A matter of convenience

November 27, 2013 by Tim

I’ve had my PS4 and my Xbox One for a little while now. As game systems go, they’re both pretty awesome. The XB1 has the better launch lineup. The PS4 has the better controller (though they’re both great, the Dual Shock 4 was a bigger improvement over its predecessor than the XB1 controller). Both systems have nice, easy-to-navigate UIs. And at the end of the day, they both play great games. And as game consoles, they’re evenly matched in my opinion.

However, while the PS4 looks content to strictly be a gaming console, the XB1 aspires to more than that. It wants to be at the center of your entertainment center. It wants to be a part of it all. Should it be?

Since every XB1 comes with a Kinect, Microsoft was able to make something like voice commands a big part of their console’s feature set. The idea is that you can cut out the need for a remote control by simpling telling your system what you want to do. It’s a fantastic idea, but in order for it to truly take hold in living rooms around the world, it needs to be as convenient or more convenient than using a remote control. And since a remote works 99.9% of the time, voice commands also need to work 99.9% of the time.

They don’t.

I will point out, that when they do work, it’s pretty awesome. And I’d even say, in my experience, they work… 85% of the time. Maybe even 90%. That’s still pretty good. However, that 10-15% of the time that I have to repeat myself, or the Kinect hears me wrong, or I have to try multiple commands to remember the exact phrase I need (this last issue should dissipate as I use the console more)… it’s enough to make me hesitant to use the voice commands. Especially when there are other people around. Who wants to sit there and argue with their next-gen console in front of others?

It also makes me hesitant to run my cable through my Xbox. I tried it for the first few days and I liked the integration, but again, do I really want to hitch another wagon to a control scheme that sometimes takes longer than simply picking up the remote?

I won’t simply write this feature off yet, because like I said, when it works it’s great. I love that I have one more method of control over my console and games. I love being able to say “Xbox, use a code” and have it scan a QR code in seconds rather than punching it out on a digital keypad. I love than I can pause Dead Rising 3 and simply say “Weapon Blueprints” to immediately swap to my various recipes instead of flipping to that page in the menu. I love that if I want to set up a trap for zombies, I can yell “over here!” and all of the zombies around my character will be alerted/lured to the sound. It’s not a primary game function, so it feels nice to remove it from the controller.

However, I don’t love that I have to talk to my Xbox like it’s a dog that just peed on the rug in order to get all of these things to happen. There must be a reason for it, but I’m surprised that there’s no software in place for the Xbox/Kinect to learn your voice/accent over time. Not only would voice recognition likely make it a little easier to talk to your console in a more conversational tone, but it might also prevent users who aren’t logged in from registering voice commands (apparently if you had a dick of a roommate, they could walk in and command your Xbox to immediately switch to a different game, without saving your content).

I also, for the life of me, cannot figure out why Microsoft did not include a simple insert, a little cheat sheet, with the console that listed all of the voice commands. It would have gone a long way towards learning the many, many commands you’ll need, especially since some of the aren’t all that intuitive. “Xbox on” to power the system up, but “Xbox off” will not do the opposite. No, you need to say “Xbox, turn off.” Where’s the logic there?

This level of voice integration into our consoles and games is pretty new. I’m certainly not saying “Fuck it, it isn’t perfect in the first week, so it’s a failure!” Overall, it is pretty good. But it does need some work if it wants to be the new way we interface with our system, and not just a fad that everyone has forgotten about next year. I’m hopeful that Microsoft can continue to tweak it via software/system updates. They’ve bet a lot on including the Kinect with each system. It definitely has the potential to pay off, and it’s so close.

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