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First Look: Microsoft's SmartGlass tech

updated 08:51 pm EDT, Tue June 5, 2012

Refined approach to multi-screen experience

Microsoft executives speaking at the company's E3 keynote did not surrender any details surrounding the next Xbox, however they did show off the company's SmartGlass technology. Electronista took a closer look at the system, which aims to integrate Xbox, Windows Phone and Windows 8 functionality into a seamless experience.

SmartGlass serves to enhance a broad range of experiences: gaming, watching movies, browsing the web, and more. We've already seen technology that enables users to start a movie on one device and finish watching it on another, but SmartGlass goes one step further by focusing on how two devices, such as a tablet and a television, can be used simultaneously for a richer experience.

A Microsoft representative showed us how the system works when watching a movie via Xbox. When a tablet is available and connected to the SmartGlass system, users can dive into related content, such as actor information and videos from the same studio, all while watching the film on a television. This is something that is already possible, but we found Microsoft's technology to be seamless, attractive and slightly more relevant than some of the existing alternatives. At the very least, users don't want to spend a few minutes using Google to dig up the same information from several different sources.

A tablet also provides a higher level of remote-control functionality, enabling users to browse content on the smaller screen instead of awkwardly fumbling through menus via an Xbox controller. Scene selection is also improved, instantly presenting screenshots in a Cover Flow-like view that can be quickly scrolled through to find the proper spot in a movie.

Video capabilities extend beyond just movies, as users can also stream locally stored music or video from mobile devices and Windows 8 computers to experience on a TV or other A/V equipment via Xbox. Any of the smaller displays can also be used to serve as remotes for basic playback controls.

As a supplementary controller, SmartGlass also serves as a touchscreen input device for Internet Explorer on Xbox. Admittedly we rolled our eyes when initially hearing about IE for Xbox, but the ability to use a phone or tablet as an input device might actually make the browser usable on a television.

As the E3 introduction might suggest, SmartGlass is also geared for gaming. The system replicates some of the functionality that Nintendo's Wii U has shown, but enables users to access the second-screen features from a Windows Phone or tablet. In one example the representative showed us, a Nokia Lumia 900 was used to show progress through a map in Ascend. The company's keynote showed how Madden users could pick up a tablet to search through play books or create custom arrangements.

The system also works with Xbox Live, enabling the secondary display to be used for certain functions, such as multiplayer requests, without requiring users to pause the game currently running on the television.

Given the proprietary nature of the console gaming realm, and Microsoft's tendency to limit its services to its own platforms, we were a bit surprised to learn that SmartGlass eventually will be launched for iOS and Android. We suspect that the cross-platform capabilities will be key to wooing developers and studios to embrace the technology, considering Windows Phone is still struggling to gain market share and an even bigger question mark surrounds Windows 8-powered tablets.

Although we liked toying around with the Wii U, we were left wondering how much buyers will have to pay to add yet another display to their range of devices. Microsoft appears to be promoting SmartGlass as a bridge between all of the displays that users already own, rather than attempting to throw another one into the mix. Recent studies suggest a significant portion of smartphone and tablet owners already use their mobile devices while watching TV, so Microsoft's strategy may prove to be quite keen.

by MacNN Staff



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