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Xbox One dashboard impressions: Finding Forza 5


The Xbox One has eyes and ears in the living room, more observant and more attuned to the human voice than ever before. Its Kinect camera can track multiple skeletons (usually inside people) and study your face for a post-workout pulse. It will understand you when you talk to it, and stop listening if you wish. And yes, you can unplug it.

The new Kinect camera is not so sophisticated, however, as to detect the tinge of awkwardness that comes with press demos – this one in a San Francisco loft reserved for demonstrating the Xbox One as a platform. I sit on a couch between Xbox's Corporate VP, Marc Whitten, and Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer Yusuf Mehdi, who will show me a product intended for a living room, quite unlike the cold approximation we find ourselves in. I face a giant television as they walk me through the system's standout features, never wavering in politeness and concision. They probably wince invisibly the few times a vocal command fails to register, because goddammit that's probably going into the article, isn't it?

The Kinect quickly recognizes Whitten by his face and signs him into his Xbox profile. It does the same for Mehdi, and now they're both signed in on the system. Either one can summon their personal content by speaking, and the Xbox One will know which items to roll out without having to ask, "Sorry, which one of you said that?"

Mehdi jumps into a feed of activity from his friends, and illustrates how less-than-friends might opt to just follow you, Twitter-style, instead. When Whitten asks for it, the console displays his Gamertag and Achievements, which are now presented in a manner befitting of their popularity and integration with the Xbox brand: just pages and pages of things that have been successfully shot, stomped and saved in games.

The Kinect also knows who's holding the controller, so even I can take the wheel and order the Xbox One to record some footage mid-Forza. I have never met this Kinect in my life, but it listens to me, non-American accent and all.

We jump out of Forza Motorsport 5, which swiftly shrinks to a large, prominent tile on the system's home menu. It's a dynamic window into the game, still running like the motor in my simulated McClaren. Forza 5 pauses automatically when you hit the Xbox button (the "guide" overlay is gone now), but Microsoft leaves that protocol up to the developer, despite suggesting "good practices" for what should happen when you head Home.

From here, we access the "Upload" app, which is situated in a row of four square tiles beneath Forza's window. These can be applications or games, whether they're for media content or system features, and the list will populate based on what you've opened most recently. Your profile information is to the left, while "Snap" (more on this later) and "My Collection" are stacked on the right, completing a fat "U" of app tiles cradling the active game's window. This dashboard is much easier to read than the ad-riddled app quilt covering the Xbox 360.

You start Upload by saying "Xbox, Upload" - even from within Forza 5 - or you launch it by jumping out to the Home screen and selecting it with the controller. From here we gain access to the One's DVR, pulling out the footage I requested to be saved – though you can also cycle through a buffer of recent play. The clip can be edited lightly and paired with various style wrappers, or matched with footage of your witty commentary, care of Kinect. Just be sure to clean up your living room before, lest you end up on a Tumblr dedicated to shoddy Kinect living rooms. (Is someone on that yet?)

Once satisfied, you package your video for cloud consumption and sharing – it'll encode and upload while you return to gaming, as long as you don't explicitly shut down the app. Programs are automatically closed when they're pushed out of the running queue (which goes up to 6, Whitten says), but the operating system is designed to keep you from worrying about closing programs and other housekeeping. You can do it manually if you want, which is nice if you're someone who closes his inactive iPhone apps because it's neater that way.

Snap is another bit of neatness in the Xbox One's OS, allowing you to pull up a vertical sliver of a second app and stick it alongside your primary program. Think of it as a second screen experience on the big ol' first screen (making SmartGlass ... the third screen?). Though it's probably most useful for snapping an Xbox-tailored app to sports television, there are plenty of gaming-centric pairings too. Microsoft says you could watch Star Trek: Into Darkness on Xbox Video, for instance, while you wait for online matchmaking to get going in a shooter. (That pairing is particularly apt, because both feature magical respawning.)

Snap is initiated from the dashboard, but it can also be done by uttering "Xbox, snap" and the name of the program, which is resized before appearing seamlessly on the side. For once, I can see (hear?) myself using a voice command rather than backing out to the dashboard. And maybe I think it'll be fun to say "Xbox, snap this" and "snap that." Maybe I want there to be an official Snapple app to snap so I can utter the most ridiculous thing anyone has ever uttered in their living room.

You can't run two active games alongside each other, however, because the OS gives priority to the likes of Forza, Dead Rising 3 and Need for Speed: Rivals, Whitten says. As he says it, I recall the big window looking onto Forza 5, still sitting there in the middle of the home screen. Between your recent queue and Pins, which are assembled to the left of the home tab, games are not buried here, as you may have feared.

You may also have worried that, at some point today, you would have to read about Skype for Xbox One on video game site Joystiq. Luckily, I got to check out this cool new Xbox One game called ... Sk ... Skyperim.
Skyperim is a game in which you call a lifelike Microsoft man's house for the purposes of a press demo. The camera subtly follows him as he moves around in 1080p clarity, keeping him in the frame throughout the chat as he goes through his elaborate NPC animations. You get extra points for tracking his skeleton, and ... okay, so this is about Skype, but it leapt out as one of the most cleanly implemented, most accessible features on the system. I can see myself video-calling my mom on this thing, even though she's more of a PlayStation person.

Gallery: Xbox One - Skype | 6 Photos

Finally, Whitten and Mehdi stroll through some more apps, including a catalogue of fitness videos that tell you when you suck at squats. Mehdi does some jumping jacks to music, and I wonder if he hates exercising in front of other people as much as I do. I've snuck in Skype, so I might as well add here that I'm interested in Xbox Fitness too.

The cost of admitting it is insubstantial, and that's part of what I think the dashboard gets right. Switching between apps and pairing them up appears swift, unobtrusive and optional via Kinect – the cost is low. And even if you don't care about Kinect, there's still that big Forza 5 window on the dashboard. Sure, it could be running a television show, or Netflix, or pictures from Skydrive (Bing it if you haven't heard of that), but for many of you it will be Forza or something like it.

Gallery: Xbox One (Xbox Fitness) | 9 Photos

Having not used it extensively in a real living room yet, I'm nowhere near recommending the Xbox One, though I'm sure "the cost is low" is a tantalizing opportunity for the manufacturer to quote the press out of context for a change. Instead, I'd suggest picturing yourself in the demo room with me, Yusuf Mehdi and Marc Whitten as they walk and talk their way through the dashboard as described. Ask yourself: Are you attached to a console as a pure vector for gaming, or do you see yourself popping out of Forza occasionally, suspending it while you indulge in a new Netflix binge or venture into the hyper-realistic world of Skyperim?

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