Xbox One is not as innovative as Microsoft wants you to believe.
The modern video game industry is partly driven by the idea of wanting something you can't have. Because of this, many games age ungracefully, quickly forgotten so as not to agitate the alarming gap between what was and what was wanted. Yesterday, Microsoft announced its third home console, the Xbox One, promising to "change the relationship" a person has with his television.
The agent of change will be a new version of Microsoft's camera sensor-mic combo, Kinect, upgraded to such sensitivity that it can now detect rotating wrists and measure a person's heartbeat. This device had been an optional add-on for the Xbox 360, but will now come packaged with every Xbox One when it arrives on store shelves this fall.
Microsoft’s particular approach may be technologically novel but in terms of actual services, it is redundant. Most people already have devices that do all of the things Microsoft is proposing.
Microsoft's claim that Xbox One will change the way we view our televisions is strange since every demonstration was centered around accessing old and familiar kinds of content: movies, basketball, and a spot of Call of Duty.
Xbox One doesn't seem to change the nature of what the user is relating to, but instead asks him to use his body and voice as a menu interface to multitask. Your body becomes the mouse cursor: Spread your arms wide to make content go full-screen, and pull them back into your chest to minimize that content as one viewing option among a sea of animated tiles.
Reaction to Microsoft's announcement has been mostly derisive. Leigh Alexander called it a sign of "arrested development, the last gasp of the console generation," while Kotaku's Luke Plunkett labeled it a "disaster."
That word has been circling the video game industry in recent years with increasing frequency, fueled by declining software sales, the sluggish launch of Nintendo's 3DS, and the so far disastrous first year of Wii U.
Sony and Microsoft were happy to watch the one-time industry leader struggle, promising that their own magical consoles would revitalize the market. Yet Sony's PlayStation 4 announcement was a rolling anti-climax of known quantities. Now Microsoft has joined the scrum with a machine that turns Windows 8 navigation into a gym routine.
If these new entrants don't signal outright disaster, neither do they create much desire for some miraculous new experience. With the sudden and forceful growth of Apple's iOS as a gaming platform in the last five years along with the emergence of a number of console-sized PC game portals, including Valve's Steam, it's often been wondered whether or not traditional game consoles have been supplanted. Instead of trying to compete with convergence devices like iPad and computers, Microsoft has been trying to make the Xbox One for years. The end result is a living room computer that delivers television, web browsing, music streaming, Skype, and pizza delivery—while also sometimes playing a game or two.
Microsoft’s particular approach may be technologically novel but in terms of actual services, it is redundant. Most people already have devices that do all of the things Microsoft is proposing. Xbox One seems less like a bid to sell a new game experience and more of a company trying to sell you something you already have, at a premium price, and with some discomforting built-in features—like a camera that has to remain on and connected in order for the system to work.
In an age when our devices constantly interrupt us with push notifications and software updates, it's easy to see the appeal of dedicated game consoles. The idea of closing one's self off from distractions is a central value in design theory. It's not the convergent tendencies of Xbox One that threaten the console industry, but the dull and conservative approach to game content by console makers.
Their response? We are now being promised video games that feature hands with realistic finger nails and a new system that has fish move out of your way if you swim too close to them. How is anyone supposed to want that, when they already have it?
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.