Avatars 2.0: ready for Mixed Reality

Nintendo was the first of the big three video game companies to have an avatar system on the market. Where Nintendo lacked in online services, they excelled in social and party games and the Mii avatars were used in games like Wii Sports, Wii Play, and Wii Fit in order to provide a consistent multiplayer experience across games.

Microsoft’s take on avatars were first added to the Xbox platform a couple of years later in 2008. Xbox Live Avatars were created by Rare as part of a wide reaching revamp of the user experience labelled as NXE (New Xbox Experience). The NXE brought aspects from the Media Center (and Metro) into the dashboard and it paved the way for the Xbox experience we know today.

Unlike Nintendo’s early attempts at connecting friends (12-digit numbers) there was already a well-established community on Xbox Live and the new avatars were quickly integrated into basic features like the friends list, but it was no coincidence that Microsoft’s avatar system came just before the Kinect came on the market.

Many of the games for the Kinect acted as direct competitors to Wii games and avatars were used in Wii-competitor games like Kinect Sport, as well as more online focused games like 1 vs. 100.

Arguably, the Kinect seems to have died with the Xbox One and the original avatar system has been left exactly as it was. Today, you get the same functionally we got ten years ago, essentially.

Existing avatars are pretty basic and there is a limited set of skin tones and hair styles. My avatar wears a hat… because there isn’t the right kind of bald, for example.

Fast forward about ten years and Microsoft is gearing up to launch a huge upgrade to their avatar platform and this time it’s coming to Windows first.

Watch the new Xbox Avatars announcement

These new avatars look incredible and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they are revamping their new avatar system at a time when Virtual Reality and Mixed Reality are starting to become a big part of Windows and Xbox.

We’ve seen examples of abstract avatars used as part of the Fluent Design System materials as well as the original introduction to the Windows Mixed Reality experience.

More recently, we have also seen less abstract representations. The examples above use live telepresence with Kinect and a basic scanned 3D representation.

You can easily see how these new avatars will fit right in into this spectrum of available avatars, but that’s not where it ends.

The new avatar system allows for a previously unseen amount of customisation and seem to be more human focused than anything we’ve seen before.

Human beings are most definitely a spectrum – we come in all ranges of sizes, genders, abilities, and conditions (temporary or otherwise). Having no choice on the number of limbs and only 17 choices of facial hair just doesn’t represent the beautiful range we have in reality.

You want to wear a floral dress?
No problem – Microsoft say there are no restrictions based on gender.

You want to have pink-but-slightly-purple hair?
No problem – Microsoft say there will be a free range of colour selection.

While I can’t find evidence that Microsoft has explicitly stated that these new avatars will also be used for Windows Mixed Reality, I think the very inclusive nature of the work they’ve done just proves that they understand the problem and are trying to solve it.

that the new Xbox avatars have been added in advance of a mixed reality push.

These new avatars have been created in Unity, which is one of the favourite development platforms for Windows Mixed Reality development.

The question of how someone wants to display themselves in Virtual Reality is an interesting one. Some prefer to see controllers floating in mid-air, others prefer to see renderings of arms.

Hopefully a range of abstract, realistic, and playful avatars will provide people with the choice they need to express themselves when using Windows Mixed Reality.

One thing is for certain: these new avatars are brilliant and I can’t wait to see what we can do with them.

Project Scorpio: The Next Xbox

Last year, I upgraded from my Xbox 360 to an Xbox One S. At the time, I knew that “Project Scorpio” was going to be coming in late 2017, but the time was right for me and I wanted to move onto the Xbox One platform.

The fact the Xbox One S and “Project Scorpio” were announced at the same time was an interesting move. Game consoles aren’t usually announced so early, but this current generation (often called the 8th generation) of consoles is likely to be around longer than others.

Watch the Project Scorpio announcement

Both Sony and Microsoft have adopted the x86 processor architecture found in PCs, and while they’re still highly customised, the development of this common architecture is good for the console makers and the software developers alike.

We’ve already seen an updated PlayStation 4, so an updated Xbox just made sense and we’ll likely see more hardware refreshes in the future. I bet that games for Xbox One will continue to be developed and enjoyed even longer than the previous generation. The Xbox 360 stayed on the market for 11 years and its games can be enjoyed through backwards compatibility on the Xbox One today.

The message is strong

Microsoft has been very clear that “Project Scorpio” is a mid-generation refresh, but this time it’s a performance boost to the machine itself while remaining 100% compatible with the all of the Xbox One games and accessories currently on the market.

“The most powerful console ever.
Holiday 2017.” – Microsoft

They’ve also been clear that “Project Scorpio” has been designed for the fans who want the best. Microsoft stated that they wanted to make the most powerful console on the market – and it looks like they’ve achieved it.

A high-end version of the Xbox One

The performance updates on the machine itself are designed to enable 4K gaming and new VR experiences, though it is expected that existing Xbox One games will also see a general performance boost, even when displaying on 1080p televisions.

Even though it has been stated that there will be no games which will be exclusive to “Project Scorpio”, I have no doubt that there will be some games that will take advantage of the extra power and will be best experienced on the new machine.

Forza on Scorpio

Some existing Xbox One games (Gears of War Ultimate Edition, Forza Horizon 3) already include 4K assets, so the work to upgrade the games to work on high resolution “Project Scorpio” would be minimal. I wonder how many other games have already got high resolution graphics ready for 4K on day one.

Microsoft have really come together

One of the most impressive things about “Project Scorpio” is that it has been built with the full power of Microsoft behind it:

There’s no doubt that Microsoft is a hardware company and their expertise has also allowed for impressive cooling and performance tuning throughout the machine.

Scorpio

DirectX is now built in to the hardware. This is really impressive and means that the hardware has to do less work for games built using DirectX APIs.

Existing games have been profiled for performance and the telemetry of the software has gone into the design of actual silicon. This is a really interesting technique for Microsoft and may help direct performance improvements for their Azure cloud platform in the future.

“Project Scorpio” has been in the works for a while

I recently re-watched the original Xbox One announcement – it was really bad. They announced it just before E3 and had a focus on TV, entertainment, and the use of Kinect.

Since then, the management of the Xbox operation has changed and they’re now way more focused on the feedback of gamers and developers alike.

This time, Microsoft have been talking to industry experts from Digital Foundry, for the tech specifics, and to Gamasutra, to showcase what they’re doing for developers. This way, the industry experts can ask the questions the fans want to know and tell the story as they see it.

This is a marked improvement from what can only be described as a fumbled Xbox One announcement.

This could be the start of something very different

I’m really excited about what “Project Scorpio” has to offer and I’m likely to get one at some point in 2018.

I have a feeling that there’s more to “Project Scorpio” than just a hardware refresh and I can’t help but wonder if we’ll see changes to the way the games are delivered too.

If the Xbox One platform is going to be around for a long time, why bother creating a new game every time? There’s no reason why a games franchise like Forza or Halo couldn’t be delivered as a service with constantly updated content and graphics.

We’ll hear more about “Project Scorpio” at E3 in June. This will likely include the final name and design.

Controlling the Xbox One S

With my Xbox 360 I always enjoyed the fact that there were plenty of ways to interact with the console and the same is true for the new Xbox One S.

The New Controller

The most obvious way of interacting with the console is through a controller. Microsoft’s controllers are widely considered to be some of the best controllers on the market. The Xbox One S comes with a new controller which is a slightly improved version of the original Xbox One controller.

This time the Xbox team managed to reduce the number of components making it cheaper and easier to manufacture. One of the benefits of this new process means that Microsoft provide the option of completely custom controllers: you can choose the colours.

I loved using different coloured controllers with my Nintendo Game Cube, and If I need to get myself another controller any time soon I will be going for the custom designs. The only tricky thing will be deciding which colour to get!

The New Xbox Controller

Another benefit of the new controller is the Bluetooth support. It works with Windows PCs without the need for a dongle and I’ve used this controller with my Surface for a couple of games and has worked really well.

The Elite Controller

While Microsoft found a way to reduce the costs of manufacturing their standard issue controller, they also found a way to appease the more hardcore gamers with the Elite controller. I’ve lusted after this thing since I first heard about it. The plastic feels a lot nicer to the touch with a soft texture. The triggers and bumpers are made out of metal and the sticks can be customised.

The whole device has a high-quality weight to it.

The Elite Controller

It has a switch on the front which allows you two switch between two sets of custom settings. I use a standard setup in the first position and the second position is configured with a custom setup which works really well for games like Halo and Gears of War.

It is no surprise that this has become my main controller!

I am really impressed by the Elite controller and I wish Microsoft would put the same kind of effort into doing mice and keyboards for the PC. I don’t play PC games with a mouse and keyboard but I do use them every day for software development. I’d really appreciate some high quality gear, especially as I spend so much time using them.

The Chat Pad

Being able to enter text using a physical keyboard and not pecking around on the screen is something that I enjoyed on the Xbox 360 and wanted to have the same experience on the Xbox One too. As soon as I got the Xbox One I was entering text on the screen and looking over at my old controller enviously so I decided to get for the occasions I enter text.

It does add some bulk to the controller but it doesn’t bother me at all. I can always remove it if I wanted to.

Chat Pad

The Media Remote

The top device used to control my Xbox 360 must have been the remote control. I knew that as soon as I got an Xbox One I would have to get a remote to go with it. The Xbox One version is a lot smaller than its predecessor and it lacks the number keys (which I never used anyway).

Most of the time I don’t really need to see the controls, but the new backlight is a welcome addition too.

Using the remote I can turn the Xbox on and navigate around the menus. There are dedicated keys for bringing up the OneGuide television interface, as well as changing the volume of the television itself.

Media Remote

I use the media remote a lot and find it extremely useful for apps like Netflix… but I have to say it is probably my least favourite piece of the Xbox hardware I have. It doesn’t feel that great, it doesn’t look very impressive, and to me the design is flawed by the fact that it is rounded on the bottom and doesn’t sit flat on a table without wobbling.

I’d like to see them release a new version of the media remote to match the Xbox One S style, or at least just ‘premium it up’ a bit and remove the rounded underside. Until then I will be continuing to use this version as it is still extremely useful.

The Xbox App

The Xbox App for Windows 10 has become a very useful way of interacting with the console. Like SmartGlass before it, you can use purely as a controller or for text input. But now it’s a fully featured Xbox experience for the PC, with the ability to stream too.

Xbox App

I’ve used this more than I thought I would already, and I get the feeling I will continue to use it more and more as updates for the Xbox One come out over the next few years.

The Xbox App also works with the HoloLens too!

What I don’t have

I haven’t bothered to get a Kinect. Not because I don’t think it is technically good, but because it seems that Microsoft has abandoned it.

The lack of Kinect’s microphone means I cannot use Cortana on the Xbox One. This is a bit frustrating as she’s something I use all the time on my Surface computer and Lumia phone. As I mentioned in my previous Xbox One S article: I am surprised they didn’t add a microphone to the console itself.

Maybe they’ll add a microphone to an update media remote in the future?