"Xbox, go to BBC One", and BOOM! Bargain Hunt is on your telly. Why can't all TV guides be this simple?
It was a sorely-missed feature at the Xbox One's UK launch, but Microsoft has made good on its promise to get the OneGuide onto UK consoles before the summer heat kicks in. Rolling out as part of the Xbox One's June update, I was treated to a guided tour of the feature last week. Suddenly, there's a point to that HDMI pass-through port.
(Note that Microsoft hasn't yet provided UK-orientated screenshots for the OneGuide. The US shots in this post should hopefully give you a taste of what to expect.)
A free feature not tied to any Xbox Live Gold requirement, the OneGuide pulls in data from both your connected set-top box and Microsoft's Bing search engine to offer what Xbox Live Marketing Manager Pav Bhardwaj calls "a unique EPG experience". Sitting on top of whatever set-top box or TV interface you already have, it overlays show and channel information in a format that sits somewhere between a traditional EPG and the Xbox One's grid-like Dashboard.
Its main selling point will undoubtedly be its voice control features -- while it can be navigated with a controller (a necessity seeing that the Xbox One will soon be available without the Kinect), it then becomes a more prosaic and traditional affair, seeing you scroll through channels in much the same way you have with any other EPG before. But with voice shortcuts it's like living in the future (well, a future lived by our US counterparts for the past six months, at least).
Every channel has its own voice shortcut, so simply speaking them to the Kinect will see you jump immediately to the respective channel, complete with any relevant show data pulled in from Bing and the box. Likewise, existing volume and mute controls are compatible, letting you silence the TV with a simple command. The same accent quirks that have always been an issue with Kinect commands remain, but the recognition here is aided by the simplicity of the commands -- "Xbox, go to Channel 4" is pretty self-explanatory, so there's no need to memorise any complicated new shortcuts. If voice commands aren't your thing, the whole interface will be mirrored onto tablets or smartphones over the Smartglass app, letting you swipe through the information on offer.
What isn't recognised, sadly, is individual show names. If you're looking to watch EastEnders you'll have to know what channel it is on to get to it. Likewise, the Xbox One won't let you control features unique to individual set-top boxes -- PVR control for instance explicitly won't work at this point (though Bhardwaj suggested this could be introduced at a later date), and from this you can extrapolate that a set-top box's own web-connected features won't be supported by voice commands. Regardless of this, Microsoft stresses that almost any set-top box should work with the OneGuide features -- we'll let you know of any significant exceptions once Microsoft shares this information.
Unifying the whole TV viewing experience is the integration of App Channels. Amazon Prime Instant Video, Twitch and OneDrive content, among other apps, can all sit alongside the regular live TV programming, putting all your video-viewing options in one place, appearing as if they were a standard TV channel. These, alongside regular channels, can be added to a favourites list for easy access -- though it's still quicker to call them in by name vocally.
Keep in mind that all of this is available alongside the console's other app-snapping features. If you want to explore the OneGuide while having a Skype video call snapped to one side of the screen you can -- you're on your own when it comes to policing pals calling out "Xbox, GO TO BABESTATION" though.
The Kinect "Mark 2"'s relevance has been called into question repeatedly since it was revealed alongside the Xbox One, but as our initial review stated, when it works well, as it does with the OneGuide, it is essential. With the OneGuide's launch in the UK now imminent, Microsoft is starting to join the dots of its entertainment ecosystem together. It was always going to be a marathon rather than a sprint, but Microsoft so far has ran the next-gen console race like a costumed fun-runner. As such, the Kinect is now seen to be disposable enough by consumers for Microsoft to be leaving it out of the package altogether. That's a big shame -- anyone that approaches a feature like the OneGuide without the voice and motion tracking sensor will be missing out on what makes it special. Microsoft now has to work hard to make potential buyers realise that that's the case, and that Kinect -- optional though it is soon to be -- is still a vital component in this set-up.