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Exclusive Interview – Jeff Henshaw: Engineering Manager, Xbox One

by on November 24, 2013
 

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We sat down with Jeff Henshaw: Engineering Manager of the Xbox One, here’s what we learned.

Steve Masters: Hey Jeff, its Steve Masters.

Jeff Henshaw: Steve, how are you doing today?

Steve: I’m doing good! It’s a perfect day to stay inside and mess around on my Xbox One.

Jeff: Oh, that’s what I love to hear. We got sunny skies here in Seattle today but most of us are inside on our Xbox Ones too.

Steve: Awesome. So what I’ve been able to understand so far with the Xbox One is that Microsoft is just trying, and pretty much achieving, the home entertainment hub, so to speak, where you can plug in all your entertainment into the back of the Xbox One and seamlessly use all your media from your living room. Correct me if I’m wrong here, but can you explain to the casual consumer the goal of Xbox One?

Jeff: Well you actually summed it up really well Steve. Our vision for Xbox One is that it would be the first platform for the living room that brings together all your entertainment into one device on one input on your TV. And that doesn’t matter what type of entertainment you love. You could be a hardcore gamer, you could just be a fan of movies, music, you might be someone who loves to watch TV which is still the prominent thing people do in their living rooms. Our vision was to make Xbox One a great device to satisfy all those entertainment desires in one system and by doing that we allow you to plug Xbox One into your TV, plug your cable or satellite television feed into Xbox One and Xbox One is able to seamlessly transition you from games to music to movies to television in a way that no other device in the living room has ever done before.

Steve: And there’s also personal connectivity with Skype features and you can access your internet as well? Can you do emails as well and stuff like that?

Jeff: Yeah, what we built into Xbox One is the ability to keep in touch with your friends with a really amazing Skype client. The reason Skype on Xbox One is such a magical experience is a combination of hardware, software, and service all working together to bring your friends into the room with you through the television. So you get a great 1080p experience for video chat through the XBOX One’s Kinect sensor. We used the legendary Skype service, which is handling over a third of all Internet phone traffic now and we’ve also built some smarts into the Skype software itself on the Xbox One to enable it to automatically sense who in the room is participating in a conversation and allow it to automatically get just the right zoom and pan angle to make sure those people are framed perfectly so that the party in the other living room can see them in the very best possible way.

Steve: So the camera has some sort of automatic adjustable range aligner so to speak?

Jeff: Exactly. We do it all in software which is the beauty of the experience. The software is smart enough to automatically detect who’s there and keep them in the field of view of the camera and if they move around the room a little bit. So that makes communications between living rooms a really great experience. It also works between the living room and a laptop or a tablet or a mobile phone. It doesn’t matter what device your friends are on. They can always get in touch with you no matter what you’re doing on your TV. The other great thing that we’ve built into the Xbox One is Internet Explorer. To give you access to all of the web, whenever you want it. So if you’re playing a game and you need to look up a hint, you’ve got Internet Explorer right there. All you have to do is say, “Xbox, go to Internet Explorer” and it will launch. And you can use either the controller or your voice to navigate to the sites that you want to get to and Xbox One adds a little extra functionality here because it’s the only platform that allows you to do two things at once.  You’re able to use a command called Snap on Xbox One that actually snaps activity to one edge of the screen along with what you’re watching or playing. So if you want to snap Internet Explorer to one edge of the screen to look up hints or look at other websites while you’re playing a game or watching TV or watching a movie, Xbox One is the only console that allows you to do two things at once like that.

Steve: So let’s just say for instance,  that I’m playing Ryse and I’m stuck trying to beat the boss level, I haven’t played the game yet, but just say there’s a boss level, so I just pause Ryse and say, “Xbox go to Internet Explorer”?

Jeff: Exactly. You can either pause Ryse and either say, “Xbox go to Internet Explorer” or you could say, “Xbox Snap Internet Explorer”, and Internet Explorer is either going to appear full screen or snap along the edge of the screen with Ryse. For help in Ryse you could use Bing very easily to go and do a search for help on Ryse and you get a combination of walk-throughs, videos, screenshots, and other help from other users right there in the browser right next to Ryse while it’s paused or, if you want, you can continue playing.

Steve: Cool. So I know this thing is designed primarily to talk to it. I think that’s a new interaction with people and machines and explain that to the casual consumer. Like how are they going to get used to walking into the room and talking to it?

Jeff: I think the beauty of Xbox 360 was that we began with the original Kinect sensor down a road of using voice and gesture as a way to interact with your gaming and entertainment content. Xbox 360 really paved the way for Xbox One where we gave truly perfected the art. Xbox One, since every single unit includes the Kinect sensor, we’ve been able to build functionally into the Xbox One that is inherently aware of your presence and inherently able to understand the commands that you give it. So for example, when you walk into the room and you sit down and want to turn on your V and begin playing, instead of picking up a controller or a keyboard to sign in, Xbox One is able to see you in the room and welcome you back by name if you give it permission to do that. And as soon as it welcomes you back, it gives you an experience on the screen that is reflective of the entertainment that you love and things that you’ve done and all of your personalization. Your favorite apps, your favorite movies, your favorite music, your favorite games. It’s that personalized experience that your welcomed in to,  and you can use your voice to completely navigate through the system.  Using your voice applies to launching games, and launching apps. You can say, “Xbox go to a game” or “go to an app” and it will do that, but it also included some really amazing voice short cuts to get even deeper into experiences more quickly. So if you just want to watch TV to see whatever’s playing you can say, “Xbox watch TV.” But if you want to go directly to a channel at any place, no matter what you’re doing on Xbox One, you can always say, “Xbox watch” and then the name of a channel and will automatically launch you into a live television experience and it will automatically talk to your cable or satellite top box to tune you to hat channel, so I can at any time say, “Xbox watch Velocity”. Velocity is my favorite channel so Xbox One will automatically tune me into television and switch over to the Velocity Channel for me.

Steve: So I’m pretty sure you’re going to answer this question a million times, do you remember in Back To The Future when Marty’s grown up and he goes home and walks into his house and the whole wall’s a screen and it says, “Welcome Home Marty, you’re the King of the Castle” and it sort of allows him to say, “I want to see the weather, I want to see CNN, ESPN” and lists off like 20 different channels and he’s got that giant screen. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that movie or that particular scene that I’m talking about.

Jeff: Oh of course. Everyone’s seen Back to the Future of course.

Steve: So that’s kind of what a good way to sort out what Xbox One is doing? 

Jeff: Yeah, I think the big difference- I think you’re certainly right. A lot of the reviews of Xbox One are saying that it feels very futuristic, as you begin using your voice to navigate and browse through the experience, as you begin being welcomed back into the room by name. As you begin asking Xbox One with your voice to bring you specific games or TV shows, songs or movies, it absolutely does feel futuristic. It feels like the future has arrived in your living room with Xbox One. Xbox One does make it easy to get to the things that you want and makes it easy to browse for the things that you’re not sure you want yet.  We’ve made sure the experience is never too overwhelming to people. The thing about the Back to the Future movie is that you’re mentioning is that there’s a ton of things on the screen at one time and are all bombarding him at once. We’ve used a combination of great search technology that we partner with our friends over at Bing on, really beautiful designer sources to make sure that every screen is well lit and laid out and get you instant access to games and apps,  and make it easy to get to what you want without ever overwhelming you.

Steve: Can you give me a quick sentence or two about the power of the Xbox One? 

Jeff: Sure. We designed Xbox One to be an incredibly powerful next generation console. In fact, it contains ten times the power of the previous generation Xbox 360 console in one elegant design. And what this means is that the system has been built to instantly get back into the games that you are playing, and instantly switch between the games and the media apps that you love with no pause, no delay. It’s completely seamless, completely fluid, no matter where you’re at in any of your favorite entertainment experiences.

Steve:  Xbox One has how many gigs of memory?

Jeff: So all the stats are on news.xbox.com and I think the best thing that we can possibly do is point people there cause that’s going to have all the current information.

Steve: Are there going to be different sizes like Xbox 360 had?

Jeff: No, our goal with the Xbox One is to make sure that it is an incredibly powerful console platform that going to service all people’s entertainment needs today and tomorrow. It was really built with the future in mind, so it includes a very large hard disk, plenty of RAM, and 8 processing cores to make sure that it can easily handle of today’s needs and have plenty of growth for the future to handle the things that come down the pipe over the next several years.

Steve: Got it…Now let’s talk about games. 

Jeff: That’s the best thing to talk about!

Steve: Right?! Can you remember back to the days of the old, old Xbox, when you guys first came out, and they were playing catch-up with PlayStation 2 at the time, and then Halo hit, and you guys were off to the races. Can you tell us if you got an ace up your sleeve, like a Halo or something that’s going to get married to the Xbox One, game-wise, that would be similar in, like when people think of Xbox, they think of Halo. When they think of XBox One, they’re going to think of…

Jeff: So the beauty is, with Xbox One, we have an incredible line up of launch titles, and the thing that I’m really excited about is that there are launch titles for every type of gamer. All types of people that enjoy all types of gaming. Just a few that kind of I think lead the way. First and foremost is Forza Motorsports 5. It is an incredible driving game, featuring some of the most beautiful exotic cars on the planet as well as some cool classics on completely newly rendered tracks around the world. As people get into this and especially as they begin to start racing against their friends online, it really takes driving games to a new level and I think they’re gonna love it. Couple others that I think are going to be incredibly fun are Dead Rising 3, is definitely an incredibly dark zombie armageddon game that is very deep and very fun. I think people are going to love both of those and for the folks that really love the more classic arcade button mashing games, we’ve got Killer Instinct, a fighter which a lot of fun to just pick and play, grab a friend online or grab a friend in the room with you, just start beating on them hard, just those classic arcade-style button mashers. People are going to have a lot of fun with those and those are just a few that are already available and the great thing is gamers get to decide how they get those. If you want to go to the store and buy a shiny disk to acquire any of those games, with Xbox One, you can do that. If you do not want to go to the store, you just want to purchase a game instantly,  you can purchase every single game in the Xbox One portfolio online, from our digital games marketplace. And that will be true of all titles, same day, same date, they will always be available both digitally and on Optical Blu-Ray media, so it’s completely up to gamers how they get games, so that’s what’s available at launch all ready and we’re really excited about it. Even looking forward, one of the biggest games of 2014 is going to be Titanfall. Titanfall came out of E3 wtih more awards than any other title at the show. It is a console exclusive to Xbox One. It will only be placed in your living room on Xbox One. That is releasing this Spring (2014) and we could not be more excited about it.

Steve: I think Titanfall is from Respawn..EA?

Jeff: They’ve got a long history of making great games on many platforms and we’re really excited about it is that as they approach Titanfall which will be heir next breakaway blockbuster, they picked Xbox One as the console of choice going forward.

Steve: Congratulations.

Jeff: Thank you!

Steve: You also mentioned Blu-Ray inside the XBox One. Was that a tricky negotiation to try to get that technology away from Sony?

Jeff:  Not at all.  It’s not a technology that’s taken or given by anyone. It’s a licensable standard for high capacity optical media playback and we’re very excited that people who have amassed big libraries of Blu-Ray disks with their favorite feature films can play those in Xbox One as soon as they get it home and hooked up.

Steve: That is amazing and now I have more of a reason to bring my Xbox One home for the weekend.

Jeff: That is exactly what a majority of the people on the Xbox team will be doing as well.

Steve: Now does it have optical audio output to hook up to my 5.1 surround sound?

Jeff: Of course it does.

Steve: Cool. And I’ll go about hooking up my cable to the Xbox One in the back?

Jeff: We’ll plug the HDMI cable from your satellite or cable set top box into the HDMI import on the back of your Xbox One.

Steve: And it automatically knows which service I’m using or will a few questions pop up about my provider and location and the like?

Jeff: You’re exactly right. It’ll ask you for your zip code, your cable provider, who made your TV and if you have an AV receiver and lastly who made that as well. And that allows Xbox One to wirelessly talk to all of the other devices in your living room so it can make switching to your TV channels, turning up and down your volume, muting things, all possible with your voice through Xbox One and what that does is it completely eliminates the need for all of these complex controls. You can now use your voice to command everything in your living room from your Xbox One.

Steve: Now what about privacy and being able to hack in and look through your Kinect. I think there have been some urban legends so to speak with hackers turning on the little camera on your laptop somehow and looking out at you.

Jeff: You know it’s a very fair question and one of the reasons we feel great about the Xbox One being built with Kinect in mind from the ground up is that we are continuing to leverage the credible technology that we’ve built around safety and security into the Xbox Live service itself. It’s not a general purpose computer, it’s a console with a curated ecosystem of content and a very high degree of security around the accounts that people use to access the Xbox Live service. But we recognize that people care about their privacy very deeply. We here at Microsoft care about our privacy and your privacy very deeply. So we want to make sure people have the choice to use the system exactly the way they want to use it. So if they are concerned about the camera at a particular time, you have multiple options of disabling it. So you can go into software and turn off Kinect’s microphone and camera software in the systems setting if you want. In fact, if you’re really concerned about a camera being in the room, you can unplug Kinect and Xbox One will continue to work and all the games that don’t require Kinect for input will continue to work just fine.

Steve: Well good. Thank you.

Jeff: One more really important point there. We give choices because we want them to be in control of how they use the camera and microphones. We believe the incredible power we built into voice control and he great advancements we’ve made in gesture recognitions for media and for games themselves will give people plenty of reasons to keep that camera plugged in because Xbox One truly shines when the Kinect sensor and the Xbox One console are working together.

Steve: Now when Kinect first came out, there were a lot of those jump up and down sports games, Xbox Kinect Sports, Adventures, sort of clear out the living room and get the couch out of the way and jump around in front of the TV. I haven’t seen any of that so far. Are we going to be able to play the old Kinect stuff that gave some people joy? What’s the story on that?

Jeff: So you’re going to see a greater diversity of Kinect games on Xbox One than you’ve ever seen before. You will have games that are fun for the whole family and include great support for younger people with smaller body sizes and some of those will be stand up, jump around and move. Xbox Fitness is a great way to get you in shape that is definitely a stand up activity. But one of the real beauties of the new generation of Kinect Xbox One is that it can be much more aware of more subtle movements that people do so for example there will some games that can even monitor you lean through turns as you’re sitting on the couch and will be able to reflect those movements in the games, whether you’re standing or seated. That really opens up and entirely new type of game play that is enhanced with movement not just requiring movement.

Steve: You guys are hitting up all the stores Thursday night at midnight. I would just like to say good luck and I’m looking forward to what you have to offer.  Any closing thoughts?

Jeff: I think the most important thing is that we built the Xbox One for people who love games, who love movies, who love music, any form of entertainment now it all has a good home on Xbox One. So we want to thank everyone who’s already preordered the system. They are already on transit to those gamers in advance for a Friday delivery. We know that there’s going to be a lot of people waiting out in line and we’ll be out joining many of you throughout the country to thank you for your support of the Xbox One. We hope you have a great time and enjoy whatever form of entertainment you love.

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