Microsoft has reinvigorated Xbox Live, the online game service launched in 2002, just about every fall. Today, it previewed to some users its latest update to the Xbox Live Dashboard in advance of new features such as the launch of its Kinect motion control system.
The fall update will be rolled out to 25 million-plus Xbox Live users just before Kinect goes on sale on Nov. 4. I’ve had a chance to check it out under a preview program. The cool features will include subtle changes in the user interface as well as the ability to search through Netflix movie listings.
The last major change was the New Xbox Experience in 2008, which introduced Netflix movies. In the past, you could see the Watch Instant queue of movies that you’d already selected on your PC. You could also see a small number of highlighted movies and shows under categories such as Action or New Arrivals. With the new navigation system, you can search through Netflix to find what you want. As you select letters on the screen, a new set of choices appears with each letter that you choose.
Now, instead of the six sections once known as blades, you can see three distinct sections at any given time. You often see video playing on non-highlighted sections. Navigation isn’t as difficult.
ESPN is unveiling an entertainment hub, pictured above. If you have an Xbox Live Gold subscription ($60 a year), you can watch live sporting events and replays of whatever ESPN can stream. It’s easy to browse through the videos available. A video will start to play if you hover over a selection. You can mark your own favorite games under the My Sports tab, but otherwise you have to sift through hundreds of videos, including games that are not in your home market. When you’re viewing a live event, you can rewind it to watch parts that you missed even if you started watching after the start of the game. You can also voice chat with up to seven other friends while watching a game and can vote to predict who will win a game. Altogether, Microsoft and ESPN promise 3,500 live sports events a year.
Zune video also went through some changes on Xbox Live, including the addition of a new Zune music channel. You can buy yourself a Zune Pass, which will give you access to millions of songs for a subscription fee. You can find what you want via choices of artist, song, album or playlists. There are short bios on each artist page. When you select a song, you can stream music to your TV. You can socialize with friends via Zune Social. With Smart DJ, you can select an artist and Zune will automatically put together a playlist for you.
I don’t have Kinect yet, but the experience will be as follows: If you are calibrated so that Kinect recognizes you, it will sign you into your Xbox Live account when you walk in front of the Kinect camera. You can swipe your hand from one side to another to navigate through panels and hover over an item to select it. You can issue some limited voice commands. Avatars, or your personalized virtual characters, have been modified to work better with Kinect.
One of the coolest features is coming sometime soon: You will be able to make video phone calls. Once Kinect debuts, you can expect even more changes to Xbox Live. I’m looking forward to it.