11/06/2013 12:55 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 18:58 EST

Xbox One preview hints at next generation of entertainment

At a preview event in Toronto this week, Microsoft showed off technology it hopes will change the modern living room. With its Xbox One that launches Nov. 22, the focus is on selling an entertainment experience to everyone, not just gamers.

Walking into the Xbox One pop-up store, set in Toronto’s central hub of Yonge and Bloor, there’s a sense this console shares little in common with previous iterations.

Eight years ago, with the release of the Xbox 360, Microsoft had different priorities for what was ostensibly a “gaming” console. Back then, it was about how fast and how high the hardware could push gaming.

Today, the Xbox One is about being a vehicle for different types of entertainment, appealing to a larger crowd.

“The really great part is that we can bring in entertainment, movies, live TV, sports, music ... we can do all of that in Xbox One,” says Craig Flannagan, director of marketing for Microsoft Canada.

Traditional gaming is still a core part of the Xbox One experience, but Flannagan says traditional gamers aren’t the only target audience.

“We’ve really designed this with the whole family in mind, around entertainment.”

In 2005, the 360 launched with shooters like Call of Duty, racing games like Project Gotham and sports games like Madden - all focused on a younger, predominantly male audience. With the One, there are still shooters, racers and sports games, but they share the spotlight with gaming experiences designed for all ages.

New Kinect sensor

Nowhere is that clearer than the games for the Xbox One’s new Kinect sensor.

Born in the previous generation - arguably after Nintendo’s Wii console created an excitement over motion controls - the new Kinect sensor makes the user’s voice and movement its interface. The new Kinect is a powerful, integrated tool that Microsoft’s rivals don’t have.

“It’s the Kinect you expected years ago,” says Drew Quakenbush, director of studio operations at video game developer Rare, a company with deep roots in the gaming industry.

For the company’s upcoming game Kinect Sports Rivals, the company has been working for two years to create a powerful motion control experience.

“[Kinect sees] 1,400 points of detection on my face. It can sense my shape, my skin tone. It’s just incredible.”

Though Kinect Sports Rivals won’t be released until next spring, the demo that will be available at launch will show off the Kinect’s impressive technology. With little more than a flick of his wrist, Quakenbush was able to speed off in a jet ski, even throwing up a peace sign while riding. It was all caught on the screen, with great fidelity and no lag, as well as in high definition.

Not just for gamers

Just like Kinect, the 360 has evolved over the years, moving beyond just games and tapping into other entertainment markets: streaming movies, music and TV shows. With the Xbox One, that experience goes a step further.

“You go ‘Xbox on, Xbox Watch TV.’ It’s as simple as that.” says Glenn Purkis, Xbox Live category manager for Microsoft Canada.

He says that Kinect’s voice and motion recognition are deeply integrated with the interface, but new features allow more multi-tasking. On the Xbox One, users can jump in and out of what they’re doing, push what they’re doing to one part of the screen and take advantage of second-screen experiences.

“Many of us have that secondary device. The challenge is to pause, look up [information], and then resume, “ Purkis says, touting the features of companion app called Xbox SmartGlass.

“It’s about never missing a moment. You wonder, who’s that actor? Look down, it’s there on my screen. It’s synchronous. It’s more complementary than intrusive.”

While those features sound great in concept, without the entertainment partners to provide the content they’re little more than gimmicks. Purkis did not reveal any content partners at the preview event, such as Netflix, but did say some would be announced before launch. Besides Skype, a product now owned by Microsoft, no formal app lineup was given, either.

Another issue is that some of the great content-related features of Xbox One won’t be available right away for Canadians. One Guide, its personalized TV experience, will not be ready out-of-the-box in Canada.

Tight controls, better hardware

While Xbox One has a lot for entertainment consumers and casual players, hard-core gamers won’t be left out in the cold. The hardware’s prowess compared to the current generation really shows off in games like ForzaMotorsport 5, a racing simulator from Turn 10 Studio. John Wendl, the company’s content director, says the leap in hardware means a more visually beautiful final product.

“The increase in processing power enables our new rendering engine to run at native 1080p resolution and 60 frames per second. It also powers our all new physics system and tire model.”

For any game, but especially racing simulators, the game needs to feel as good as it looks. That onus is on the new Xbox One controller, which feels lighter than previous models, but is still incredibly comfortable and packs more features that game companies can take advantage of.

“The big innovation in the new controller is the trigger rumble,” Wendl says. “We’re able to isolate feedback forces in wheel spin and brake lockup independently.”

In Forza 5, the controller also reacts to what kind of road the player is driving on, rumbling at different intensities.

Games like Forza also change as time goes by. With custom user-created and monthly downloadable content, the game adapts to player preference. It’s an evolution Craig Flannagan says applies to a lot of different games on the Xbox One.

“They continue to be challenging. Worlds are living, they evolve - it’s not the same game 30 days after you bought it!”

Rocky start, smoother finish

The Xbox one had a rocky start this summer - features the company thought its core audience would love instead resulted in an online firestorm of negative reaction. Initially, for example, the console would place restrictions on playing used games and would require the player to be connected to the internet at least once a day. As for the bundled Kinect camera, it needed to be plugged in and on at all times.

These are all policies that Microsoft has since backed away from.  

“The way I think about it is: we got some feedback, and we listened,” Flannagan said.

 “We listened to all those things and I’m actually proud of the fact that we made all those changes in pretty short order.”

The changes in policy definitely benefit Microsoft’s core gamer audience, but also put to rest fears about privacy controls and information gathering for all consumers. And if one thing is now clear, it’s that the Xbox One is meant for everyone.