Xbox Takes Command In Living Room Voice Recognition

What’s the first thought that comes to mind when you read this headline from this morning’s New York Times: “Xbox Live Challenges Cable Box”? If you’re like me, it’s “Wow, Siri, get me my nickel-and-diming cable provider on the phone and cancel.”

But it’s all still a fantasy at this point –- including my employment of Apple’s Siri as a personal assistant –- as it turns out. The cable set-top box is only going to become “less relevant,” Nick Wingfield and Brian Stelter report -- contingent, of course, on your making the Xbox, and competitors to come, more relevant.

“People will still need to pay the cable providers to get channels through the Xbox. They will also have to pay the roughly $60 a year Microsoft typically charges for a premier membership to Xbox Live,” they write. “And the Xbox won’t be a true substitute for everything viewers can get through their cable boxes because content rights will have to be negotiated for some shows before they can be watched through the console.”



Although you’ll be able to get, for example, the Verizon FiOS service through Xbox, it’s not the robust version that streams though the cable box that has the antiquated looks of the VHS tape deck it sits next to on the shelf. For now, at least, it only delivers 26 channels of programming.

What’s significant about Xbox’s rollout of new services starting tomorrow is that they will improve the user experience for the 35 million people around the world who subscribe to Xbox Live, and it beats Ms. Siri and Apple TV in doing so.

The President -- as well as us commoners -- will be able to search through those seemingly endless TV channels by voice to utilize Microsoft’s Bing search engine to find movies featuring Meryl Streep, for instance, or to figure out where the heck that Thursday Night Football game is located. But that’s just the surface of a much more ambitious business strategy.

“Though most gamers will notice a dramatically different interface, and some will take advantage of more advanced voice-recognition controls, the real significance of the update is how boldly the software giant is putting itself at the core of the TV entertainment experience,” writes CNET’s Jay Greene. “Microsoft is partnering with 40 content providers from around the globe to significantly increase the amount of live and on-demand content available on Xbox.”

And TechCrunch’s John Biggs writes the “Metro” update “pushes Microsoft’s gaming product away from the traditional run-and-gun of gaming consoles and into a new realm: that of the home media center.”

Apple TV is only mentioned in passing in Biggs’s piece, perhaps because of the utilization of Bing.

“Google and Microsoft are clearly in a cold war for the couch,” he says. “While many have paid lip service to the effort to ‘colonize the set-top,’ this new Xbox update is a clear effort to change the way people look at the Xbox and could be the first step in a new, more powerful Xbox with better DVR and media browsing experiences built-in.”

Voice is only the tip of the iceberg for what’s to come, Nick Bilton tells us in his New York Times’ “Bits” blog. The Xbox also allows people to flip though video content by waving their hands –- a hint at technology that will be coming to all of our devices.

“There are methods to talk to computers that are even simpler than things like voice,” Yael Maguire, a visiting scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, tells Bilton. “Everything we do, every movement of our body, our hands, our eyes can all become digital and will convey and fill in little gaps of information.”

This will eventually lead to functions such as your smartphone automatically exchanging information with the smartphone of someone you shake hands with for the first time, Bilton predicts.

Reviewing the software at home, Seattle Times columnist Brier Dudley amusingly writes about his futile voice search for a movie starring one of the world’s great actors –- albeit one that may require a certain facility for French that many of us ’mericans lack. 

“My family was hugely entertained by my shouting at the TV, over and over: "Xbox, Bing, Gerard Depardieu," he writes. “Now they giggle in anticipation whenever I turn on the console, hoping I'll try one more time to search for Depardieu.”

The way I look at it is that anything that can help us laugh at ourselves is a welcome addition to the -- for now -- battery of consoles in our living rooms. The real question is, which will be the last one sitting there.


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