Xbox SmartGlass will turn your phone into a companion screen

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Xbox SmartGlass, which Microsoft announced at E3 this week, is a combination app and service that enables mobile devices (e.g. a Windows Phone device or a Windows 8 tablet) to act as companion "second screens" for Microsoft's Xbox console. In Windows Phone terms Xbox SmartGlass is the next generation of the existing Xbox companion app. The key aim of SmartGlass is to make "entertainment smarter, more interactive and more fun" by providing a more immersive user experience. 

SmartGlass enabled devices can be used to take content with you (e.g. keeping playing a movie when you leave the house), show additional information (e.g. maps and secondary controls in games, rich contextual information for films and TV) and as a remote control mechanism. 

An underlying principal is to expand Xbox's reach outside of its gaming core - Microsoft wants to put an Xbox under every TV - providing the smart heart of the biggest screen in the home. Xbox Live already provides music, film and TV services, and Microsoft will add to that, but it also looking to differentiate the Xbox experience from other set top boxes and smarts TVs by closely integrating the Xbox with other computing devices around the home - computers, tablets and phones. Microsoft envisions both extending the Xbox experience to these devices (games and multimedia entertainment) and using the devices as companion screens.

At E3 Microsoft demonstrated four key experiences that will be part of the SmartGlass offering and which build on the existing Xbox companion offering:

  • Seamless viewing switching: SmartGlass will enable you to switch the screen on which you are viewing content. For example, if you're watching a film you can pause on your Xbox and then continue playing on your Windows 8 tablet (and potentially Windows Phone too). The same will apply to other multimedia content such as music (e.g. resuming / transferring playlists).
  • Companion screen for video content: SmartGlass devices can act as companion "second screens" when watching films or TV shows. Microsoft showed an example from the film "School of Rock" that showed information about which actors were on screen at any given time and linked to actor bios and filmography. In another example, for the TV show "Game of Thrones", a map of fictional Westeros was shown (the world in which the show is based), which moved according to the location of the current scene. Microsoft calls these companion screen experiences activities.

  • Companion screen for games: SmartGlass devices can provide additional information and controls for Xbox games. Microsoft showed an example from the upcoming game Halo 4, in which the companion screen was used to provide information on in-game elements, show maps and accept game and friend requests. Potentially this could be extended to include secondary game controls and other elements.
  • Remote control: SmartGlass devices can act as additional control mechanisms. Microsoft showed how a SmartGlass device could used to control the Xbox's upcoming implementation on Internet Explorer. Tablets and phones with touch screens offer the potential for different kinds of user interactions than the existing controller and Kinnect methods (e.g. think how much easier pinch to zoom is on a touch screen when web browsing). 

The seamless viewing experience will largely be enabled by intelligent use of streaming content and associated with content purchased or accessed through the Xbox Live service (i.e. rather than passing files about, it will pass information on how far you are into a given stream).

Microsoft envisions that the companion screen activities will be created by the content publishers themselves (in the same way they do for DVDs extras), although it's likely that Microsoft will implement a basic minimum (e.g. cast information for film/TV; chatting/requests in games).

Microsoft will also provide a framework for third party developers to use SmartGlass to deliver their own functionality, offering the potential of third party multi-screen experiences (e.g. think of an extension of the Spotify services that seamlessly switches between devices).

Xbox SmartGlass apps will be available for Windows 8, Windows Phone 8 and other mobile devices later this year.