On Shouting at the Xbox
This week we were planning to bring you some predictions for 2012, but decided to hold off in light of the fact that I spent a good part of the morning shouting at our Xbox 360.
That sounds worse than it is. Meaning this has nothing to do with troubleshooting. Xbox Live got a major update last week, and today I spent some time playing with testing the new Kinect voice search feature.
With this latest update, Xbox makes the process of searching for content much faster, provided you have the Kinect add-on and are not self-conscious about barking orders at your TV. Kinect’s new voice search returns results from Hulu Plus, Netflix and Microsoft’s Zune Marketplace, and allows you to search by title or actor — all just by speaking a few words. While you do still have to think about what you want to watch, this new feature really speeds up the process of navigating to that content.
I have to admit, it took me a little while to get the hang of using it. Hint: The Kinect is very picky about punctuation. Saying “Xbox, Bing, The Office” won’t work no matter how loud you say it, for instance. But “Xbox, Bing The Office” pulls up all seasons of the show on Hulu and Netflix, plus web exclusives on Zune. Once I figured out how to speak so that the Kinect could understand me, it worked surprisingly well. Of the 20 TV shows I searched for, it got 17 on the first try.
Since April, Kinect users could pause and play Netflix or Hulu content using voice controls. With this latest update, they’ve also added the ability to rewind, fast-forward, and skip to another episode. I found the rewind/fast-forward features to be a little clunky, but I really love being able to shout “Xbox, Pause!” instead of fumbling with the remote (which lives amongst many other remotes here in the lab) when my cell phone starts ringing from the depths of my purse.
The Xbox Kinect is also motion-sensitive, so you can navigate through content by waving your arm around, and then point at an episode to start playing it. This is definitely a cool feature, but it takes some practice — I found it much quicker to do this part using the remote. Plus I can’t imagine how this would work in a house crawling with activities and children and dogs.
Along with the new voice search features, the Xbox 360 got a user interface makeover. The old dashboard featured a glaring white background and several menus with cards to flip through, while the new one uses the same tile-based “Metro” design featured on Windows phones. The navigation’s not much better than the last version, but it is easier on the eyes. And consistent, from one screen to the next.
Not everybody is in love with these changes, however. The Netflix application was updated along with Xbox Live, to a bit of a mixed reaction. They finally enabled 720p streaming and surround sound, plus audio controls and subtitles — all good. However, a few of the changes got their customer base pretty riled up.
First of all, titles no longer have a restart option. They’ve also added an autoplay feature while browsing TV episodes, which mostly just sucks up bandwidth and makes it hard to select an episode.
But most of the uproar is over the elimination of Party Mode, an Xbox Kinect feature that let viewers chat with friends and family across the country, while “collaboratively” watching a show.
As it turns out, lots of people used Party Mode with Netflix. Think “movie night” with distant loved ones. As a direct result, they’re venting their frustrations on Netflix’s blog post about the update.
Example: Several people harrumphed that Party Mode on the Xbox was their sole reason for sticking with Netflix, through the recent changes in pricing structure. They threatened to cancel their subscriptions if Netflix didn’t restore it immediately.
I understand the sentiment, but this isn’t really the fault of Netflix. It wasn’t their decision to eliminate this feature. Party Mode no longer works because of changes to Microsoft’s codebase with the new update. Here’s what Microsoft has to say about it (the emphasis is mine):
“The new app platform on Xbox does not support the video party mode feature at this time, so it will not be available in any existing app partners that have updated their app and any of the new Xbox app partners,” Microsoft told Kotaku. “The feature is still available in some of our international video apps (i.e. BSkyB in the UK) and is a likely feature candidate for inclusion in the next version of the app dev kit. For customers that would like to chat with their Xbox LIVE friends while gaming or watching videos, the chat feature is still available via the Xbox Guide.”
So if you’re considering canceling your Netflix subscription because of the No Party Mode issue, maybe hold off a bit. Microsoft already hinted that they’ll include it as a feature that developers can put in their apps, and given the hullaballoo, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Party Mode makes a comeback.
Next time, some more predictions for 2012…