OCT. 31, 2012 • The Kinect motion controller was a tremendous boon to the Xbox 360 released far back in 2005 – helping to extend market share for the console at the very time that sales should have been trailing off. While much outside attention is being focused on what the next Xbox will look like and when it will arrive, Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices Division has launched a new complementary input technology, SmartGlass. Although Kinect can effectively translate body motions into interface controls, most people will likely feel more comfortable using a cell phone or tablet with their console, and that’s the underlying appeal of SmartGlass.
SmartGlass was certainly one of the interesting highlights of E3 this year. Clearly this is the start of Microsoft’s “second screen” efforts for the Xbox brand and for Microsoft’s vision of television. Nintendo obviously has a second screen strategy with the new Wii U tablet controller, and Nintendo has already demonstrated several applications of the screen built into gameplay of new software to release in the launch window of the console. So on that front we know the second screen will be a feature that directly impacts gameplay.
For the Xbox 360, the use of a second screen is initially more focused on (1) controlling the Xbox 360 dashboard, such as scrolling through the main menus and searching for content; (2) controlling the browser built into the interface, meaning users will have an easier time typing text into search fields and such, and (3) interacting with multimedia applications such as the ESPN or HBO GO apps that are currently already available on the 360 and have a strong following among Xbox Live Gold members who pay the $60 a year.
Therefore, using a tablet or phone in conjunction with the Xbox 360 through SmartGlass is essentially a remote control experience but with the option of a large tablet area to allow for easier typing. This actually makes television web browsing easier. And for those browsing media and media related apps, it makes it more user friendly. This is fairly similar to AppleTV users being able to use an iPhone as a remote control for that device. For movie/TV content, the way we understand it is that Microsoft needs to partner with the movie rights holders to allow any advanced SmartGlass functionality to work with said movies. That implies a limited content library but still a lot of that content is a good fit with the Xbox 360 audience, such as ESPN and HBO GO as mentioned earlier.
As for games, the capabilities will be somewhat limited, perhaps even more limited (at least initially) than what Kinect could do with games. Kinect had a logical fit with dancing, fitness and casual sports or party game genres. As an example, Dance Central is the most successful brand designed for Kinect. For core/traditional game genres, such as roleplaying, first person shooters or sports the applications for Kinect did not make significant inroads, even though some third-party developer/publishers like Ubisoft have been trying to integrate motion and voice recognition into core games. Gamer response was tepid at best, and none of these games are “Kinect Required” but merely “Kinect Optional.”
So with SmartGlass, there really is not a vision yet for how one would actually control games using a tablet or phone. Instead, SmartGlass seems best suited in a supporting role. For example, Microsoft has shown a video of gamers calling plays in Madden NFL on their tablet so the competitor on the couch next to them could not see what plays they were browsing. Also in Madden, Microsoft showed a gamer designing his own receiver routes and plays. For a game like Madden this make sense, but that doesn’t mean the gamer who wants to control the quarterback, then the running back or receiver in the heat of the action would want to put down the controller and pick up the tablet for that part. To do so implies a bit of device juggling which is something Microsoft implicitly understands and is wading carefully into the gameplay aspect. With the Wii U, since the tablet screen has the physical controls built around it, the issue is not as pressing and in fact some games Nintendo has demonstrated had one player only working with the tablet while other players in the same session used Wiimote controls and the primary TV screen. The new Super Mario Bros Wii U was a great example of that.
For an RPG, shooter, action or adventure type game, it is conceivable that a player could prop up a tablet as an always on in-game map or secondary information screen for inventory management or stats, etc. On occasion a player could interact with that tablet but that would require taking eyes off the TV screen and at least one hand off the controller. So far there hasn’t been any announcement about major core game brands moving forward with a SmartGlass-only control scheme for games, but some titles will feature supporting uses such as stats in Halo 4, and then other uses for Madden 13, FIFA 13, Dance Central 3, Forza Horizon – all of which are a go. Beyond these examples, it’s likely that Microsoft and its partners are trying to be careful about how they approach the core gamer. This takes us back to the multimedia companion and dashboard control aspects of SmartGlass as the primary message points as of now.
Finally, the key to gaining acceptance outside the feature set and game/app compatibility is device compatibility. Up front, Microsoft is saying SmartGlass will support Windows tablets/phones, iOS (newer iPods, iPads, iPhones) and Android. That is critical to gaining acceptance, a tip of the hat by Microsoft to Apple and Google for sure. As of now SmartGlass only supports Windows 8 compatible devices (obviously the new Surface tablet) but the other three will get support “soon.”
Our take is that SmartGlass will be a nice add-on feature that isn’t nearly as large of an investment as Kinect, but it also doesn’t have as much initial upside financial potential for Microsoft since it will be a free app and any incremental revenues will be harder to measure. Yet like Kinect, SmartGlass will be another reason for more people to enjoy using their Xbox 360s down the stretch. It will also be a nice feature for some third-party game developers who can think up of ways to use it, though EA is already on board with Madden and FIFA. It is possible major third-party shooter publishers, such as Activision with Call of Duty, could integrate optional usage into their games, but again these would be supporting features that probably won’t do much to increase software sales overall. – Jeremy Miller