December 12, 2011

Xbox 360 Dashboard & Voice Recognition Review

Xbox 360 Dashboard & Voice Recognition Review

On December 5, Xbox 360s across Australia were prompted to download yet another patch improving the console’s Dashboard interface, the third major overhaul in the 360’s almost-seven year tenure. The new interface is somewhat reminiscent of the Windows Mobile interface, and the upcoming Windows 8 interface, clearly signalling the fact that Microsoft is attempting not only to logistically unify their services, which they have been slowly doing for some time, but also to aesthetically unify them, ideally improving ease of use, and ensuring that users do not have to adjust to the interface of each Microsoft device they use. In addition to the UI changes, Microsoft have also introduced a new Kinect-based voice control system, expanding the capability of Australian 360s to a point closer to that of their overseas counterparts.

The most striking facet of the updates are the clear and obvious visual changes that have been made. While the interface has retained its ‘Squares’ aesthetic, it has been drastically edited, ridding the console of its seemingly endless rows of semi-opaque geometry, replacing it with a visually-pleasing grid formation, and significantly reworked sub-menus (Quickplay, Profile, etc.). The change that most users will notice is the absence of the vertical-scrolling categories, and the exceedingly long rows of rectangular menus and selections. These have been replaced with horizontal-scrolling tabs, such as ‘Social’, and ‘TV’, that now focus less on gaming, and more on broader entertainment. An attempt is clearly being made at converting the Xbox 360 from a gaming console with entertainment functionality, to an entertainment device that also plays games.

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I found this change somewhat jarring, not only because the previously gaming-oriented interface now represents a broader array of entertainment media, but because this shift has (perhaps inadvertently) decreased the level of functionality of the gaming-oriented interfaces. For example, three tabs, ‘Home’, ‘Games’, and ‘Social’ are simply stunted thirds of the previous ‘My Xbox’ category: the first contains links to run the disk currently in the console, or to activate the Quickplay menu, featuring all games on the hard drive that are playable independently from a disk; the second allows the player to browse their ‘Collection’ (the Quickplay menu under a different name) and access the Game Marketplace; the third features the Friends List, a category for Social Apps (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), and your Profile page. The interface is pleasant to navigate through, and the tabs each feature exactly what you’d expect. While it is slightly difficult to navigate to areas that have received new names and locations, the re-learning process is generally quick and easy, and if you think that you might have trouble finding your way around, Microsoft have kindly provided video tutorials on the hard drive that will automatically appear the first time you run your Xbox with the new interface installed.

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As you may have guessed from the title, the update also features voice recognition software, so that users (notice that I eschew the word “players”) can navigate the interface without the need for a controller. While the reasoning for using voice recognition over a handheld controller is something that I cannot understand, I’m happy to report that those utilising the functionality will have a good experience with it. I spent an hour talking to my 360, going through the various menus, activating games, and playing music and videos, and I can say with confidence that the voice recognition software on the console is excellent. The voice recognition on Australian consoles was reportedly tailor-made for Australian accents (Source), and it does a perfect job of recognising different words and sounds. In the hour of testing the Xbox’s profiency, there were literally no occasions in which it incorrectly interpreted something I said. There were occasional issues with the console failing to realise that I was speaking at all, but as I sat 6ft away from my Kinect sensor, and spend most of the testing speaking at a regular conversation-level volume, the fact that it only recognised my commands 9 times out of 10 is barely even a problem. I found that if I spoke up just slightly, then the console would respond 100% of the time, and that if that was too much, and I deactivated the Kinect microphone and used a headset, I could speak at a level just above a whisper, and have the Xbox still consistently recognise my commands.  The new software is easily the prominent feature of this update, and overshadows even the drastically altered Dashboard in terms of usefulness and importance to users.

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Source: CBS Interactive

While the new interface is nice, and the voice recognition is essentially flawless (at least from my experience), there is one bugbear that many users will likely have. It relates to something you may have noticed in the previous pictures of the new dashboard: the ads. Maybe you didn’t notice it at first, but the links to actual utilities and menus sit on the left-hand side, leaving a huge square in the middle and two smaller squares on the right for the sole purpose of advertising. The prominence of the advertising on the 360 will, I imagine, annoy many, and even if it doesn’t, it is a significant disappointment: the interface is brand new, with interesting spaces and menus to explore, and the vast majority of it is simply advertisments and non-gaming-related features, many of which will likely be left unused by Xbox 360 owners. It also raises a question of rights: should we, the users, not have the right to opt out of being advertised to, seeing as we not only paid for the console itself, but also shell out $80 every year for our Gold subscription? I find the appearance of the ads only disappointing, as opposed to unbearably annoying and an affront to my sensibilities, as the Dashboard appeared so interesting and vibrant initially, only for the glitter to be spoiled by the banality of advertisements.

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On a more positive note, I have no idea how many man hours were put into programming the Xbox to recognise every single game title on the Marketplace, or how long it took to get it to understand the Australian accent, but all of it paid off for the voice recognition service, and even though comparisons are already being drawn between this service and Siri, Apple’s (likely superior) voice recognition service, it is still undoubtedly one of the most useful features of any video game console interface in recent memory; and, while the advance may not revolutionary for users and developers alike, it is certainly evolutionary, and is undoubtedly the first step in a long road of advanced user-controller integration.

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