Xbox One’s design: blending in with the living room and Microsoft tech

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Session Name: Intersecting Games & Entertainment: Designing Xbox One

Chris Albrecht
Janko Roettgers
Carl Ledbetter
Audience Member 1
Audience Member 2
Audience Member 3

Chris Albrecht 00:00
So, for any of my fellow colleagues, or my bosses who want to know where I am on November 22, 23, 24, 25, 26; I’ll be playing the Xbox One. So I’m excited to bring out our next guest, Mr. Carl Ledbetter; he’s the senior principal creative director for Xbox industrial design at Microsoft, and he’s going be talking to be colleague Janko Roettgers; senior writer for GigaOM about intersecting games and entertainment, designing the Xbox One. Please welcome our next panel to stage!

Janko Roettgers 00:42
Hey Carl.
Carl Ledbetter 00:42
Janko Roettgers 00:44
Before we start talking about November 22, about Xbox One and everything, I thought we could do a quick show of hands. How many people here in this room have an Xbox at home? Okay, your peeps are clearly here.
Carl Ledbetter 01:00
That’s good, good show of hands.
Janko Roettgers 01:02
How many have an Xbox One at home? Nobody because it hasn’t — there’s the leak.

Janko Roettgers 01:07
The Xbox One is going to be released November 22, Carl even just told me he doesn’t have one at home yet, but maybe you can tell us still a little bit about the product, show us for people who haven’t seen any photos of it yet, and tell us a little but about how it came together from a design perspective.
Carl Ledbetter 01:25
Sure, so it’s great to see so many Xbox people out there. Xbox has been a big part of my life, as a designer, I’ve been working on it for a number of years and if you go back in time – I don’t know how many people here had an Atari Pong? Show of hands?
Janko Roettgers 01:45
You can do that for every game console now.
Carl Ledbetter 01:47
I know, it’s fascinating when we think about the intersection between design and experience, how things as simple as Atari Pong can really delight people. When we think about Xbox is doing, the amount of delight that it brings has grown exponentially. My background as being creative director of Xbox, it goes back to the redesign of the 360, when Kinect first came out. I brought a couple of slides to familiarize you with what’s going on. Xbox One’s coming out on November 22, we’re all really excited, I don’t have one, we have one in our studio that we can use and it’s killing me that I don’t have one at home. I’m committed, I’m going to find some place to spend the night in line with everybody to get one at home.
Janko Roettgers 02:41
Are you going to call in sick too?
Carl Ledbetter 02:43
I think so. There’s some really cool games coming out. So this is a shot of the hardware, I’m sure most of you have seen it. We put a lot of thought into the design of it, it’s the most powerful gaming console that Microsoft has ever produced, and it really is the next generation of what games and entertainment will be for the company. The design of the console and the design of the Kinect sensor is really more of an architectural statement; we’ve really created something more simple and we’re using some interesting molding techniques in the resin so it has almost a glasslike front bezel. That glasslike front bezel really fits in with home audio, home entertainment, high definition televisions, all the things that people have at home.
Carl Ledbetter 03:37
The counterpoint to that is the controller. We challenged ourselves because the current 360 controller is really popular, people like it. There are a couple of things we wanted to improve on it, but once we started, we almost couldn’t stop. There was a lot of opportunity to create something that would fit in more people’s hands. It turns out that almost 40% of people who use Xbox today are women. And our challenge was, how do we make the controller fit into a wider range of hand sizes? So we have as part of our design team, ergonomous and user researchers, and we put a lot of effort into studying the controller; we built almost 200 models of the shape to see how it’d fit into people’s hands. We did some improvements on the thumb-sticks, how they can accommodate what we call grip architectures: you know how they have those top grips on the thumb-sticks for you gamers out there, you know when you’re trying to snipe or something. But we also found that people, when they’re playing games like Forza or driving games, they put their thumb on the side and they almost feather the controller. So we added these new micro-textures around the side to give it a better feel. So there’s a bunch of things we’ve done. You can see that the way we present the Xbox brand is more consistent across all the devices and, again they feel like it’s part of that high-definition environment, so the brand comes through.
Carl Ledbetter 05:14
So that’s the hardware. This is a shot – this is really exciting, this is not hardware but it is what I think is the soul of where entertainment is going for Microsoft. This is a shot of Xbox Music. So what it shows is, the big screen is of course the living room, Xbox Music really cut its teeth with Zune – I don’t know how many people are familiar with Zune? It was the Microsoft Media Player. It was pretty dynamic. And Zune really brought something new and fresh with how people listen to music. It really became part of what we wanted to do with Xbox entertainment. This shot’s exciting because we recently announced that the applications for Xbox Music are not only available on Xbox but on Windows 8, Windows Phone 8, the IOS and Android mobile systems. So here’s a case where entertainment through Xbox is now available on a variety of platforms, not just the console in the living room. So we’re pretty excited about this and it kind of gives a hint to where we see entertainment going for Xbox.
Janko Roettgers 06:35
Let’s step back a second and talk about industrial design about the actual console. I was wondering, when I looked at that first I thought, yeah, it looks much more like it would be in the living room under my TV, maybe, whereas the 360 looks like something that would be on the floor or carpet in a kids room or den or something. How did you take that leap to the living room but at the same time still make it exciting, still make it about entertainment and not some boring piece of setup, or the other pieces I have under my TV.
Carl Ledbetter 07:11
So that’s a great question. We still have the Xbox 360, and part of our challenge was not only do we offer more entertainment through Xbox One, but how do we make the design of that system echo the capability of it, more so than 360. And 360 is still solid, I mean I use it every day. It will still continue to have it. I think for the design time, I think our challenge was, how do we make it feel premium, how do we make it feel like it’s more holistically designed? When you think about the new modern design language that you see in the user interface of Microsoft through Windows phone and Windows, we actually took a lot of cues from that to bring it into the proportions, the size, the finishes on the console and on the Kinect sensor. And even the sensor itself, for those of you familiar with the 360 Kinect sensor, it had those three circle elements on the front where we have sensors and cameras and things like that. The new Xbox One Kinect; it has a lot more technology in it, it does a lot of amazing things that I don’t even think people talk about yet, that really make using Xbox more fluid and more seamless. So our challenge was, hey, how do we make all this technology feel a little quieter, so it doesn’t overwhelm people.
Janko Roettgers 08:47
Let’s talk about the Kinect, especially, as a sensor. There was a little bit of controversy when you initially announced the console about some of the decisions with gameplay and rentals and stuff. But there were also some privacy issues which came up, maybe the timing wasn’t really great with all the NSA stuff coming out about the same time, but essentially introducing a microphone that’s always on and listening for hot-words, and also the camera that’s always connected to the console. And people getting more conscious of these things, so how do you approach that from a design perspective? To not make it look like there’s always an eye staring at me, or always a surveillance camera in the middle of my living room essentially?
Carl Ledbetter 09:28
That’s a really good question. I think it’s like everything in life, it’s about finding a balance. On one hand, we were looking at concepts where everything was almost hidden behind this glass. But we didn’t feel like that was authentic or necessarily the best solution. Then we looked at other ones that we started to expose all the different technology – then it starts feeling like technology. So we wanted to strike that balance between a pure form, that feels like it’s part of the home, that’s an invited member of the home. When we first announced Xbox One at E3, we listened to people; the customers, the comments, the concerns about the Kinect, and we actually acted on that. So the Kinect for Xbox One – you will be able to turn it off by going into settings, you can unplug it and the system will still work. But when you do that, it turns off a lot of things in the system. One of the things I get excited about is that you can walk into the living room and it’ll be listening to you, you can say “Xbox on”. You don’t have to look for remotes or touch buttons or find the controller, all those kinds of things. The system will turn on, and that’s kind of magical, that with a simple command, everything will light up. It’ll recognize you, it’ll see you and know who you are, it’ll take you to your home, your music, your games, your movies, all the stuff that you care about. Or your family; so you can have accounts for everyone in your family, and when you turn it on it’ll see you and show you your home.
Janko Roettgers 11:12
Voice control is kind of interesting because it seems like it has a lot of potential and companies get really excited about bringing it to their products, but then consumers don’t always use it as much. And I hope I don’t get anybody in trouble but sometimes I get briefings from Microsoft where they sit in front of the console – that was the Xbox 360 – and they say “Xbox, Xbox!” and they kind of show off how it works, then after two minutes or so they grab the controller and it’s just a little easier and faster. So how do you strike that balance between essential functionality that is really easy to navigate through menus with my controller, and getting this ease of use in the living room with something that’s a little more futuristic, maybe?
Carl Ledbetter 11:51
That’s a great one. We have a large number of people who are designing experiences, user interface and content around using Kinect. And you’re right – we know that to navigate through content using gestures – that’s probably not the most efficient way. But on the other hand, if you’re playing games and navigating content and doing certain things using gestures, it makes a lot of sense and it works. When it comes to voice, one of the stronger things you could do with it is when you’re trying to find content – it’s one thing to try and plug in letter-by-letter, the name of a movie or an actor or an artist, or you have to go to a guide and then search around, and search and search and search. With Kinect, Xbox finds movies with your favorite actor, and it’ll go out and search all the different content providers whether it’s Xbox, Netflix, Hulu, and it’ll pull up your choices. That’s pretty cool. You don’t have to remember station or TV channel 631. You can just say “Xbox, go to ESPN”.
Janko Roettgers 13:10
One thing I’ve noticed is that you guys put the microphone direct in the Kinect. Other companies do it differently when they use voice, I think Samsung has TVs where you pick up the remote control, press a button and talk into it like it’s your spy phone or something like that. So why did you guys decide to have the microphone so far removed?
Carl Ledbetter 13:31
There’s a couple of reasons; first one is, it’s just always there. It’s always available. If you have to start looking for something to talk to the system, it breaks down quickly. This whole idea of being seamless and fluid, having it always there was the number one principle. The second one is; the microphones on Kinect, it’s actually an array. So if you and I are at home in the living room, it can tell if you’re talking or if I’m talking, it can associate where that voice is coming from to the person. That just gives it a whole other level of experience that you couldn’t necessarily get if everyone’s holding these – you’d have to determine where–
Janko Roettgers 14:16
So it’s easier to fight over TV programming?
Carl Ledbetter 14:19
Maybe, it could be a yelling match, I don’t know.
Janko Roettgers 14:24
Let’s step back a little bit and talk about the UI. You already kind of showed us some of the stuff that’s coming to different UI’s, and take some cues maybe from earlier developments. I’m wondering how far does this reach, and where is the point where it stops, because there are specific devices I use for specific uses. I use my laptop for something different from my phone and the Xbox more for entertainment purposes. So how far can you take this?
Carl Ledbetter 14:54
You can take them pretty far, and I feel like we’re just starting to scratch the surface now. The design teams at Microsoft – there are a number of them. And we’ve recently reorganized the company into devices and services. It’s super exciting from not only an industrial designer point of view, where you can think about things like Surface and Xbox and even some of the PC hardware peripherals, like how can these things start to come together in more of a unified way? On the same side, on the UI front, we’ve really made a lot of progress in what we’re offering to people through the Windows phone UI and where Windows 8’s going, we still have a lot of things we want to do to make them even better. In that last slide I showed with Xbox Music, I have some other images which are really exciting because when you take the Windows phone and put it next to the Surface or Windows 8 and Xbox, they do share one common design language. Again, this is profound. It hasn’t really happened before. That’s something that we want to take even further.
Carl Ledbetter 16:10
The reason why it’s good is, again, with what we’re talking about today and tomorrow, it’s this intersection of experience. People want things that just work. They don’t want to have to rethink how to navigate to favorites or bookmarks or what are these things called, how do I use my voice consistently, hey I bought a song or movie – that should just follow anybody around so that it’s very consistent. So that’s something that, with the new structure of the company and how the design teams are set up, we really want to take those experiences further.
Janko Roettgers 16:46
So you’re saying eventually the office is going to look like this as well?
Carl Ledbetter 16:49
I don’t know about office. [laughter]
Janko Roettgers 16:52
Let’s talk a little bit about other futures and–
Carl Ledbetter 16:54
I’m an entertainment guy. I like Xbox.
Janko Roettgers 16:59
Fair enough. Let’s talk a little bit about that part of the business now, what you see coming there. There’s obviously a lot of visions about taking gaming maybe even beyond the screen. You guys showed some stuff about Microsoft Research, Illumiroom, maybe you can describe a little bit for people who haven’t seen the video. I’m also interested in your thoughts on Oculus Rift and which of these approaches has more value and where do you see Microsoft potentially going in the future, what kind of things are you exploring?
Carl Ledbetter 17:25
So, the Illumiroom was a concept developed by Microsoft Research. I don’t know the technologies in depth, but I can describe it approximately for people. I would encourage you to go out and search for Illumiroom, it’s a pretty interesting concept that was developed. Right now, there’s no plans to take it into production at all. But the concept was: it could take the content that you’re experiencing; a movie or game or something like that, and, using Kinect sensors that map the room, it would take images from this content and project it out into the room. So it would make your experience very immersive, not necessarily literally copying things from the content but it does reference it. It’s pretty interesting – I personally find it intriguing because the concept of immersion is good. It’s something that people want, if you think going back to Pong, how engaging was that? But today, the new games from Xbox One are so real. The quality, the resolution of the characters and the stories that developers are creating are fantastic. The potential that’s out there for our company and other companies is enormous to take immersion to a new level.
Carl Ledbetter 19:04
Oculus Rift – I was just talking to the Google guys about that. I’ve never tried it, it sounds fascinating and I would like to try it. I’ve never experienced that one.
Janko Roettgers 19:17
This guy doesn’t have an Xbox One at home, he hasn’t tried the Oculus Rift.
Carl Ledbetter 19:19
I know, what’s going on! I’m still on Xbox 360.
Janko Roettgers 19:25
The question that comes up for me when I think about these things is, if you talk about new immersive experiences, what can these experiences look like, is it the gaming, are we exploring like new areas you could go into – what do you see coming there?
Carl Ledbetter 19:38
I think from an entertainment perspective, I always refer to the living room as the Wild West. Right now, there’s a lot of companies investing and trying to capture the hearts and minds and souls and I guess wallets of people at home. If you think about the migration of content and what people are building, TV goes back to the, what, 1950? Maybe before then. The whole notion of changing the channel dial or push the button to advance to a certain fixed number of channels with either prerecorded or live content – it really hasn’t changed much until I guess the 70’s when HBO came out with this idea of paying for special movies. If you go back and look at the way you could choose the movies in HBO back in 1978, the guide hasn’t changed a whole lot. I can’t remember who was talking this morning about using the same old knowledge about something and then applying it to new technology. I feel like in the Wild West of the living room today, there’s a number of companies (Microsoft included) that are really thinking hard about, what is the new content for entertainment? How are we thinking about television, movies, games, all these things – where do the lines start to blur? Coupled into that, this whole idea of immersion – where can that go? I don’t have the answers but I do know that that is a really exciting space, that’s why I’m as excited about Xbox today as ever, I think that there’s a lot of things that could be done there, still. I feel like we’re just starting to scratch the surface about what the new version of home entertainment can be.
Janko Roettgers 21:41
I think we have about five minutes left so if anybody has any questions, now would be a good time. We have some microphones in the room, maybe raise your hand and somebody will come to you. Otherwise I have a bunch of other questions as well but why don’t we give the audience a chance.
S4 22:00
So you talked earlier about how you want to be able to take your music and whatnot with you, are you thinking about changing the digital rights for Xbox One, so you are able to take a game from your house to say, a friend’s?
Carl Ledbetter 22:11
Right now with Xbox One, we are a disc-based game. You can copy your content to the game. I’m not sure how the digital version of that will transfer or not, but otherwise since we did pull back to say that Xbox is going to be a disc-based game console, it’s like 360; you can take that disc wherever you go.
Janko Roettgers 22:39
I guess that leads to the question – what’s going to be the bigger disruption? Is it going to be for you guys going into the living room and doing more in the TV space, or is it the next step in gaming where you ditch the discs, possibly do an online-type streaming experience, just downloads, where is the bigger challenge for you guys right now?
Carl Ledbetter 22:58
I think games are going to continue to get better, the higher resolution, more immersive multi-player, the social aspects of games are going to continue to get better. Xbox One is going to offer TV – you can plug in your cable box through HDMI to it – what’s awesome about that is that it’s one stop, you don’t have to change inputs, you can turn your Xbox on and the Kinect sensor will send out an IR code, it’ll turn on your TV and get everything up and running, you have one user interface to access all your stuff. I think getting TV the way it exists today, it’s like table stakes. It’s really a start. I think for Microsoft and Xbox to be even more relevant in the future, we have to think about: how does this entertainment follow you around in a meaningful way, throughout the day? And also, what is the new version of TV? How does CBS evolve? What’s in the future for MBC? What’s going to happen – there’s going to have to be changes that will evolve, I don’t know what they are but Xbox should be a part of that.
Janko Roettgers 24:15
More questions?
Audience Member 2 24:17
Does Xbox 360 hardware and software integrate with the new Xbox One?
Carl Ledbetter 24:25
They’re familiar – they’re part of one family. Xbox 360 games will not work on Xbox One. They’re two different platforms. The reason why they are is because the technology that is in Xbox One is so far advanced from 360 – they’re just designed for different types of content. Does that answer your question?
Janko Roettgers 24:57
I think we have one more question over here.
Audience Member 3 24:59
Hi, I’ll try make this simple, it might be verbose. This morning, John Maeda from RISD was talking about Moore’s Law and, for the longest time there was more technology and more horsepower, and we’ve gotten to the point now where less is more, and I think the video game industry and Xbox is a good example of that where there was better rendering, more polygons, faster more RAM bla bla bla, and now all of a sudden we’re at a point where the question is: is the future changing for platforms like the Xbox and the PlayStation with the advent of everybody being content with tablet games and more lightweight, casual, social games. I wonder if you have any insights about that.
Carl Ledbetter 25:41
I love John’s talk, I found it really interesting, understanding Moore’s Law and those theories. I honestly think that the processing powers that we’re going to see are going to continue to grow, I think that the content developers are going to take advantage of it. It’s like if you step back in time to Nintendo NES or things where you see the games, I have one of those at home that my kids and their friends play for nostalgia, they think it’s cool, 8-Bit and that kind of stuff. Ten years from now, if you look at 360 or Xbox One, I would like to think that it would feel archaic. Where this stuff’s going to go is mind-blowing and I think it’s going to continue to evolve. I think the processing power and the Cloud and everything that goes into the content that’s designed for these systems is going to greatly advance, and I think it’s really exciting.
Janko Roettgers 26:43
So what I’m hearing here is, keep your Xbox 360 and in ten years, kids are going to like it. We’re out of time, unfortunately, thank you very much.
Carl Ledbetter 26:52
Thank you.