Xbox SmartGlass refines the second screen experience, even as the next gen looms


If Microsoft has its way, every Xbox user will have a tablet or smartphone working in concert with its gaming console.

For those that missed Microsoft’s many attempts to publicize it, Xbox SmartGlass allows smartphones, tablets, or Microsoft Windows 8 PCs to be used as secondary screens for a variety of console-hosted applications. Get the rundown of characters and actors for your favorite TV series, see different camera angles when watching major sports events, be able to check out secondary data when immersed in a game; it’s all things Microsoft has been promising since it debuted SmartGlass back at E3 last year.

But SmartGlass has evolved since its initial release on Windows 8 last August. The app is now available on iOS and Android, though Microsoft’s Rosa Thomas (seen above), principal program manager for SmartGlass, not surprisingly insists that the best SmartGlass experience would continue to be on Microsoft-based hardware. SmartGlass can take advantage of Smart Tiles on Windows Phone or Windows 8, displaying realtime updates of the different connected apps you may have on your Xbox console.

SmartGlass communicates with the console both through the cloud and via a local WiFi connection. Best performance is available when connected on your home WiFi network, but some communication through the cloud still happens. On the developer side, their service looks like a web site to SmartGlass. On the client device, SmartGlass can use the Webkit browser tools – needed for iOS and Android – or an embedded version of Internet Explorer. In other words, SmartGlass is a purpose-built, web-based application.

SmartGlass improves on dedicated apps or browsers because of its ability to automatically discover connectable software on the console after you take the initial step of connecting your handheld device to the Xbox. You don’t have to search for a specific app. The developer can skin SmartGlass to look similar to the app that’s connected.

On the gaming side, SmartGlass already supports Forza Horizon, the most recent iteration of the Forza series of virtual racing games. Route maps can be displayed realtime on the tablet, while certain actions and users can set filters to simplify the map’s appearance.

Phillip Profit of Microsoft’s Advanced Technology Group, demonstrated Ninja Gaiden III: Razor’s Edge running on an Xbox 360 in conjunction with SmartGlass. SmartGlass can show ongoing progress in the game, including near-instantaneous updates to achievements as gamers make progress towards completion. Any particular achievement being worked on will filter to the top of the list, making progress viewing easier.

Track your achievement progress with SmartGlass while playing Ninja Gaiden III.

Track your achievement progress with SmartGlass while playing Ninja Gaiden III.

Even cooler is the ability to contextually bring up YouTube videos of how other users may have completed particularly difficult sections of the game. The player doesn’t have to search for a particular section; SmartGlass knows what level is being played and any upcoming bosses on the level, and brings up videos pertinent to traversing the level being played.

Thomas noted during the Q&A session that a few features were deliberately left out. SmartGlass has no access to the Kinect camera, for example – not because of technical limitations, but for privacy reasons. SmartGlass is also currently only made for Xbox play – no support for Windows games is currently in the works.

SmartGlass is a step along the path to seamlessly integrating gaming and multimedia experiences across a variety of devices. It’s Microsoft’s version of having the console experience wherever you go, on whatever mobile device you prefer. Microsoft is thinking along the same lines as Nintendo and its Wii U GamePad, but the potential of SmartGlass is limited only by the ambition of developers, while the GamePad is limited by the hardware. When Microsoft eventually releases its next generation console, you can be sure that SmartGlass will take its place right beside the new system.