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Weekly Tech Review: Microsoft shows its innovative side (yes, really)

Also: Nintendo says hello to "Wii U" and we rock out with the late Les Paul.

Two weeks ago, those clever folk at Apple all but swept other tech companies under the rug as it rolled out its latest mobile and computer developments during the annual Worldwide Developers Conference. You might say it put its competitors under a cloud.

Other companies, however, also made some real news.

Microsoft’s Xbox gaming system has been undergoing an interesting metamorphosis: expanding in scope from simply a gaming system into a super-TV set-top box. “Put simply,” company spokesman Frank Shaw said via a blog, “Xbox [equals] entertainment and is core to our entertainment strategy.”  PR-speak aside, Microsoft sees the Xbox as the center of all home entertainment whether it be gaming, watching movies (e.g., Netflix and Hulu), music, TV shows, etc.

The addition of the Kinect device to the Xbox has introduced a controller-free way to play games (think “Minority Report” technology), allowing you to use your hands and body to more closely integrate yourself with games — or what Microsoft refers to as Natural User Interface technologies (speech, touch, gestures).

Building on that base, at the E3 Expo game conference in Los Angeles, Microsoft on this month introduced even more new Xbox wrinkles:

• Voice search via Microsoft’s Bing search engine for whatever entertainment interests you: games, movies, TV shows, and music.

• Live television programs: “news, sports and their favorite local channels,” according to a press release. Microsoft has been bringing some live TV to Xbox owners elsewhere in the world — Sky TV to Brits, Canal+ to the French, and Foxtel to Australians — but Microsoft’s U.S.-specific plans have not been spelled out. Engadget speculates that AT&T's U-verse monthly digital TV service is a likely partner given it already provides digital mobile TV services to Windows Mobile 7 phone users and to Xbox users via an add-on kit.  

• Additional Netflix/Hulu capabilities through YouTube video; voice control will be available to order up what you want to watch.

Here’s a video report on all this.

The live-TV impact amounts to little more at this point than words in a press release. But imagine the impact on cable TV if the live TV service is free or near-free, and if Microsoft strikes deals with sources that already make programming for free or near-free. It's mere speculation to think, for example, that HBO would extend its new online program delivery service to customers not tied to cable providers, but given enough financial incentive, who knows? “Cutting the cord” to your cable box might seem like a much more viable option.

Microsoft is taking a much different path than Google or Apple — or cable, for that matter. The company is reaching out beyond gamers to a more general audience; it's using a device almost exclusively associated with gamers but expanding its usefulness by marketing it as a TV set-top box for general entertainment and incorporating voice-activated and hands-free device control. That's a bold vision for the future of home entertainment — no less bold than Apple’s recent Internet-cloud-everywhere plans.

Microsoft has taken a lot of bashing recently for being staid — but this move has “innovation” written all over it. The marketplace will tell us if this is a substantive vision or just another dream.

* * *

Nintendo, whose U.S. headquarters is in Redmond along with Microsoft, was once the king of gaming consoles. In the last few years, however, it has seen a considerable drop-off in sales of its flagship Wii game machine. Anticipation of a new system from the company was high as it introduced its first new console in five years at E3: the Wii U.

The system veers considerably from conventional wisdom about what constitutes a gaming system. Its controller sports a mini-monitor: a 6.2 inch screen, enabling players to play games essentially on two screens at the same time. You can use the TV and the controller, or you can use the controller in conjunction with existing Wii devices such as a Wii controller or a Wii Fit. You can also switch between playing your game on your TV and playing it on the controller, leaving the TV free for people to watch. Here’s a clip showing how it works. (I especially liked the golf example.)


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