Wednesday, November 28, 2012

My Review of Microsoft Xbox SmartGlass

Microsoft has continued to develop the Xbox platform into an entertainment convergence powerhouse that has migrated from the family teenager's bedroom or basement into the living room.  They made a significant leap with Kinnect in the gaming world in early 2010, and then earlier this year launched a video and menu navigation system that leverages voice and Kinnect and even leverages their search engine Bing.

Then this spring they announced Microsoft Xbox Smartglass with a ton of fanfare, lead by Balmer himself and in LA of all places.  While they have continued to follow-up on that with Windows 8 phones and tablets, a formidable device and ecosystem approach in its own right, their greatest weapon for winning the living room battle may be their second screen development platform SmartGlass.

Ron Pessner did a great presenting Smartglass at our 2nd Screen Summit in June in NYC.  He covered some great gaming demos and a demo for Game of Thrones for HBO that showcased some of the high profile uses cases for the technology.

The platform itself launched to iOS app store on November 7th, 2012, giving iPhone and iPad users a chance to try out the app.  When you launch the app, there are some introductory videos on how to use SmartGlass which were in fact very helpful and well-placed for first time usage.

I tried out the SmartGlass platform on both my phone and my tablet. I felt like the phone experience was better for quick navigation (much faster access to recent applications like the Amazon Video app or Hulu than the motion, voice, or even game controller-based remote system), but I thought that the tablet experience was better for the companion experiences and for attempting to use as a navigation aid (swiping with control was harder with the phone UI).

The actual swiping itself and touch responsiveness of the app requires some tuning. In some places, it was too sensitive and would literally fly across multiple screen when I was trying just to move right or left by one tile. In other places, I could not get it to swipe or move one tile left or right. I also found the swiping itself counter-intuitive to the typical tablet control where you use your finger to drag the content across the screen (same with Xbox motion controls by the way), but in the first version of SmartGlass, to move right you drags your finger right like the old mouse pointing devices. I am betting they will reverse that soon to match their motion control system soon.

While using to navigate the menu had its positive and negatives, the companion viewing experience while watching a movie was a good indication of what was to come in the future. It was not exactly clear which titles in the Video store carried this feature, but I got lucky with my pick of the Amazing Spider-Man and got to test drive it. It behaved for control similarly to many Blu-ray-based second screen apps today, showing me chapter pictures and letting me use it for control (skip to chapters, trick play, etc). It also had a Stimulating feature allowing me to see which actors were currently in the scene with brief bio links (this could be much better). While the experience was a good start, they could certainly improve both the depth and breadth of the companion viewing approach, but they are headed in the right direction.

In conclusion, I would say this is actually a pretty strong delivery for a company that announced something in May, has bootstrapped a second screen development platform and SDK, and has revision 1 capabilities in the marketplace by early November (when I recorded the experience). There is much to be improved upon, but I think they should be applauded for the distance they have already covered in such a short time.

Ironically, the day before this is set to publish, there is an article about an update to the Xbox the changes some functionality in Smartglass...will get back to you soon.

Covering the 5 major feature sets:

- Simple. High. Great control of the 1st screen, giving me the ability no only to choose content and manage playback in multiple ways, but allowing me to quickly and easily launch other video apps and control those as well.
- Seamless. Low. The search is only Microsoft's video search or Bing, but there is no integration across Hulu, Netflix, etc, allowing you to launch directly to a title app (one of the better features of GoogleTV for example).
- Discovery. Low. The hooks are all there, but currently there is only rudimentary recommendation based on some lists and some level of collaborative filtering.
- Stimulating.  Medium to High.  Well on their way to creating a great enhanced viewing experience--can't wait to see how they manage this in the gaming world.
- Social.  Low.  They have their native chat/friends system, but no integration outside of that, no way to view other social network activity.

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