Microsoft is committed to extending the appeal of the Xbox brand beyond gaming and beyond the console. This was clear with last week’s unveiling of Xbox Music, and it’s even truer with Tuesday’s official unveiling of Xbox SmartGlass, along with the news that Xbox Video and Xbox Games are coming to Windows 8.
SmartGlass, which was first announced at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in June, will launch alongside Windows 8 on Oct. 26. It allows users to view content on multiple devices, and to control or enhance that experience.
At its most base level, SmartGlass will allow users to shift content from device to device; that means you can start watching a movie on the Xbox 360, and then use SmartGlass to resume playing that film on your Windows 8 tablet. Likewise, you can start a movie on your Windows 8 device and finish on the Xbox.
If SmartGlass only worked with the Windows 8 ecosystem, it would be pretty great. What makes SmartGlass genius is that apps will be available for iOS and Android. Microsoft doesn’t have specific dates on when those apps will be available, but says they will debut “very soon.”
Navigation: A 10-Foot UI That Finally Works
One of my favorite aspects of SmartGlass is the remote-control functionality. With the SmartGlass apps, users will be able to control their Xbox 360 with their phone or tablet. This is great news; it means no more searching for an Xbox remote (or even a Harmony Touch) — just grab your phone and control the Xbox. Functions such as playback, pause, rewind and search all work on the phone.
Where the remote control element really shines is when you use it with Internet Explorer for Xbox. Microsoft helped pioneer the movement to get the web onto televisions back in the Web TV days, but it hasn’t really succeeded with the concept until now.
As someone who has built and customized more Home Theater PCs (and Mac mini HTPCs) than I can count, I’m all too familiar with the problem of putting a web browser on a television set. The biggest issue is that making content accessible and controlling page movement with a traditional remote, keyboard or mouse is just a total pain.
Microsoft has decided to take a page from some of the better third-party iOS remote control apps, and turn the tablet or phone screen into a trackpad. Move your fingers across your device to control the cursor on Internet Explorer for Xbox.
Tap a text field, and use the device’s native keyboard to enter content. Pinch to zoom on the trackpad to get a closer look at content on the TV. This is the way web browsing on the TV was supposed to work. Even better — if you want to send a URL from your Xbox to your phone or tablet, you can do that with the tap of a button.
Creating a Real Second Screen for TV and Movies
We already touched on one of the larger aspects of SmartGlass when it comes to watching TV shows or movies: shifting content from one device to another. Again, if Microsoft stopped there, SmartGlass would still be a cool product.
But it didn’t. What has the potential to take SmartGlass to the next level is true second-screen integration within those apps. For example, if I’m watching a movie on a Windows 8 tablet and I want to shift it to my Xbox 360, my tablet now becomes a hub for second-screen content.
If you’re watching a movie or TV show, the cast members of that program will be part of the tablet experience. You can then browse through an actor’s filmography or learn more about his or her background. What’s more, specific details about a scene — as well as visual highlights of what’s happening in the scene — can appear on-screen.
Microsoft tells Mashable that it is working hard on getting extra features and bonus experiences integrated alongside content. HBO Go has a great second-screen experience for Game of Thrones on the iPad that lets users browse maps and explore the series’ universe and characters, while watching the show; HBO Go will be bringing this experience to Xbox SmartGlass. So, if you’re watching Game of Thrones via HBO Go on your Xbox, you can use SmartGlass to get that second-screen experience.
As with video, users can control the Xbox Music service from their SmartGlass phone or tablet. Plus, if you want to play content on the Xbox, the tablet or phone becomes a screen you can browse for recommended artists, new releases, playlists and more.
The second screen opens up a much more group-oriented experience, especially if you want to have music blasting out of the speakers connected to the TV, while giving others the chance to choose songs. And since it works over Wi-Fi, you could have the tablet in your kitchen, while controlling the TV in your living room.
Microsoft is investing heavily into sports with SmartGlass. The goal is to bring more real-time sports programming to Xbox, and then augment that experience with on-screen highlights and second-screen controls. This will kick off with NBA Game Time for Xbox, and will expand to more sports in the coming months. The NBA Game Time app is now available for Xbox, and the SmartGlass enhancements will be ready on Oct. 26.
The Xbox is still about gaming, and Microsoft is hoping to deliver a more unique gaming experience using SmartGlass.
In supported games, users can get more views or have additional experiences on the phone or tablet. In Fozra: Horizon, for example, the phone or tablet becomes a virtual GPS; that means I can glance down at my phone or tablet to see where I am on the track (or even better, let my husband direct me as I’m driving).
With Dance Central 3, players can queue up the next song from SmartGlass, rather than having to wait for the end of a song. When Halo 4 launches, SmartGlass will act as a progress guide for the game.
How Does it Compare With the Wii U
Microsoft isn’t the only company actively courting the second-screen space. Nintendo is making it a fundamental part of its upcoming console, the Wii U. The Wii U controller includes a tablet built into the device; this allows Nintendo and its partners to create games that take advantage of that second screen (similar to what Microsoft is doing for some of its SmartGlass-enhanced titles), but it’s also letting users control the game itself on the screen.
When it comes to entertainment content, the Nintendo TVii is focused on creating a personalized way to access content from a number of digital services, as well as controlling the cable or satellite box.
I’ve only spent a few minutes with both systems, but feel like both companies are approaching the same idea from different directions. Nintendo is focusing first and foremost on crafting game experiences or additional game-play modes within the second screen itself. Microsoft is also certainly interested in achieving that, but its game integration is more about using a phone or tablet as a way to view additional information (such as a map in a car game) or to perform simple tasks.
That said, Microsoft seems to be further along at crafting second-screen experiences around video and music content. Nintendo has recommendations nailed with Nintendo TVii, but Microsoft has a more complete ecosystem for video and music.
This is the Future
Many companies are trying to capture momentum around the second screen. What makes Microsoft’s gambit unique is that they already have 70 million consoles around the world; that helps solve a big barrier already — targeting people with compatible set-top boxes.
The biggest game changer, however, is the fact that SmartGlass is device agnostic. It’s beyond cool that the controls and second-screen options will be available on iOS and Android. It also helps position Xbox 360 as a continually valuable device for the home-entertainment space.
Microsoft is serious about extending the Xbox brand the same way it did with Windows. An added benefit? The user interface on SmartGlass is so similar to Windows 8, it might just convince a few skeptics to give the Surface or another Windows 8 tablet a second look.
Technology and entertainment are only going to continue to converge as the years go on. For now, SmartGlass is one of the first products on the market that offers a glimpse at that larger future.