It was always going to be a tough task following the act that was the Xbox 360. One of the most popular and durable consoles of all-time, despite its initial manufacturing and reliability difficulties over the first few years of its life production was finally stopped in April five months after the console celebrated its tenth birthday.
The Xbox One in comparison looks set to potentially fall into the dreaded category of the ‘difficult third album’ for Microsoft. The shadow of the 360 has loomed large over it, with one of the most celebrated announcements for the console notably being the addition of backwards compatibility. Still unloved in Japan, its Kinect camera still not embraced in the West and somehow just not feeling quite as refined as its predecessor, despite Microsoft being reasonably tight-lipped about sales numbers it’s clear that the Xbox One isn’t just behind the PlayStation 4 it is considerably behind.
Microsoft need to do something to shift the balance in their favour and a refinement of the Xbox One might just be the thing. If rumours are to be believed however, Microsoft are considering a two pronged attack.
Whilst the PlayStation 4 has been rumoured to be getting an upgraded version for a couple of months news of Microsoft’s alleged new consoles only broke the previous week with a number of sites announcing information corroborated from various sources. That Microsoft are looking to do a hardware upgrade has been on the cards since the end of February when Phil Spencer, the head of Xbox discussed the possibility during the Xbox Spring Showcase event. Likening the prospect to that you would see with a PC.
“You’ll actually see us come out with new hardware capability during a generation allowing the same games to run backward and forward compatible because we have a Universal Windows Application running on top of the Universal Windows Platform that allows us to focus more and more on hardware innovation without invalidating the games that run on that platform.” said Spencer.
The talk of PC-like attitudes and the unity of games across both platforms through the windows ecosystem lead to some concern from users about console-selling titles just being pushed over to PC anyway. However these fears were subsequently played down.
Xbox Two ‘Slim’
Whilst the name may be still up for discussion, Xbox Two being used here as it is one variety used amongst the gaming community, the first console is believed to be a more traditional ‘slim’ variant of the initial Xbox One. The Xbox has never been the most svelte console across its lineage. The proposed new Xbox One would see, according to sources from The Verge, a 40% reduction in the size of the console, a potential price reduction as well as the addition of this generation’s graphical goal of 4K video support.
A larger hard drive has also been touted to be a part of the layout some are calling the Xbox Two. Whilst no exact price or date are of course confirmed, these are expected to be a part of the information revealed with the announcement of the console at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). August has been touted as a potential date for launch however.
This is the first part of what has been referred to as ‘Project Helix’.
Xbox Two ‘Scorpio’
The second part of Microsoft’s strategy comes in the form of a significant upgrade codenamed ‘Scorpio’. A 2017 Xbox, also believed to be being revealed at the forthcoming E3 2016 event, Scorpio is believed to have a performance target of 6 teraflops. A massive increase over the operating capabilities of the current console, which runs at approximately 1.3 teraflops. Perhaps even more significantly if held to this target would put the Scorpio in rarefied air, nearly two teraflops faster than the purported new PlayStation 4.
Virtual Reality (VR) is also a factor according to sources from Kotaku, who revealed the system is “technically capable” of running the Oculus Rift CV1.
Depending on what else happens at E3, Scorpio may even see some changes as plans for Scorpio are apparently “in flux” according to Polygon.
What Xbox Two Means for VR
Potentially, at the very least the new Xbox reveals a Microsoft far more willing to accept the idea of VR and the technologies associated with it. Despite their work on their own mixed reality (MR) platform Microsoft Hololens, the company have in the past sent decidedly mixed messages when it comes to supporting VR with the Xbox.
Back in 2014 a report did suggest that Microsoft were interested in their own VR head-mounted display (HMD), except that it would potentially possess eye-tracking. Something currently being developed by FOVE.
Phil Spencer acknowledged rivals SIE on their work with the then Project Morpheus declaring he liked “the fact fact that the industry’s innovating with VR – and I include Morpheus in that, I applaud Sony for the work they’re doing.”
Yet a month later Spencer admitted that he personally didn’t see VR being gaming’s future, or more specifically he (personally) hoped it wasn’t.
Still, Microsoft have already tied up with Oculus with Xbox One games streamable to the HMD. The partnership has had other benefits, which Luckey detailed as part of an interview with IGN last June. Noting the benefits of being able to work with Microsoft on both Direct X and with the Windows team to make sure Windows 10 is optimised. The result being it “lets us reduce latency, and make sure that the Rift just works when you plug in”. A year later and with a greater focus on the all-in one aspect for Windows and this could prove to be even more valuable with the Xbox One going forward.
It does seem though that a hardware upgrade would be the facilitating factor in allowing the Oculus Rift working beyond the streaming of games to the device. Nate Mitchell of Oculus VR commented last year that with the current setup having Rift run on the Xbox One was “not so close” although it had “been a conversation”.
Whilst the declaration from the sources concerned that a new Xbox, particularly Scorpio, could be “technically capable” of running Oculus Rift it isn’t the ringing endorsement many would have hoped. Yet at the same time Microsoft can ill afford SIE, with their own dedicated PlayStation VR system, getting any further market advantage. Whilst Microsoft are more likely to want to focus on the use of Hololens with Xbox, something the beefier Scorpio would no doubt help facilitate, Rift and even Vive are likely to feature strongly in Xbox One’s future. And, if reports are anything to go by Microsoft are already working with significant developers to create VR gaming titles for the system.
We will have to see at E3 where this all leads.