One will also be able to sense your heartbeat (probably for fitness apps, but maybe also some early heart attack detection for stressed-out silver gamers)?.
On the creepy side of impressive is the way the Xbox One can interpret your expressions, rating your mugshots ‘happy’, ‘neutral’ or ‘about to throw the bloody controller out the window’. It will recognise individuals and track which controller they’re holding, so no more having to remember who player one is.
A mocked-up Skype showed how group video calling will work: individuals will slide in and out of the call from the side, and you can shrink the call down to a picture in picture in case you really don’t want to interrupt your TV viewing while your mum blathers on about you getting out more.
In a techy panel discussing the Xbox One’s innards, Microsoft engineers talked about how the console will basically be two virtual machines running simultaneously, letting you switch seamlessly between gaming and TV, apps and services. That’s all very well but it does sound expensive – there was no word on price at the event.
Expect more details – and hopefully a full hands-on – to feature as part of Microsoft's Xbox One presentation at E3. We'll be waiting with bated breath.