The future in your hands


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The Independent Online

If an Englishman's home is his castle, perhaps the living room is his country getaway. Retreating nightly to the opulent pleasures of modern leisure sees him whiling away evenings in front of an impressive array of technology. However, an increasing number of boxes, screens, controllers and cables can sometimes make a night in front of the television more trouble than it's worth. Surely some of this technological might could be spent on making things a little easier to use?

With the passing in May of Eugene Polley, the creator of the television remote control, we'd do well to remember the value of usability. His 1955 Flash-Matic controller used light to change the television channel. It may look rudimentary by today's standards but Polley's invention instantly saved couch potatoes from billions of trips from the settee to the television set.

Television remotes have since proliferated in the living room as VCRs, DVDs and televisions each required a separate controller. The universal remote came to the rescue in the 1990s and offered the illusion that our different boxes were in some way co-operating with each other.

It's now the number of screens rather than the number of controllers that makes relaxing such hard work. Smartphones, tablet devices and the television screen each demand our attention. However, looking up information about navigating and searching Electronic Program Guides (EPGs) and switching between different operating systems is a confusing and frustrating experience.

In California last month at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), Microsoft unveiled its vision of the modern-day universal remote. Xbox SmartGlass is a free app for mobile phones and tablet computers that enables you to browse and launch video, music and game content on your Xbox 360. Because SmartGlass knows what you are watching, playing or listening to, it can then feed back related information to your phone or tablet. While you are watching a television show it provides details on the cast, other episodes and even the virtual location of the show, without the need to go looking for this manually.

"Xbox SmartGlass was developed within the Interactive Entertainment Business, where we believe that your devices should work together," said Lisa Worthington, the senior PR manager for Interactive Entertainment at Microsoft. "We set out to answer the following question: what if your tablet or phone knew what you were watching on TV and presented bonus features and additional relevant experiences without you having to lift a finger?"

Peter Orullian, the product manager for SmartGlass, described it at E3 as "the only companion app you need for the device you already own". Because SmartGlass is launching not only on Windows devices but also on iOS and Android, it can stitch together these operating systems and greatly simplify the user experience.

Whereas product manufacturers used to clamour to be the box under our television screens, now the desire is to be the device we pick up on entering the living room – and, more recently, to be the software running on that device. Create an application or tablet that becomes the go-to gadget when we enter the living room and you have the audience's eye, along with the opportunity to curate their viewing.

Although SmartGlass is unique for its two-way flow of information, each platform holder seems to have similar aspirations. Apple's television, PlayStation 3's Play television service and Nintendo's forthcoming tablet-controlled Wii U console each offer a way to browse and select content for the main television screen via a remote device.

For Apple it's the iPad or iPhone and for the PlayStation it's the PSP or PS Vita handheld that offer the second screen. Nintendo takes this a step further by including infrared technology in its new Wii U controller, which means you can turn the television on as well as navigating content.

Because most mobile phones and tablets don't include infrared technology, apps such as the L5 Remote can control a television only by plugging in an infrared transmitting dongle. Other apps such as the Samsung Remote control Smart televisions via their built-in Wi-Fi function – but are still a long way from being a universal controller.

Worthington clarified this point. "The intent for Xbox SmartGlass is to make your devices work together in an intelligent manner… It does not control your television independent of the Xbox 360 console." If SmartGlass has an Achilles' heel, this is it; picking up something else to turn on the television is a chance for another device to arrest the viewer's attention. Additionally, although the app is free, you will need to invest in an Xbox 360 (£129.99) to use it if you don't have one.

When asked about the Wii U's television remote feature, Worthington responded: "Xbox SmartGlass works with the devices you already own – your television, your tablet or PC and your phone – and works across music, sports, videos, movies, television shows and games on the Xbox." What she doesn't mention is that in terms of video-game controls SmartGlass offers similar interactions to the new Wii U tablet controller.

Orullian addressed this when introducing the SmartGlass. "Games we've got like Homerun Stars use SmartGlass as an input device so you can articulate a pitch or batting." This offers the sort of experience that Nintendo are leveraging for the Wii U. But here, like Microsoft's Kinect, the cost is kept to a minimum as the controller is an expansion for your existing console – whereas Wii owners will require a completely new system to use the Wii U tablet.

Microsoft has promised to commit to SmartGlass, and leverage its functionality across the line-up of Xbox 360 games. With many expecting game consoles to move to the cloud in coming years, essentially removing the need for hardware in the home, second-screen and controller functionality such as this will help platform holders to maintain their relevance. How we access and interact with games will remain a matter for the controllers we are holding in our living rooms.

Beyond the games themselves, it seems that tablet apps such as SmartGlass are perfectly placed to "join up" the technology in our homes. This progress will certainly make it harder for Apple's television set, rumoured to arrive next year and link television, entertainment, games and the web all controlled by an iPad or iPhone, to dominate.

As these new fronts open up in the battle for the living room, guessing the eventual winners is still no easy task. The most positive development with SmartGlass is a shift towards making existing equipment more accessible and usable rather than selling more boxes to go under our big screens.