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Can Kinect and the cloud silence seething Xbox One critics? We’ll see

Xbox E3 Booth

I am a shameless Xbox fanboy. Have been since I bought my launch 360 on Christmas Eve in 2006. I’m passionate about my Achievements and ambivalent – rather than hostile – toward Microsoft Points. I’ve been known to mock the PlayStation 3′s cumbersome user interface without mercy. Don’t even get me started on the continuing absence of even a basic party chat.

And, as you’ve probably seen from yesterday’s standing ovation, I am 100 percent on board with Sony’s direction for the next generation of video game consoles.

It’s been a stunning role reversal, watching Sony somehow settle into an underdog role while Microsoft weathers a swirling torrent of enraged fan hate. I’d like to step back from that still-seething anger for a moment and interject with a bit of Devil’s advocacy: There is still cause for hope among the Xbox faithful.

The so-called Xbone is not as boned as it seems in this dark moment of deafening silence that follows in the wake of badly mishandled PR. Sure, there’s been a total lack of response from the company. Remember though: This is E3 week, a time for blitzkrieg marketing and tugging on silver linings. Mistakes will be answered for later. Microsoft’s failure is one of policy rather than design, and I’m feeling a renewed sense of interest – perhaps even borderline enthusiasm – after spending time today hearing about the tech directly from some Xbox One engineers.

Microsoft’s emphasis on the importance of the cloud was almost as prevalent during its E3 press conference as the focus on TV and original programming was at the Xbox One reveal. What does that really mean though? Most of us understand cloud computing at the most basic level: You offload heavy-duty computer processing to a remote data center filled with supercomputers that then stream the information back with the help of a high-speed Internet connection. A simple enough concept, but where do games fit in?

Xbox E3 2013 Booth

Microsoft’s Xbox 101 meeting didn’t necessarily make that clear, but it offered a potent demonstration of the cloud’s capabilities. The engineers called up a virtual representation of space, built on NASA’s library of data on all celestial bodies extending out roughly 35,000 light years from our own solar system. The simulation model tracks planetary and sub-planetary bodies as they move through space.

The Xbox One demo focused specifically on the asteroid belt straddling the space between Mars and Jupiter, with the many thousands of floating space rocks represented on screen by purple and green dots. The purple ones, fewer in number and more distant from the “camera” were the ones rendered by the console itself. The considerably more numerous green dots, those were delivered by the cloud.

It’s difficult to say exactly how this might carry over into the context of a video game, but the numbers differential between purple and green came out to 40,000 versus 300,000, with the cloud responsible for roughly 500,000 trajectory updates per second. The raw processing power on display on a gaming console is on a level that we’ve just not seen before. I struggle to grasp exactly how that might be leveraged to improve the games that we play, but I look forward to finding out.

Then there’s Kinect v2. The innovative motion-sensing peripheral never managed to live up to its potential on the Xbox 360, due largely to the fact that it is first-gen tech. The engineers spoke of how much effort went into refining the responsiveness of the camera for its Xbox One appearance, and here again I find myself feeling hopeful for what this new console may do.

A simple first-person shooter tech demo called “Reflex” served to exemplify how developers can soup up their games with gesture- and voice-based commands. The idea is to capitalize on how players instinctively move when they settle onto the couch with their shooter of choice. We all do it. You lean, you duck, you raise and lower the controller, all depending on what’s going on in the game and how it affects you. It’s… reflex.

xbox-one-event-sensor-front

I watched the engineer explore the aptly named demo’s Tron-like setting as a horde of laser-spewing drones zoomed in and rained down a volley of death ray blasts. Most people have a tendency to pull the controller close and duck down when this sort of thing happens in, say, Call of Duty. I know I do. The Kinect read the engineer as he fell into a similar motion, and shield swam into place on the screen, blocking out much of the forward fire.

Subsequent sections demonstrated how instinctive leans can be made to help you quickly sidestep left and right. Or how tapping your temple can serve as an intuitive trigger for activating/deactivating alternate views, such as X-ray vision. At one point, the engineer stuck out his finger and dragged a cursor around on screen to “paint” a series of targets, then let loose with a volley of missiles simply by saying “fire missiles” out loud.

The tech’s ability to read and respond to natural human movements certainly seems to have improved considerably. Developers are being actively encouraged to work support for such features into their games, with a mind toward player movements and voice commands enhancing play in ways that make logical sense.

Seeing all of this play out, I can’t help but feel hopeful. Microsoft’s woeful anti-consumer policies continue to be a massive problem, but policies can change. Hardware can’t, not nearly as easily. The PlayStation 3′s Cell is a powerful tool for content creation, but the console’s comparatively minuscule store of memory was and still is a major obstacle for developers.

Microsoft has a different sort of problem: a fanbase that feels alienated and betrayed. That doesn’t have to be a permanent situation, however. It seems clear than an overconfidence in the tech led to unpopular decisions regarding game ownership, privacy, and connectivity requirements. Why would gamers care about lending out and selling old games when they’ve got this insanely powerful toy to play with? I most certainly don’t agree with those decisions, but having seen the Xbox One in action today, I can understand that sense of excitement.