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.

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.

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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.)

To be introduced sometime next year, the development thus far has not been smooth. Since the unit will produce high-definition 1080p resolution on TVs, there’s no question it will be powerful. Some reports, however, claim the unit will be 50 percent more powerful than its Xbox 360 or Sony PlayStation 3 competitors. While an exciting notion to power-hungry gamers, this could translate into higher consumer costs. Also Nintendo announced it will not play DVDs or Blu-ray disks, unlike its competitors.

Some gamers expressed outrage that only one controller can be used at a time with the Wii U, according to Nintendo, but subsequent reports indicate that more simultaneous players may be possible, just not while using high-definition controller versions.

And the weighty presence of games now being played on iPhones and iPads — a non-factor when the original Wii was first introduced — is seen as a factor in the success or failure of the new device.

The E3 crowd apparently was wowed by the introduction, but the financial market took a less sanguine view: Nintendo’s stock dropped 15 percent after the introduction. The Wall Street Journal interviewed Nintendo USA president Reggie Fils-Aime about the company’s new product. Interesting stuff.

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Finally, just for the sheer fun of it, Google introduced a nifty little variation of its logo on June 9: an animated, strummable doodle honoring the birthday of the late Les Paul, jazz musician and guitar player extraordinaire. Paul was a pioneer in developing and popularizing the solid-body electric guitar (imagine rock and roll without it), and probably was the one musician that had the most to do with popularizing multitrack recording, overdubbing, and other effects — techniques core to contemporary music.

“How High The Moon,” the track he recorded with then-wife Mary Ford in the 1950s, complete with multitracking, overdubbing and reverb, is about as good a recording as there is in the considerable history of pop music. 

And he could rock. I had the privilege of watching him perform about 10 years ago in a little club across the street from Lincoln Center in Manhattan. He was then in his 80s and had the zest of a little kid as he played with his trio.

Do yourself a favor. Sit back, relax, pour a cool one, and watch this seven-minute clip from CBS’ “Omnibus,” hosted by Alistair Cooke in 1953, in which Paul and Ford have more than a little fun explaining the high-tech secrets behind “How High The Moon." Twenty-four tracks! Yeah, baby, yeah!

All this is background to the fact that the Google doodle, which can be strummed, played and recorded, was such a hit that Google enshrined it last week with its own website. And for the composer in you, here’s how you can play and record this guitar and maybe become a 50-million-record seller.


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