With its latest Xbox update, Microsoft is tapping the power of its Kinect controller and Bing search to finally make yelling at your TV make sense: You can choose games, TV shows, and videos by using voice commands.
The game system is also getting a new look via an updated dashboard, as well as a bunch of new applications, including streaming movies and/or TV shows from Epix, Hulu Plus, Vudu, and YouTube. They are designed to help make the Xbox the hub for home entertainment. In addition, CinemaNow, HBO Go, and MLB TV are scheduled to be added early in 2012, along with integration for Comcast and Verizon FiOS TV subscribers.
The overhauled dashboard uses Microsoft's Metro interface, which is already in use in Windows 7 smart phones and will be used in the upcoming Windows 8 operating system, which is slated to launch later this year. The tile-based design groups content into categories of content, such as games, videos and social.
Perhaps the most compelling addition of the revamp is the integration of Kinect's voice control with Microsoft's Bing search engine, which lets you use your voice to find all types of content—including games, movies, TV shows, and music—simply by saying what you’re searching for. There are also improvements to the Kinect's motion control, which lets you navigate menus by waving your hand.
From the demo we saw, the voice-control feature isn't completely intuitive; it appears you have speak slowly, call out the words in the right sequence, and talk rather loudly at times to be understood. And you already have to be in the correct content hub: "Video" takes you to movies or TV shows, for example. But you can move to the different content hubs using your voice or hand gestures.
Also, although the update is free, many of the new services either require the $60-per-year Xbox Live subscription or, like Netflix and Hulu Plus, have their own separate charges. But based on our short demo, the advances in voice and gesture navigation look like worthwhile improvements. We look forward to updating the Xbox in our labs and taking these new features for a spin.
—James K. Willcox