The number-crunchers at Microsoft know the reasons you turn off your Xbox 360. It’s to surf videos on YouTube, to tune in a pay-per-view fight or to catch the new episode of a TV show you want to watch as soon as it airs. Being Microsoft, they don’t want you turning off their console. The new dashboard update being pushed out to all 360s this week is their bet to keep you plugged into Xbox Live for as long as possible.
The dashboard update — which adheres to the Metro design language seen in Windows Phone 7 and coming to Windows 8 — hooks into new entertainment partnerships by offering more robust navigation options than ever before. It sports a new user interface that allows you to swipe through different content categories and uses Kinect to execute Bing voice searches. Some of this functionality was teased at this year’s E3 but at the cusp of launch Microsoft’s revealing more about how the Metro update looks and feels, and just what TV and internet outlets you’ll be able to access through your 360.
When the update starts rolling out on December 6th, console owners will notice reorganized tabs and that they can now switch seamlessly between gesture, voice or controller to get to where they want to go. Simply saying “Xbox, Bing Star Wars” brings up every TV show, movie or video game tagged with the title of George Lucas’ masterpiece. The new search protocols comb through metadata and multiple services, too, so you’ll see results from Netflix, Zune content and other providers on Xbox Live Marketplace like Comcast’s Xfinity On Demand (which comes to Xbox later down the line). A YouTube app will also be launching on 12/6, with a My YouTube menu that ports over your profile from the video hosting network, complete with subscriptions intact. However, voice search won’t be live for YouTube until some time later. As previously shown, you’ll be able to use the Xbox Live Companion App on Windows Phone 7 phones to navigate through the new dashboard, too.
Microsoft wants to accomplish three key goals with the 360 moving forward: to offer more entertainment in one place, make it easier to find what users want and introduce interactive social elements to TV content. Their internal research reports 300% growth in non-game Xbox 360 use and that when users log out of their consoles it’s for live TV. The UFC app stands as the exemplar of what Microsoft’s trying to do in their integration of TV content on their console. Users wwill have the option to pre-order a fight, see fighter stats, make picks as to who’ll win and monitor leaderboards. Microsoft described it as a fusion of app and game, with the TV content available elsewhere changed by virtue of being on the 360.
But the Metro update isn’t just about turning the 360 into an alternative set-top box. There are also features that will tweak the way you play games on the machine, as well. Microsoft’s implementing Cloud Saves for Xbox Live users, where you can choose the cloud as the save destination for game saves as well as being able to migrate existing save files online. If a person’s Gold membership lapses, you can still access your files but won’t be able to upload any further saves. This feature will require a Gold membership but there’s no word on how many gigabytes users will get with their portion of the cloud. This feature will go hand-in-hand with another new firmware change called Roaming Profile. As the name implies, Roaming Profile makes it easier for your gamertag to live on separate machines. You’ll no longer need to download your profile each time you use a non-home machine. With Cloud Saves and Roaming Profile, your gaming experience on the 360 should be more portable than in previous iterations. And when it comes to playing with others, there’s change on the way there, too. Soon, you’ll be able to schedule virtual social appointments via dynamic reminders called Beacons. They’re basically messages that get pushed out to Xbox Live or Facebook friends, request that they join you to play, say, Gears of War 3 at 10:00 p.m. Monday night. You can set up to three Beacons and friends will see them as soon as they log into Xbox Live.
Microsoft representatives say the Metro update will feel like owners have gotten a brand-new Xbox. While that remains to be seen, it does point at how the technology giant wants to evolve their signature game hardware as a home entertainment portal to various types of media experiences. Voice search, increasing amounts of TV and video content and social viewing will be waiting for you on the Xbox 360 this week. Will this evolution change the way you where and how you watch TV? Microsoft sure hopes so.