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Xbox SmartGlass – A Window of Opportunity?

When Microsoft launched the second major facelift for the Xbox LIVE dashboard last December, it was a clear statement of intent. Gone forever was Xbox, games console, and here to stay was Xbox, all-in-one entertainment hub.

The adoption of the Metro interface was a pledge of allegiance to a new, fully integrated range of Microsoft software and products; a visually and functionally consistent user experience that began with Windows Phone 7 and will soon grace the latest version of the world's most popular OS.

In the case of Xbox LIVE, Metro provided the slick, chunky UI that was perfectly suited to gesture and voice-driven navigation via its much-loved (by Microsoft, mostly) Kinect camera peripheral, itself a major catalyst in the drive to make Xbox an essential part of the living room entertainment experience. To the company, it represented a bold stride forward; to gamers, it represented yet another worrying stumble away from the console's perceived primary function.

Amid the clashing fanfare and furore that surrounded the release, Microsoft quietly snuck out Xbox Companion, a free app exclusive to Windows Phone 7. This glorified remote control did little more than allow users to browse the Xbox dashboard, launch and control certain media, and set beacons (a recent addition that lets LIVE users notify their friends that they're keen to play a certain game), leading many to dismiss it as a gimmick and move on with their lives.

The move to a Metro style interface and the launch of Xbox Companion hinted that Microsoft had started to take cross-device integration and interaction seriously. Quite how seriously it was taking things was answered in emphatic style at its pre-E3 2012 conference, when Xbox LIVE VP Marc Whitten took to the stage to unveil Xbox SmartGlass.

In essence, SmartGlass is an app that transforms smartphones and tablets, whether Windows, Android or iOS, into a second screen for your Xbox. It's Xbox Companion 2.0 by any other name, and as with the second iterations of most Microsoft products (the Xbox 360, to name the most relevant) it's a marked improvement over its barebones, wind-testing forebear.

So yes, you can still navigate your music, videos and apps without the need to pick up an Xbox controller, but now you can seamlessly transfer between console and SmartGlass while watching videos (SmartGlass intelligently taking on the role of remote control and rich media provider as the action continues on TV), utilise the app as a second game screen - which promises some incredible games of digital Scrabble - and browse the long-awaited Internet Explorer for Xbox.

The timing couldn't have been better. All eyes on were on Nintendo to steal the show with its Wii U presentation the following day (it didn't), as the Japanese giant promised to show how the new system's GamePad - the lovechild of a traditional controller and a tablet - would revolutionise gaming as dramatically as its predecessor did. Before it was given that chance, though, Microsoft not only showed that the same would soon be possible on its seven year-old system - reported to be almost on a par technologically with Nintendo's 'mixed-gen' new offering - but that it would utilise the devices that most tech-savvy gamers already have in their repertoire.

It's certainly not a like-for-like comparison - SmartGlass should be viewed as complementary to the Xbox experience, whereas as Wii U's GamePad is entirely integral - but some damage was certainly done. Many will say that the drop in Nintendo's share prices that followed its conference can be attributed entirely to its underwhelming line-up, but the part played by Microsoft's thunder-stealing revelation shouldn't be underestimated.

Microsoft's challenge after exploding from the blocks, then, is maintaining pace and momentum. Expertly staged demos have long been Microsoft's forte, wowing people long enough for them to walk away before actually questioning what they saw (e.g. "Why would I use a tablet to browse Internet Explorer on my Xbox when I could just use the browser on the tablet?"), and so it now has a duty to prove that this new two-screen strategy has legs.

Entertainment device or not, it's gamers that stand to benefit most from the app; the promise of additional means of interaction for a medium founded on interaction is a far more compelling proposition than discovering exactly what part of Westeros Rob Stark's wandering through in the latest Game of Thrones, or other such attention-stealing frivolities.

Fortunately, two games are on the way that offer a tantalising glimpse at what lies ahead. Signal Studio's action-RPG Ascend: New Gods features a "parallel multiplayer" experience that gives each players' deity the chance to affect other players' experiences in parallel worlds, for better or worse. SmartGlass is employed to keep the odds even, allowing players to battle rivals and accumulate power on the move, with progress shared between the console and mobile device via Xbox LIVE.

Watch_Dogs, a new IP from Ubisoft and already in contention for game of the show, isn't confirmed for SmartGlass, but all signs point to it being a near-inevitability. Tablet support has been demonstrated behind closed doors, although the publisher has refused to confirm if Microsoft's app is the driving force behind it. Considering the game's emphasis on hacking electronics via a smartphone-esque device and a distinct lack of Wii U support, it's likely a matter of ink drying before it's made official.

After a fumbled attempt to convince 'the core' that its favourite games would be "Better With Kinect", Microsoft has a clear opportunity to recover with SmartGlass. In an age where platform exclusivity grows increasingly meaningless, it presents an opportunity to position the Xbox iterations of blockbuster titles as the definitive choice.

It's not hard to imagine the possibilities; a Grand Theft Auto V where your phone is the character's phone, acting as GPS, online ordering system and a means of arranging your next game of bowling - even if you're not playing; a Minecraft that allows you to plan and construct creations on the go, and have them appear in-game when you return to your Xbox; or a game of FIFA where formations are deployed, substitutions made and set pieces constructed away from your opponent's prying eyes, while pre-match training and crucial signings are performed on the bus home. "Better With Smartglass"? Almost certainly.

Whatever the future holds, SmartGlass has the potential to succeed where Kinect has thus far floundered, specifically by pandering (convincingly) to the diverse whims of Xbox's divergent target audiences and providing an unobtrusive, accessible and innovative means of moving beyond traditional controllers. No doubt it will play a major part in the strategy for the still-under-wraps next-generation Xbox, but in the interim it should at least make the next 18 months of current-gen gaming and entertainment significantly more interesting.