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Streaming Media West 2009 Keynote 2: Mark Whitten, Xbox LIVE

Mark Whitten, general manager of Microsoft's Xbox LIVE, used his keynote to address four key areas: content, community, curationand control.

"We're in an amazing world with hundreds of channels, thousands of DVDs and millions of bite-size content on YouTube and other locations," said Whitten, noting that there's no longer an excuse to say "there's nothing to watch" or play.

"For so long we've been focused on the infrastructure in the living room," said Whitten. "The details of technologies and connectivity took 10 years to solve. Those technologies issues are now solved and it's no longer about the size of format (4:3 ratio or 640x480, as two examples) but about the ability to consume and interact with content on any device they want to."

One example Whitten used to show how technologies have matured is based around the Xbox console. Microsoft rolled out an updated Zune Video Marketplace yesterday, which appears to provide instant-on 1080p streaming, complete with 5.1 surround sound.

"This new technology allows chapter skip and fast forward," said Whitten, "so the technology just works for the average user."

Asked later in the question and answer about how to get significant cable or broadcast television on the U.S. gaming consoles, as it has been integrated in the UK with the initial Sky rollout we covered a few weeks ago, Whitten talked about content partnerships.

"What you see in Sky rollout is our vision of how the world should work," said Whitten. "But we don't need to own the content so we're very open to partnerships. My goal is to use those partnerships to get the Xbox into the living room in all houses, making it input number one."

"The entertainment you may want may not be a hollywood blockbuster," added Whitten. "The Guild is an example on a highly-downloaded / watched piece of content on Xbox that an indie studio created."Whitten then shifted to community.

"The technology is there but we've made it difficult for users to share a community," Whitten said. "We've been focused on community and connectivity from the time we shipped the initial Xbox, and we don't talk about Halo gamers as an audience: they are a community. But when we talk about television shows, we use the word audience, so we need to figure out how to turn audiences into communities."

To get there, Whitten said, we need to focus on smart devices and super-deep connections.

"What we found when we redefining the UI which also shifted the user base from just playing games to using significant movie viewing and now live television," said Whitten, adding that Halo and other games stay "fresh" because of the interactivity.

Citing the example that Facebook has 300 million users, Whitten noted that consumer often shift between technologies to get to connected.

"For us it's not about us discovering the trends, but about consumers forcing technology to play games and connect with others," said Whitten. "Think of how even a non-media technology, GPS, was expanded from military uses to today's use of allowing use to connect to each other."

One example of the multiple uses of technology was demonstrated in a chart Whitten titled "A Day in Xbox LIVE" in which he showed details of usage from this year's Superbowl game. Xbox LIVE saw a huge dip in online community during the game, but rebounded directly afterwards.

"Where did all those 1.5 million users go for several hours?" asked Whitten. "They used Facebook and Twitter during the game to connect, as statistics show all the major moments in the game corresponded to spikes in social media."

Whitten also used Dancing with Stars as an example of using a phone to vote while watching television, and then a laptop to connect to other friends watching the show via Facebook or Twitter.

"Mobile phones have always been connected," said Whitten, "but it wasn't until the smartphone that deeper community interaction was possible beyond a one-to-one phone call. Our integration of Facebook means that consumers can now use an interactive console to interact with others beyond just gaming."

"Now when I see Premier Football League games on the weekends (available via Xbox LIVE in the UK), the drop in community users is less dire than the Superbowl example," said Whitten, due to the Facebook integration., which I wrote about on my Bit o Tech blog last week.

Whitten then moved on to curation.

"How do we make it simple and easy to find the right choice between millions of options?" said Whitten. "We have to move beyond the traditional EPG, move beyond search and work towards recommendations and ratings."

As part of this curation, Whitten noted Amazon ratings and social media connections. For Sky's live TV streaming on the Xbox, Whitten noted the EPG has a "heed map" to show what others friends are watching at the moment. He said that feature was one of the reasons the Sky rollout saw a massive uptake when it was launched last month.

"We went for a hard launch," said Whitten, "but ended up feathering people in to the service, because it was very popular. This is the reason that most software-as-a-service solutions (SaaS) do a long beta, to scale the system and check for mistakes. We've learned a great deal from this, but we're now at 100% of fulfilling all requests."

Asked later in the question and answer about the hardest part of his job, Whitten referred back to the massive uptakes in technologies.

"The move to a service, rather than just a product, forced us to decide how we respond as loyal stewards of a community," said Whitten. "It's not just a one-to-many broadcast, it's also about the multiple one-to-one relationships between users, and we're constantly working to make the system more intuitive for everyone."

Whitten's fourth point, control, was based around the Project Natal controller-less technology that Microsoft dubs as "A New Way to Play."

"We're moving beyond the controller port in the back, to the human controller in front of the device," said Whitten. "We can use visual inputs, such as voice, body movement or number of people in a room."

While details weren't provided about the technologies, which were shown as part of a video, the controller-less technology appears similar to the iMatte reverse-matte technologies that have been used for presenter / projector integration and also similar to a 3-D motion EPG guide shown at last week's NewTeeVee Live.

"This new controller-less technology is fundamental to all the other details we talked about before this - content, community and curation," said Whitten.

Whitten ended with a challenge to those attending the event.

"Now that we've solved the technology problems, we need to use these tools to solve larger problems," said Whitten. "We're not in the golden age of tv, gaming or the internet, we're at the beginning. In five years, you won't be able to tell the difference between those three, because we'll have built something deeper than what's been done to date."

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