Not So Smart: Microsoft's Heart of Glass

Microsoft needs to make a much more convincing case for SmartGlass. The tech is fine, but who'll build content?

Nintendo's press conference at E3 may have disappointed - after a promising start, it was a poorly scripted, ill-considered and deeply unlikeable mess - but the company's influence over the rest of the games business continues to be strong. A few years ago, in the wake of the success of the Wii and its motion controller, Sony and Microsoft didn't even have the grace to look sheepish as they unveiled their own motion control hardware. This time around, with the Wii U's second screen proposition on the table since last year, they're determined not to be left behind - and lo and behold, second screen ideas were announced by both of Nintendo's rivals this week.

For Sony's part, the hook-up of the Vita to the PS3 is a fairly logical step. It promotes the Vita (and god knows it needs it), while giving the possibility of an interesting new set of controls to PS3 software. In tune with much of Sony's conference, the Vita hook-ups announced so far are entirely games-focused, although I expect that the company will quickly wise up to the media potential of the device. (I tell you what, Sony - turn it into a fully functional remote for Singstar, allowing people to queue up songs while others are singing, and I'll actually even buy one.)

Microsoft's SmartGlass is, on the surface, more ambitious. It proposes to make any mobile or tablet device interact with the Xbox 360, either as a touchscreen controller or as a secondary display showing you extra information from the game you're playing or media you're watching. Confounding the expectations of critics ahead of the show, the company even plans to make this work with iOS and Android devices, not just Windows Phone 7 or Windows 8 devices - so there's a chance that some consumers might even use it.

"All of this is aimed, in part, at being able to shrug expansively and say "hey, we can do that too"

All of this is aimed, in part, at being able to shrug expansively and say "hey, we can do that too" when Nintendo arrives on the market with the Wii U later this year. Of course, it misses the point to a large extent - developers on the Wii U (including, crucially, Nintendo first-parties) can develop in the full confidence that every consumer will have a Gamepad. Sony and Microsoft, however, will have to apply a significant amount of leverage to convince developers to spend time and money supporting an optional link-up to an external device, and no game for the PS3 or Xbox 360 will ever be designed from the outset with that functionality as a core feature.

In Microsoft's case, though, it was hard to escape the feeling that SmartGlass wasn't really designed for games anyway. There are simply too many hurdles to overcome from a gaming point of view - not least of which is the bewildering variety of devices, form factors and screen resolutions SmartGlass functionality would have to work with. The Android platform alone boasts dozens if not hundreds of different screen formats and resolutions (which is something of a constant source of woe for Android developers), and SmartGlass purports to support that as well as iOS, and Windows Phone, and Windows itself. Perhaps there's a clever solution to this device fragmentation, but if you're purporting to use the device as a secondary controller for a videogame, I'm not sure what that might be.

Besides, Microsoft's demo was initially heavily focused not on games, but on media. We saw SmartGlass technology showing us the IMDB entry for a movie that was playing on the Xbox. Then we saw it showing an animated map of Westeros during an episode of Game of Thrones, explaining where the characters we were watching were located. That's a nice demonstration (and it would save me from having to explain that to my flatmate after every episode), and it's the one most frequently cited by commentators after the event. It raised more questions than it answered, though.

Here's a question, for starters - who creates the content? Or rather, who pays for the content to be created? Does HBO? Microsoft? Perhaps Netflix or Hulu or whatever streaming service you happen to be using? If it's anyone other than Microsoft, why should they make Xbox-exclusive content that can't be accessed by users on other devices? If it's Microsoft, what's the justification for the outlay? Is it just to promote the Xbox, or are they expecting users to pay a premium for SmartGlass content alongside what they already pay for their TV shows and movies? In other words, what's the business model?

"The short answer to the business model question, I suspect, is "there isn't one".

The short answer to the business model question, I suspect, is "there isn't one". Or rather, that the business model is extremely simple, and can be summed up like this - "if we don't do this, Nintendo will... And, oh god, so will Apple."

Microsoft, after all, has stopped really looking at Nintendo and Sony when it comes to strategic planning. It's not "won" the console battle, although it's certainly put in a strong showing, but it's won enough for it to have switched focus. From the outset, its reason for being in games was to get a set-top box into your living room which would allow it exert ownership over how you consume media - including games, but also including movies, TV, music and so on. In that battle, Sony is a rival but right now, it's not an important rival. The important rivals? Apple, Google and perhaps even Amazon - and SmartGlass is far more a reaction to those companies, and primarily to Apple, than it is to anything coming from Nintendo.

My first reaction to Microsoft's decision to devote vast swathes of its conference to announcing deals for streaming video services, music services and second-screen media technology was straightforward - "wow, these guys are really terrified of an Apple TV". I voiced that thought on Twitter, and it transpired to be a fairly widely shared one. Apple's WWDC showcase event is one week away. Microsoft's conference wasn't about speaking to the audience at E3 - it was about speaking to the wider audience who'll be at WWDC, and might be learning about Apple's plans in the TV space.

That's "might be". Apple still doesn't officially have anything happening in TV, with the exception of its diminutive AppleTV set top box, which is a nifty piece of hardware (and selling better than it used to, but still only in small volumes) but hardly a threat to Microsoft's business. The world assumes that an Apple TV is coming, but that's far from proven, and it's unlikely that Apple will enter the market without having some way of seriously disrupting its existing business model. Yet the anticipation around an Apple TV product tells you something important - people are sick of existing media solutions (focused as they are around arbitrary and unwelcome barriers to accessing content which are utterly irrelevant in the Internet age) and crave something better, whether that happens to be from Apple or anyone else.

"The world assumes that an Apple TV is coming, but that's far from proven."

So even though the Apple TV doesn't exist yet, and we don't know what it'll be, Microsoft has hopped to do something - anything - to head it off at the pass. SmartGlass, though, isn't remotely sufficient. If anything, it's a bit of a sad effort, a perfect example of running to where the ball is now rather than trying to figure out where it'll be in future and running there instead. Bluntly, the biggest problem with SmartGlass is that it's a feature the majority of people have already worked out how to do by themselves. Remember the picture Iwata Satoru showed in his presentation last Sunday, showing a family all watching TV but simultaneously absorbed in their own "second screen" devices?

That's a scene every bit as common as he describes - and how many of those people have genuine trouble finding the Twitter hashtag for the show they're watching, or looking up the movie they're watching on imdb, or perhaps checking the location in that travel show out on Google Maps? Sure, SmartGlass can theoretically do more than that, but it relies on someone being willing to pay to develop SmartGlass-exclusive content alongside their existing media.

I can't see consumers paying for that. I can't see content creators paying for it, either. So unless Microsoft is proposing to turn this into yet another cash black hole (and I'd argue that Bing already qualifies as quite enough of a black hole, even for a company of Microsoft's size), I don't see where SmartGlass' content will come from. Without content, it's just a glorified tech demo. It looked nice on stage, but it's got a hell of a lot to prove before it's actually useful or relevant in the living room.

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Latest comments (23)

Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 5 years ago
Yep, every consumer technology company in the world is running scared of Apple. Except perhaps Samsung.

However Microsoft have a strategy that Apple cannot do. This is to integrate devices in the desktop, the living room, mobile phones and tablets using data held in the cloud. SmartGlass is just one step in this strategy. There have been very many other over the last year and a quick look at Windows 8 reveals exactly what they are up to.

Remember that Microsoft create the software for nearly everyone else to use whilst Apple make their money from selling devices.
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Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters5 years ago
If I'm going to watch a movie or a TV show I'd rather watch it from start to finish with no distractions. The best Smart Glass feature I could imagine is that if I start to watch a movie, it automatically turns my phone off.
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David Howard Editor-in-Chief and Founder, One Hit Pixel5 years ago
Very good article. Could see the benefits for media with SmartGlass, but the gaming side of things just lacked any real conviction.
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Show all comments (23)
Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 5 years ago
@Dave Herod: I'm so glad someone else agrees with me. I'm that old-school guy who actually likes to plop down in front of a movie and have zero distractions outside of what's on screen keeping my attention. I got a laugh when i saw that presentation, as I could imagine how terrible it would be for a classic film like Lawrence of Arabia or Metropolis where paying attention to the movie is more important than flicking through "making of" featurettes while you're watching.

That said, I also found it hi-larious that YouTube filled up with clips of the Halo and Madden segments of the Smart Glass presentation as if those were ACTUALLY part of the gameplay already. Yes, I'm sure Microsoft will be there with game content for their first-party titles and yup, it will most likely be be very good. But if it doesn't add anything to the experience because it constantly zaps you OUT of the game world, it's not going to be anything other than a gimmick that has its supporters because it's what they come to "expect" in terms of "interactive" elements in a game.

Not realizing that the game itself should serve that purpose...

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Antony Johnston Writer & Narrative Designer 5 years ago
"no game for the PS3 or Xbox 360 will ever be designed from the outset with that functionality as a core feature."

No AAA game, maybe. But I can easily see an indie and/or low-budget game taking the risk, to ensure the tablet use is integral to the game rather than, as you say, being tacked on. There's enough iPad users out there to take a punt on something like this, so long as the quality holds up.
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Aleksi Ranta Category Management Project Manager 5 years ago
Solid article but we shouldnt think of SGlass as something to do with current gen consoles or something that would make buying a console/phone/tablet manditory, but rather what it will eventually evolve into when the next-gen rolls out in 2014, and that really is anyones guess at this stage.
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Aleksi Ranta Category Management Project Manager 5 years ago
@Greg "But if it doesn't add anything to the experience because it constantly zaps you OUT of the game world..."
True and is excatly what Nintendo is doing with the Wii-u. :)
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David Wicks Editor / Co-Founder, Gamers Heaven5 years ago
"(I tell you what, Sony - turn it into a fully functional remote for Singstar, allowing people to queue up songs while others are singing, and I'll actually even buy one.)"

Enjoy your new Vita ;) Song selection and playlist generation via remote play was added to singstar a long long time ago (as in years), works on both PSP and Vita :)
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Paul Shirley Programmers 5 years ago
I think this is the only article/report not to suggest or discuss its use for advertising. Seems the rest of the world already has low expectations for this and Microsoft aren't doing anything to dissuade them.
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 5 years ago
So to do what the Wii U can do, SONY expects us to buy a PS3 and a VITA totaling almost 700$-800$, and microsofts alternative reuires a purchase of xbox and this piece of glass. they charge 150$ for kinect. i wonder how much this will cost. My money is on the WiiU.

And another thing to point out, WiiU gamepad looks built to withstand punishment and stress.... this looks like I should never drop it.
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Anthony Gowland Consulting F2P Game Designer, Ant Workshop5 years ago
While I don't think it's a particularly great idea for a lot of things, there's definitely a range of programming that suits having a companion gathering chat and information together as you watch to create a more social experience.

I'm thinking lots of soaps & reality TV stuff in particular.

But then, there's already Zeebox providing this functionality for iDevices.
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Rob Fahey Columnist, GamesIndustry.biz5 years ago
@David Wicks - Really?! I tried it a while back (admittedly probably a couple of years ago) and the Singstar remote functionality was incredibly disappointing - no proper browsing / searching for tracks, no playlist management. If they've fixed that so that it offers the same level of functionality you get on a dedicated karaoke remote, that's genuinely excellent, and I actually honestly will go out and buy a Vita this weekend.

(Yes, I like singing quite a lot...)
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Kevin Patterson musician 5 years ago
When I saw the smartglass demo, I thought of Supreme Commander on PC. With SC's dual monitor support, you could check out the map at anytime without going off the main screen, and that made the game easier and more fun.
With Smartglass, I can see RTS/MMO/RPG and sports games really benefiting
from this.

I hope they can actually implement this in a useful way across many devices.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Kevin Patterson on 8th June 2012 6:13pm

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Hugo Dubs Interactive Designer 5 years ago
@Kevin: You're right, but does it worth so much noise? Dual screens already exist, they just have to set up a feature about it. Btw, Your comment directly fit with the multiplayer offline controversy. Devs says that developping dual screen coop mode or 4 players split screen is asking too much power, but Uncharted 3 is able to make you play online, splitscreen with a mate... Just selling you things you don't need instead of focusing on real stuffs.
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Andrew Goodchild Studying development, Train2Game5 years ago
@Rick they aren't selling you a bit of glass, the smart glass is revering to the glass screen of your smart phone or tablet. As far as I can see they aren't charging for the basic service.
I don't see the problem, try it out, if it's crap, don't use it. As for not having a big enough install base, a pretty large percentage of users have an iPhone or Android phone, I would have thought more than to make a high end XBLA title use it. Certainly more 360 users have some type of smatphone than ps3 users have vitas. Also, if they can convince Gearbox to enble some of the second screen features of the Wii U version of colonial marines as an option it would be cool. And inventory management on an RPG could be done on it, like a Wii U or DS.
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Corey Rosemond Owner, Plyngo5 years ago
@Anthony - Ever heard of Halo? :)

Xbox especially has the deep pockets and influence to get AAA Publishers to source games which take advantage of smartglass as well as flood the market with a bunch of game content overall. They utilized this for Kinect but the most famous example was Halo where the goal was to show that a AAA first-person shooter could be made for the console (vs. the PC).
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Antony Johnston Writer & Narrative Designer 5 years ago
@Corey - No "h", please, I thought you were talking to Anthony G for a minute, there.

And yeah, that's a good point, but the difference is MS could sell you a Kinect for 100 to go with the specific game. They can't really do that with a tablet. Nevertheless, I'm agreeing with you. It was Rob who said nobody would ever do it, not me! ;)
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Craig Page El Presidente, Awesome Enterprises5 years ago
Who will build content?

Ubisoft loves making launch titles, so I would expect AT LEAST forty games from them on launch day, with a total metacritic score of between 120 and 150 for all of those games. Just look at what they've done for Kinect and Windows Phone.

Any game made for the Wii U that's not made by Nintendo would probably also have an xbox version.

Plus a game or two from Microsoft to show what can be done.

If they allow their App Hub members to make SmartGlass games, then expect another 300 games, 4 of which will be pretty good!
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Charles Dawkins5 years ago
Personally I think you've been to deep in Video Game news to realize what's going on. If you paid attention to all of Microsoft's businesses you would have realized that this is not a reaction to Nintendo and Sony but you would see that this has been the strategy in the works for some time. The three screen strategy has been the goal for a few years. Remember Microsoft bailout Apple in I think 98 otherwise they wouldn't be here today. The reason to ensure they had another platform to put their software on.
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James Prendergast Research Chemist 5 years ago
IIRC, MS's conference last year was also similarly focused on "content" rather than games (though they did have the odd reveal)... I don't see this year as anything other than continuing that trend.

After all, the "mass market casual gamers" are not in "games" for the long haul, they want a media device.
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Stephen Woollard Online Infrastructure Specialist, Electronic Arts5 years ago
I can see a use for this type of tech. I think the main idea is that it's not crucial, but it could add value and that in itself is a worthy goal.

An example would be when my son is playing one of the Lego titles on the 360 (his current series of choice), it would be nice to have a second display on my tablet of which minkits he's found, what remains to be found, how many gold bricks have been collected and how many are needed to open a door somewhere else and so on - like I said, not essential, but useful.
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Jed Ashforth Senior Game Designer, Immersive Technology Group, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe5 years ago
But does that added value translate into additional sales for these titles?

There's sure to be MS-funded examples in the short term, but it's only ever going to be a gimmick if it doesn't help shift units long term.

Kinect, Motion Plus, etc; all useful, well implemented hardware solutions, but I believe Rob's absolutely correct in saying that unless it's part of the base hardware of the system from Day 1, it's only ever going to be a passing curio to the installed user base and a 'Me Too' device to woo easily impressionable Xmas consumers weighing up WiiU vs X360.

If MS saw real worth in this or saw it as a true innovation, they'd be holding it back for the Next Gen Xbox. At best, releasing it now makes it a live prototype for full integration next time; certainly possible to my mind, because it's not a USP, and is likely to have become an expected feature by the time the Next Gen X360 launches.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jed Ashforth on 12th June 2012 10:53am

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I am surprised I have not seen one report that call Microsoft Smart Glass the one name that best suits it... 'Cuckoo'

- After being added to a connected device(nest), an app(egg) eventually grows and pushes out all the other apps(fleg) till it dominates the device(nest), demanding to be fed by the original owner(mother bird).

If you can not come up with your own hardware solution, hijack all the others and force them to support your needs... while paying a subscription to use your other devices to support the console in the living room!
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