New XBox 360 Experience – Avatars networking on the cloud

The third post in as many days. I’m not on a roll, there’s just a lot happening.

Microsoft’s successful XBox 360 console received a bit of a makeover last
night, in the form of the much anticipated “New XBox Experience“. Previously,
the XBox user interface when turned on was a series of “blades”, representing
distinct actions and tasks within the console such as playing games, playing
music and videos and making purchases from the various stores. All in all a
functional if uninspiring interface.

The New Xbox Experience was pushed to users last night, in a very impressive
global rollout of the software. This itself must have been a technical
nightmare! The new user interface is very 3D-based, concentrating on “slides”
rather than blades which come in and out of focus (literally). It is very
attractive.

Where the clever bit comes in is with the use of Avatars. Previously, gamers
were represented in the community by a GamerCard. Much like an ID card, the only really customisable part of it is the icon used for the image.

Avatars are becoming increasingly popular in various applications, so I’m
sure you’ll know that an Avatar is a computer-representation of yourself that
exists in the digital world. Games like Second Life centre around users’
avatars. Whether it is on the XBox 360 console or Facebook. The New XBox 360
Experience invites us to create an avatar to represent us in the XBox 360
environment. Gamers have been playing on line with each other for years, and
forms the hub of major games such as Rock Band, Call of Duty and Halo 3. Gamers
are often required to join up into teams to complete tasks, for example. Where
the New XBox Experience improves things is that your avatar can now appear in
games themselves, reinforcing your digital representation. This idea has been
criticised as a copy of the Nintendo Wii Mii idea, which works on a similar basis. A number of “Party Games” are also going to be launch which allow gamers to participate in “live” games, much like TV gameshows where the gamers’ avatars take part in a digital game occuring – to all intents and purposes – on the “cloud”.

I’m not a gamer, indeed, I actually represent a small part of an increasingly
successful market that gaming companies are targetting – that of the “casual
gamer”. The casual gamer market consists of people who may be 30-something and who enjoy a quick stab at a game to come down after a day at work. Whether they are just wasting time or re-living retro-classics, they can’t afford the
commitment required of the mainstream games such as Call of Duty, Grand Theft
Auto, etc. We still enjoy playing PacMan and Frogger in original blocky graphics
on our expensive HD gaming systems.

The significance of Microsoft’s work hasn’t passed me by, however. The new
user interface re-inforces the community of gamers in the living room. No longer
are fellow gamers hidden behind a subscription-only service, now they appear on
your dashboard using their own avatar representation. You go to them and point
to them to join in a “party”, conversation or compare successes. The concept of
the gaming community is quickly becoming like that of Facebook or MySpace,
allowing social networking to occur in the living room in a safe environment.
Gamers, particularly young gamers, can socialise with their friends using their
console (no complicated PC to configure) in a “sandbox” which comes with
parental controls and a hefty terms of use agreement which is rigorously
enforced. Avatars take this to the next level, and Microsoft promise a number of
other improvements to increase the networking opportunities of gamers.

The YouTube video below shows how the new Avatar system works.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VExbd1oZ760

Unfortunately, however, these networks are very vendor-based. Your XBox 360
personality can’t exist in a Wii Mii context, even though it is the same idea
and you and your friend are running the same game, for example, Rock Band. I
guess it’s only like Facebook vs MySpace vs Bebo, but a £160+ investment in a
social network that may or may not include people you get on with is a bit of a
risk. Obviously, you buy the console for the gaming possibilities (amongst
others) but the networking opportunities will form an increasingly more
important aspect of the marketing of the product by the producers and the
selection of the console by the consumer.

The XBox 360 and platforms like it are also becoming a more attractive
purchase for people who don’t play games. As Windows Vista rolls out, more
people are realising that they can watch, record and manage their TV, music and
picture libraries using an XBox 360. XBox 360s can play DVDs, can rent HD video
content from the internet for viewing on HD sets (not requiring the expensive
Blu-Ray player) and form a controlled access point for the internet, and
therefore, the “cloud”. Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform looks very
exciting, coupled with Mesh, Office Live, Windows Live and XBox Live some
seriously cool applications could be developed that bring us away from the
conventional desktop and returns us to the living room for social networking,
video download, etc.

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