Yesterday Microsoft announced that the Xbox 360 will finally get its long-awaited firmware overhaul next month.
With the date firmly set at November 19, the update - dubbed New Xbox Experience - will offer gamers a whole new, interactive dashboard reminiscent of Windows Vista’s Aero interface. Vertical menus stand upon a virtual floor, allowing the gamer to switch from one to the other easily, moving between the games library window, the photo library window, the video library window and so on. However it’s the "Second Life’ themed virtual environment that will make this interface a whole "new experience."
Gamers will be able to create custom, 3D avatars much in the same manner as The Sims (the Personality Plus tool), choosing clothes, hairstyles, pants and more. Since the first images hit the internet, Microsoft has endured claims that its avatar feature is a direct knockoff of Nintendo’s Mii avatars featured on the Wii console. Mark Whitten, Xbox Live’s general manager, says that’s not the case at all : the inspiration came from none other than World of Warcraft.
"When the New Xbox Experience launches in just six weeks, we will be inviting the whole world to play," said John Schappert, Microsoft’s corporate VP for Interactive Entertainment, at TGS 2008. Schappert was referring the new Xbox Live Party feature included with the update, an eight-way group voice chat that stays active while console owners are playing games, watching movies or checking out other media. Additionally, look for Netflix to a part of the new dashboard as well.
"Watching movies at home will never be the same. Netflix on Xbox 360 is an entertainment first," added Schappert.
The update comes just in time for the holiday season, the console itself having just seen a reduction in price for all three models : the Xbox 360 elite, featuring a 120 GB hard drive, dropped from $449 to $399 ; the 60G B Basic model now costs $299 whereas the Arcade version now has a pricetag of $199. The drop in price will likely make the Xbox 360 the prime contender against Nintendo’s Wii console during the holidays, with the PlayStation 3 lagging behind.
Both the Nintendo Wii and the PlayStation 3 already have updates planned as well, with Sony’s virtual community interface, PlayStation Home, set to hit the PlayStation 3 late this year / early next year. Nintendo plans to add a few updates to the Wii System as well including the Wii Demo Channel, an overhaul of the WFC friend system and possibly DVD playback via software. The Wii Speak Channel is slated to hit the Wii dashboard on November 16, three days before Microsoft unleashes its own dashboard overhaul. And although the Nintendo Wii offers a low price and virtual avatars with limited customization, it currently does not offer the "Second Life" metaverse both New Xbox Experience and PlayStation Home will offer in the next few months.
Still, Microsoft seems rather pumped about New Xbox Experience launching November 19, and rightfully so. Graphically the New Xbox Experience is a tremendous leap from the current drab "blades" interface. "On that day, millions of Xbox 360 owners worldwide will experience a completely new Xbox 360 that is fun, social, and simple to use," said the company, "and puts more entertainment at their fingertips than any other device connected to the TV," the company said.