Bastard Son Of The Wii And Cover Flow

Now, I'm not saying the whole Keep It Clean debacle doesn't deserve a couple thousand more words (which it surely will get) but I felt I couldn't let E3 week go by without comment on one of the announcements that Microsoft did feel was important enough to show-- namely, the impending renovation of the Xbox 360's dashboard interface in the fall of this year. Besides, I took a straw poll in HBO's irc server and this is the topic that won.

Then words begin to fail me and I long instead to wax poetic about publishing deals and PR tactics.

What to say, what to say...

I wrote a review of the Aeon Flux theatrical film a few years back on my own personal blog, and as a fan of Peter Chung's original cartoons, I was extremely disappointed. I wrote at the time that:

It is as if Paramount took a group of writers, locked them in a dark room with copies of the animated series, but gave them enough time to view only a small portion of them all, and then required them to write their notes about the series in crayon on the back of index cards. These index cards, out of order, were then handed to a completely different group of people, who then went on to make this film.

I can't help feeling that Microsoft has taken a team of interface designers, a Wii, and an Apple TV and done the same thing here. From the cartoony avatars you can see they're aware of the Wii. From the clean, white, sliding 3D interface you can tell they've seen an Apple TV, or at least Apple's Front Row program. Somehow, however, they either didn't quite grasp how or why those things worked and what was good about them, and managed to come up with something that bears only a passing resemblance to those two products, and are in the process of abandoning an interface that-- in classic Microsoft fashion-- after seven years has finally reached a "good enough" level of functionality.

If I'm lucky enough to have anyone at Microsoft involved in this project reading at this moment, let me emphatically state: please do not do this. As a last resort, I'd exhort you to make this interface optional. I know this to be a fruitless request since making things options rarely solves anything. All I can say, though, is that if this is the interface the 360 will be using in the future then I can see myself using it a lot less, and at least putting my console back to booting from disc on startup and bypassing the dashboard as much as possible.

If you haven't seen this thing yet, drop on over to GameTrailers, they have HD and SD versions of the walkthrough. Go ahead. I'll wait.

Before I start, I'll mention the things in the new interface demonstration that look pretty good.

Moving Pictures

Of all the elements of the new dashboard, about the only one that looks good and makes sense is the Netflix queue-- and that's because it is nearly all text. Movie titles, star ratings, availability and check marks.

Xbox Guide

The old blade interface has essentially been scaled down and inserted into the Guide. If this means that the full functionality of the old dashboard is available through the guide, in-game, without returning to the dashboard, then I'm all for it. It looks nice and clean, and is mostly text. In fact, if I can figure out a way to use the 360 only through the Guide after this update then I'll probably do it, since the rest of it is none too inviting.

Lazy Susans And Conveyor Belts

Firstly, perhaps Microsoft can be forgiven for making the same interface design mistake that Apple made when they last revised Front Row. Originally, Front Row looked the way the Cover Flow interface looks in iTunes and on iPod Touches and Iphones now. Albums or movies are represented by a cover image, and scrolling back and forth makes the images shuffle the way a real album would in a collection. You can browse in either direction, and you can still see items on either side of the current selection.

In Front Row now, items are represented as if they are sliding by on a lazy susan that is just to the left of your field of vision; so items spin into the interface from behind, and scroll out just past the "camera" to your left. You can see the previous item just for a short amount of time before it disappears off the edge of the screen, and the next item after that is completely invisible.

In other words, compared to an interface as mind-bogglingly primitive as a list, it is horribly, horribly broken, because you can only browse intelligently in one direction. Scrolling in one way, you can see the current item and the subsequent items. Scroll the other way, and things appear out of the ether as if from nowhere, with no hint as to what will be next.

The new dashboard takes this one step further, removing the lazy susan design entirely and presenting the range of items on a straight line aimed at the horizon. This means that within the same amount of real estate, items are more dramatically reduced in size as they retreat into the distance than with the lazy susan approach, and they still disappear off the left of the screen after being selected. So again, if you scroll from right to left, things are too small to examine until they are close to the selected item, and after you've scrolled past it, it's gone. Scroll the other way and you've got no idea what's coming until it arrives on your screen, full size.

The lazy susan or even the half lazy susan designs trade away some of their functionality in order to be aesthetically pleasing; Microsoft's conveyor belt to the horizon gives up even more and doesn't get much of anything in return.

My GamerCard Is Not A Duplo Toy

I realize people think Miis are cute. I think Miis are cute. If Microsoft wants to steal the Mii meme and somehow use it in the Xbox Live experience, they are welcome to do so. If they want to ape Home or Second Life and add a true social environment, that's cool. I think the idea of making group voice chats outside of a game lobby more accessible and useful is super.

But there's no escaping that the implementation of avatars and the Community page we've been shown are terrible and broken.

First, let's look at the GamerCard. First there was your gamertag-- a unique identifier for each user on the system. Major Nelson once said that they'd considered letting people reuse gamertags, and fragmenting the system into shards like World of Warcraft, or using email addresses, but eventually they settled on the gamertag, perhaps most comparable to a nickname on an IM service. On Xbox Live, your gamertag is who you are.

Your GamerCard is a way of individualizing your expression of who you are, by associating your gamertag with gamer pictures (accessible through games you've played or by direct purchase) as well as information about your reputation, games you've played, your achievements, and your gamerscore.

Now look at the equivalent of the gamercard in the new interface. A blank background with a white cartoon guy on it wearing jeans and a black t-shirt. Your gamertag and your gamerscore.

The gamerpic? Gone. Your recently played games and achievements? Not present here, although there are placeholders for them.

How this is going to work is really beyond me. I get the idea that you'll be able to change the appearance of the avatar to represent yourself, or just to appear however you'd like (within limits). Of course ultimately it's still a person with a face, hair, and clothes. There's nowhere near the range of choice available even in the selection of gamerpics that are currently there. Also, some gamerpics are free but some aren't-- does this mean you might be able to get a generic avatar for free, but would have to pay for elements to customize it? I can't see Microsoft giving up a revenue stream that is performing well, so either that means that gamerpic sales are no big deal, or else some elements of avatar customization will cost extra. Something about this doesn't sit right with me. When choosing an arbitrary image to adorn my gamercard, I somehow don't mind that some are free and some aren't. That image isn't me, it's just something I put there because I like the way it looks, the way you'd hang a favorite poster on the wall. An avatar is supposed to represent you, and if you aren't free, from the first moment, to make it look as much like you as you want without paying extra, I can see that bothering some people. Also, what if they don't want to look like a person? What if they want to look like a game character? What if they want to be a chimeric beast with the body of a lizard and the head of a chicken? Maybe Microsoft ought to just go and license the Spore creature creator for this interface because I think once people get a hint of a bit of flexibility in customization they're going to want the whole package.

Friends And Messages Sent To The Ghetto

The current interface has a main blade that shows your gamercard, how many friends you have online, how many messages you have waiting for you, some promotional materials, and what disc is in the tray.

In the new interface, this blade is replaced by the "My Xbox360 page in which essentially one and only one of these items is fully visible and accessible at one time, while the majority of the screen is taken up by this minimalist white reflective environment clearly borrowed from Front Row and Cover Flow.

That interface works in that context because the act of browsing music is a pretty focused task. Starting to work with your Xbox 360 is not. I want to be able to see my gamerscore, my latest achievements, a message indicator, and the game in tray all at a glance. In the new interface, you can't, you have to scrub through these things in order to examine each in turn. That's assuming you can; in the walkthrough this is how you access your gamercard, the game in the tray, and your video and game collections, but there's no hint of your friends list or your message box on this page; they live somewhere else. Because obviously the first thing I want to do when I boot up my Xbox 360 is to look at a cartoon caricature of myself, right-- not send or receive messages or see my online friends.

Prime Time And Spotlight

The reason for redesigning the interface was originally supposed to be to find a way to somehow make the vast collection of content available on Xbox Live more... well, more available. Sometimes it is really confusing trying to find out where things are supposed to live, and each of the additional methods of browsing Microsoft has added has only created more confusion.

The next two blades are, respectively, Spotlight and Prime Time.

What the hell difference there is supposed to be between those, I can't really fathom. However, the shorthand is, stuff that Microsoft wants you to be interested in. They decide what goes there. You don't. The current interface has places like that, safely confined to the Marketplace blade (the last scrolling to the left) and to certain designated areas on other pages (like banner ads).

Here, they've taken over the whole interface. Not only isn't the new interface about you or your friends, but it's not even about gaming anymore-- Game is the fourth tab away from the main one!

There does seem to be a functional difference between the two areas. Spotlight seems to be for random access-- content you can access any time-- while Prime Time is for scheduled and live events. However, that's a pretty broad distinction, and both areas have mixes of video, game, and other content and/or services within them-- Spotlight includes Inside Xbox content, XBLA games, and the new Netflix service.

It's All About The Games

Microsoft at least does seem to remember that the Xbox 360 has something to do with gaming, so there is a tab for Games-- right after the tab for your cartoon doppelganger and two tabs for Microsoft to advertise stuff to you.

Here again, though, they've stolen parts of the Cover Flow interface without the parts that make it work. Not only does this tab's conveyor belt have the same problems as those on other tabs, but it's exacerbated by the fact that it does not display a game's name underneath.

Now, I realize this is an early prototype, and things can always be added to, changed, and fixed. However I have a tough time imagining how any interface could get as far as this one has without this central question being answered. I can only assume that it's not there because somebody doesn't want it there.

Yet it makes no sense. Now not only can I not see the game immediately previous to the selected one (since it has disappeared off the screen), not only can I not see beyond the 3rd game after the selected one (since it is too small to read) but now I'm absolutely dependent on the game developer having included the title of their game on their album art prominently, because unlike in Apple's Cover Flow interface, the name is not simply and legibly displayed beneath it. It is truly mind-boggling. Furthermore, these panels seem to allow for animation as well, so even those that do include the game title prominently don't display it constantly, so you might have to stare at somebody's glowing bald head a few extra seconds before the name "Too Human" snaps into view.

Microsoft once chided Bungie into appending the odious "Combat Evolved" tagline onto the title of Halo, but at least that's one title that would probably work in this interface, as doubtless Bungie would be clever enough to simply place the title "HALO" in the distinctive typeface right there so you could tell what it is. Maybe Microsoft's marketing division ought to subcontract some of their tougher work out to Bungie so they can start coming up with short, iconic, easy to remember names for things. I'm still struggling to remember the difference between Prime Time and Spotlight, and that was only six paragraphs ago.

Half Life, Second Life, Third Life, No Life

I can understand Microsoft wanting, for what is primarily an audiovisual medium, a more audiovisual way for people to interact. Webcams are too prone to abuse, and the 360's current social interface is perhaps a bit too dependent on text and looks too much like a PC for the 360 to be the "gaming console for rest of us" that it seems some in the company would like it to become.

None of that, however, quite excuses the visual mess that is the new dashboard's Community page.

First of all, the whole thing looks like a hi def port of Lucasfilm's Habitat from 1986. That is not a compliment. Apparently this interface is used to assemble a party before loading a game, as there's a sad little "JOIN PARTY" sign out in the street in a way that's somehow reminiscent of garage sales or freshman keg parties-- you know the ones, the ones with no girls.

Secondly, it shows that Microsoft hasn't yet learned the lesson that Bungie learned between Halo 2 and Halo 3 regarding how to represent players to each other within a visual environment. Granted, immediately identifying other people visually need not be done with the same alacrity within the dashboard as in Halo multiplayer match, but even so, text is generally a good thing. No matter how much variety Microsoft manages to put into the avatar customization system, it is inevitable that some users will end up with similar avatars, either by making similar choice, or simply by failing to put enough effort into the customizing process.

Apparently aware of this, Microsoft has put each users' gamertag above their heads in a cartoon speech bubble. So you look like you're wandering around the virtual street muttering your own name to yourself.

In Halo 2, Bungie tried to create a visual symbol representative of each player that would be the primary means of identification, and used this in their heads-up display system. When your reticle passed over a player, then the full gamertag was displayed.

The system didn't work. The symbols were too small and too difficult to differentiate, and so the service tag system was put into place. So the primary method of distinguishing between players was textual, with the visual elements for added individualization.

Microsoft has reversed these in the Community pane, giving far more screen real estate to the full-figured avatars, and less to the more useful textual gamertag. Furthermore, they've presented the gamertag in a way that breaks the interface's metaphor by suggesting visually that your gamertag is something you are saying, rather than something that identifies you.

Of course, your gamertag isn't the only thing you can put in that cartoon speech balloon. You can also put images there, like the one of a lion in the demonstration.

What in the world that is supposed to represent, or why you would want to do it, I have no idea. Maybe that avatar is afraid that a pack of hungry lions is going to invade the new dashboard. We can only hope they eat all the avatars and leave the rest of the gamers alone.

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Comments

Great writeup Narc, Fingers crossed its cleaned up and re-designed with efficiency in mind.

Major Nelson has said that the blade interface is not going away. I bet the blade UI will eventually go away though as MS adds more interactive features to the 3D UI. They'll phase it out.

Nelson also released screenshots of how the the 3D UI would look like with the themes that you've bought.

You are right. I wonder how gamerpics will be displayed.

My guess is that they'll be displayed on the shirt of the Avatar.

Don't forget that many people feel that the Zune UI is better than the iPod's UI. I think this new dashboard 3D UI is kind of like the Zune UI and it is definitely like Windows Media Center's UI. Microsoft if just trying to tie their entertainment and media UI experiences together.

I'll give the 3D UI a go.

My biggest problem with the 3D UI is that it looks too "G" rated. Other than that, I'm ready to use a clone of the Windows Media Center UI on the 360 dashboard.

I'm glad the advertisements are gone in the 3D UI screenshots. I hope it stays that way. If it does, I'll not go back to the blade system.

[quote=rapture]Major Nelson has said that the blade interface is not going away. I bet the blade UI will eventually go away though as MS adds more interactive features to the 3D UI. They'll phase it out. [/quote]

Well let's be clear-- that's a pretty vague statement, and could easily apply to the implementation of blades within the guide. Blades moved from the Dash to the Guide haven't "gone away" they can say.

[quote=rapture]
Nelson also released screenshots of how the the 3D UI would look like with the themes that you've bought.[/quote]

Yup. And those also look pretty awful.

The problem with the old themes is that most didn't seem to be designed to go around the dash's content. They were like wallpapers-- they show through where there's no content, regardless of whether that made sense.

The new method isn't that much better. Themes take up even less of the screen, as fully half of it is completely blank beneath the sliding tiles. I'm generally all for white space but this is ridiculous.

[quote=rapture]

You are right. I wonder how gamerpics will be displayed.

My guess is that they'll be displayed on the shirt of the Avatar.[/quote]

You're gonna need HD to see it, then.

[quote=rapture]
Don't forget that many people feel that the Zune UI is better than the iPod's UI. I think this new dashboard 3D UI is kind of like the Zune UI and it is definitely like Windows Media Center's UI. Microsoft if just trying to tie their entertainment and media UI experiences together. [/quote]

I'd take exception to your definition of "many", rap. There aren't many people who own a Zune, let alone think its interface is better than the iPod's. Even so I'd say that doesn't apply to the iTouch / iPhone which has got a darn good interface.

[quote=rapture]
I'll give the 3D UI a go.[/quote]

Well, I will, too, but then again I'm not really expecting I'll have a vhoice.

My biggest problem with the 3D UI is that it looks too "G" rated. Other than that, I'm ready to use a clone of the Windows Media Center UI on the 360 dashboard.
[quote=rapture]
I'm glad the advertisements are gone in the 3D UI screenshots. I hope it stays that way. If it does, I'll not go back to the blade system.[/quote]

I would take the banner-style ads in the blade interface back in a second over the advertisements fully taking over the interface-- which is essentially what Spotlight and Prime Time are. In the banners, they merely pollute the screen. Once you get used to ignoring them, it's like they aren't there.

This way, they are polluting-- or rather populating-- the interface itself. You can't ignore them. You're going to have to scroll past those two tabs each and every time you go from the "My Xbox 360" tab to the "Game" tab-- and it is quite clearly designed to force you to do this.

Also, I thought the point of all this was to better organize Marketplace content-- and we haven't seen one hint of that at all, or how this interface is supposed to do that. We've seen it handle new interfaces to content (Netflix) and how the top level structure is laid out (with marketplace bifurcated into these meaningless "spotlight" and "prime time" slots) but still no idea about how you're going to be able to browse things like game add-ons and XBLA titles, which is the real issue.


Rampant for over se7en years.

Why do I get the feeling that ALL that new, clear, (well semi clear) screen real-estate is going to be FILLED with advertising? IS MS going to no longer foist upon users over the age of 13 constant ads for movies, games, music, soda and other commercial products every time they turn on their xboxes? Has that been confirmed at all? These are early versions still in the process of refinement I'm sure.

I would be surprised if MS decided it no longer needed that advertising revenue and will be going with the smaller, cleaner (sort of) new look. I would not be surprised if all that new available space is going to end up chock full of banner ads and sponsor logos galore.

Actually the games blade (where it shows the game and whats in the tray) is just to the left of the gamercard one.

Personally I think I could get used to it... i'm not bothered by tabbing through menus as long as theres not that many to get to what I want. Now just to say something about to many menus.... halo 2... why is there so many menus to get to making a new gametype? what about customizing your player? theres too much to go through and it takes to long... and the root menu is at the bottom.

But really theres not muuch difference than what we have now... ok so video and music have their own tabs... but pretty much it's [game] [gt] [video] [music] [system] basicly like it is now. No i'm not too happy about there being avatars.... but if you look at the faces that show who's in the party it looks like you might be able to choose weather or not you show your avatar pic or gamer pic. Now for finding messages i'm not too shure... I didn't see anything that showed where you can find or send them... but whoever was operating the demo didn't exactly go through every menue either.

Personally I like the new dashboard but im a little dissapointed in the themes.... i just hope they change with the blade like now and not just be a static picture.