Xbox Live Fall 2010 Dashboard Update preview: ESPN, Netflix search, Kinect, and more!

7 10 2010

Shortly before Kinect hits store shelves on November 4th, Microsoft plans on rolling out the Fall Update to Xbox Live — even sooner for those who signed up for the preview program. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, really: even without the numerous leaks, the fall update is a longstanding tradition for the almost five-year-old console, and the company devoted a large chunk of its E3 2010 presentation to talk about the biggest additions. That includes Netflix search (finally!), Zune music, and an entertainment hub for a certain worldwide sports broadcaster… ESPN. We’ve had a chance to spend some time at home with the Fall Update, follow us after the break for our full impressions!

Update: As both Joystiq and a number of tipsters have alerted us, Microsoft has pulled the large, wooden lever in its dark underground lair that allows for the Fall Update to trickle out and assimilate itself into the consoles of those smart enough to sign up for the preview program. If you receive a prompt upon signing in, rejoice! If not, well, have patience!

P.S. – Looking for more? Our BFFs at Joystiq have compiled a series of exhaustive videos chronicling the Fall Update. Check it out!


The biggest change with the Xbox Dashboard, and arguably the biggest since the New Xbox Experience debuted in 2008, is with panel presentation — which is a mixed bag if you ask us. No long do they cascade, providing what was an admittedly obstructed view of six selections; instead, we’re shown three panels in their entirety, with just the subtlest of hints that there’s more to the right or left. It’s much cleaner and panels themselves more aesthetically-pleasing, sure, but to be honest, we thought it was functionally easier to have a hint of what’s further down the menu. Again, though, we can’t say we’re disappointed — after all, navigation feels much snappier. As we saw briefly on the Featured tab (with an advertisement, naturally), Microsoft allows for full-motion video presented even on non-highlighted panels.

Also getting a welcome UI overhaul is the Customize Avatar screen. Your virtual doppelganger now stands front and center as you go through the selection of wares and facial adjustments. There aren’t any surprise features, but navigation does feel much less cumbersome.


As far as new features go, ESPN3 is top of that list. For the cost of Xbox Live Gold and having an affiliated ISP (here’s a list, and not to worry NYCers, Microsoft assures us Time Warner Cable will soon be partnering up), you can watch live sporting events and replays of anything ESPN has the rights to stream — and trust us, that’s a lot. (Don’t have an affiliated ISP? You’ll miss out on the live events and full replays, but all other clips and highlights should still be available.) The initial screen features a crowd of avatars wandering on the bottom, while giant displays serve as the screens for the featured videos. Hovering over one selection for more than a few seconds and the video will autoplay; pressing X will make the video full screen, which you can do immediately at the cost of a brief bout of low-resolution footage as it buffers the HD stream.

More highlights can be found in a menu accessible via the leftmost panel. It’s a setup familiar to Netflix owners: a textual list of categories and a horizontal smorgasbord of related videos. Here’s where we come into some hiccups, however: when we last checked live event replays, there were 241 games in all — not easy to navigate. Microsoft alleviates some of this by adding the My Sports tab, allowing you to select and quickly peruse your favorite ball game, but even then, expect some sifting. We’ve been promised more more integration with ESPN’s online suite — including being able to select specific “My Teams” to follow — some time in the not-too-distant future.

All the video streams in HD using the same variable bitrate technology as Zune video. You’re also given the same controls (pause, fast forward, rewind, etc.) and the portal will remember where you left off in a certain video if you want to jump in and out of a handful at a time. The best part is with live events, being able to rewind to parts you missed even if you tuned in late. Unfortunately there’s no jumping to key moments à la the web browser stream, but like we were told with My Teams, it’s on the proverbial roadmap. At any point during any video, you can press Y to bring up the scores for all current, recent, and upcoming games, sortable by sport, and if it’s on at the moment, you can quickly jump to the game with a press of a button. Again, the repeated mantra here is that there’s potential for more and it’s in the works. That’s not to downplay anything that’s being offered out the gate; what we have hear is pretty impressive for sports fans, if for nothing else as a great way to stream matches from your living room set without having to invest in a cable TV.


Netflix has been an enduring staple to the Xbox 360’s entertainment side, and for a long time one of the biggest non-gaming reasons to pick up the console. The only problem was that you still needed another device altogether to explore the library, as the software limited you to a pre-selected array of films (organized by category) and what was already added to your Instant Watch queue. Thankfully that’s all been changed with this update. In addition to eschewing cascading navigation in favor of something on the same plane of depth (notice a trend here?), search has now has been added. It works well, opting for a line of letters instead the classic Xbox 360 virtual keyboard, and the results update with each letter added. If a selection isn’t available to watch instantly, it’ll still show up on the list as “DVD Only” and offer suggestions to similar titles. Needless to say, this still remains one of the best Netflix experiences out there.

Zune music

Zune video got a handful of UI tweaks — its selection menu for video is thankfully much more streamlined — but newcomer here is music and Zune Pass. Unsurprisingly, it works similar to Zune video and most other entertainment panels, as far as navigation is concerned. Search presents you with multiple separate panels for results that updating with each additional letter: artist, song, album, playlist. The artist page sorts songs by album and individual popularity, and even provides bios with hotlinks to other artists, a nice little touch. All the Zune functionality you’d expect is here, including Smart DJ. Pick an artist as a jumping off point and adjust the playlist according to your likes. The program itself works great; whether or not you want to devote your TV to streaming music is entirely your call, but at least the option’s there.


Screen from E3 2010

We didn’t get a chance to bring Kinect home to give it a spin (no beta for us, we’re afraid), but Microsoft did invite us to its offices to try it in studio. By and large, though, it’s what we saw back at E3 with some refinements — and yes, it does work while sitting down. If you’re calibrated to your profile, walking in front of the Kinect camera will automatically sign you in (if no one else is already). Waving your hand will engage the gestures, swiping from one side to the other will navigating through the special panels (so long as you connect the hand cursor to the proper arrow icon ahead of time), and you still have to hover on a panel for multiple seconds to select certain items. That part seemed quicker than before, but it’s still a hassle compared to quickly moving through via a controller. Voice commands are again limited to select options, and it’ll prompt you on what does and doesn’t work. Using your hand to grab and fine-tune where in a video you are is still a nice touch, but really, this is just an alternate method for navigation. Great for novelty’s sake or if you can’t find the remote / are out of batteries, but we’re still a ways off from Minority Report.



We hate to use the revolution vs. evolution analogy here, but that’s exactly what the new dashboard is: an evolution of the New Xbox Experience. Aesthetic revisions and impending Kinect integration notwithstanding, the big takeaway from this update is a vastly improved Netflix and a strong debut for ESPN, which really is going to make some people rethink their cable TV subscription. Sure, it’s mandatory, but don’t worry, it’s pretty much an improvement in every way imaginable — unless, of course, you like cascading panels.


NFL FanVision review — and behind the scenes

28 09 2010

We’ve been wanting to try out Kangaroo TV’s FanVision in-stadium video handheld ever since we first heard it was coming to 10 NFL teams (and the Michigan Wolverines) this year, and we finally got our chance last night during the Packers / Bears game here in Chicago. The system is actually super interesting, as it’s the only large-scale DVB-T operation we’ve seen in the States; FanVision sets up a private network for each team and sports event they work with. At Soldier Field, that means there are two transmitters at either end of the field for people in the stadium, and another located in the scoreboard so the devices work while people are tailgating in the parking lot. The system has about 8Mbps of bandwidth, so each of the 10 channels on the device streams at about 800Kbps, a quality level the produces some blockiness but is perfectly watchable on the FanVision handheld’s 4.3-inch QVGA screen.

What’s on the 10 FanVision channels varies depending on the team, stadium, and broadcast setup of each game; Monday Night Football games have a SkyCam channel, for instance, while games at Dolphins Stadium have a dedicated cheerleader channel. There are also three other game broadcasts and the NFL RedZone channel, so you can keep track of everything else going on in the league. The device buffers three of the camera channels locally for replays — an operator in the control room tags the beginning and end of each play and specifies which camera has the best angle on the play. It’s a slick trick that lets you dial up a replay instantly, since it’s stored right there on the device. We just wish you could store more than the last play — once the next play starts the old replay is gone forever.

That’s not the end of the world, though — another operator spends the entire game building a continuously-looping highlight channel, so you can catch up on what’s going on at any point in the game. You can also watch the scoreboard feed, as well as the network broadcast of the game itself — and since FanVision is retransmitting the feed directly from the broadcast truck, it’s actually a few seconds ahead of watching it on TV. (For Monday Night Football FanVision was around six or seven seconds ahead of the TVs in the stadium, since ESPN delays the broadcast so they can bleep out any inadvertent profanity the mics pick up.)

Of course, you don’t go to the stadium to watch ESPN in real time, you go to watch the game — and we’re happy to report FanVision makes watching the live game much more interesting as well. For starters, you’re not stuck waiting for the scoreboard operator when it comes to replays — anyone with a FanVision last night knew right away that the Packers wasted a challenge on that backbreaker James Jones fumble. (Maybe they should give these to coaches!) You’re also not stuck waiting for stats, since both team and individual numbers are all right there — including some deeper info like offensive success running and passing to different parts of the field. (Fun fact: all the stats in the NFL are delivered by a central server called NFL GSIS, pronounced “Jesus.”) It’s also kind of cool that the device buzzes and lights up red when either team is in the red zone — you should probably have noticed that anyway, but, well, red LEDs. You know how it is.

We’ve also found that cell service in a stadium is usually atrocious, so being able to check on other scores, other games, and even load up fantasy stats on the FanVision is incredibly useful — although you can’t load up a fantasy defense, for some reason. (FanVision says they’re working on it, but there’s no timeline.) All of these features work flawlessly in practice — the handheld is smooth and responsive, and tuning between channels and calling up data is as fast as we’ve ever seen on a mobile video device. Battery life is pegged at six hours, more than enough for an NFL game; at golf events FanVision rents the units with a spare battery and people use ’em all day.

Speaking of rentals, that’s actually the biggest problem with the FanVision in the NFL — you can only buy the units for $199 right now. If you have season tickets or you’re otherwise regularly attending games it’s a no-brainer; you’ll definitely get your money’s worth out of a FanVision. If you’re only going to a game here or there, though, it’s kind of a lot of money, especially since it doesn’t do a damn thing outside of the stadium. FanVision says it’s working on rentals for the NFL, but nothing’s happening yet — right now the only way to get a FanVision at a football game is to either be lucky enough to score a free promotional unit or pony up the two Bennys.

We’ll be honest: we weren’t expecting FanVision to be nearly as good as it is — single-purpose embedded gadgets are usually a laggy mess of tortured UI design and poor performance. Not so with the FanVision, which is the second revision to a third generation product that’s been used for the PGA and NASCAR in the past — it’s quick, it’s intuitive, and it’s actually fun to use. Once FanVision works out a rental model, these little screens will be totally ubiquitous at NFL games — who wouldn’t pay an extra $20 or $30 for this much of an improvement to the live experience? The other hurdle is getting all the teams to sign on, and that’s slow going — Jets fans will be able to use FanVision during games at the New Meadowlands, while the Giants haven’t gotten on board. But all of that’s just a matter of time — as is the Packers’ eventual murderous revenge against the Bears.

Raytheon’s Sarcos XOS 2 military exoskeleton just does the heavy lifting — for now

28 09 2010

Raytheon’s XOS 2 has a right hook that can rip straight through a wall, but its master — Dr. Fraser Smith — assures us that death-dealing variants are still a good ways off. We caught up with the good doctor earlier today, who’s been working on the military-grade exoskeleton for eight years, and quizzed him on the hows and whys of building a would-be Iron Man. Find out what we learned after the break, and see the mean machine in our gallery below!

Though the XOS is obviously capable of some pretty fancy footwork and pummels a punching bag with ease, Smith laid out the reality for us right away: the military is looking for exoskeletons primarily to help reduce headcount by carrying heavy weights. The fewer folks it takes to load munitions into a truck and the longer soldiers can carry 120-pound packs, the more money the government’s willing to spend on those defense contracts. That doesn’t rule out an armored, wall-busting Juggernaut variant for rescuing hostages, kicking ass and chewing bubble gum — and that sort of “don’t bother with the door” exoskeleton was indeed on the drawing board, Smith said — but “the teams most interested are coming from the logistics side of the business.”

Presently, there are two models in the works, a “combat variant” that just includes exoskeleton legs and attaches at the waist, much like Lockheed Martin’s HULC, and the full-body “logistics variant” for lifting crates, missiles, bombs… you know, the usual. The XOS 2 is nearly usable for the latter job, but even at 50 percent more efficient than the original (by the company’s last count) it’s still a prototype that requires a tethered high-pressure hydraulic engine to function. By designing custom hydraulic servos and managing the robot’s gait so that it only uses high pressure when it truly needs to (like when it’s beginning to take a step), the company hopes to bring that number to 20 percent. That’ll let Raytheon cut the cord and install an lightweight internal combustion engine of some sort, he hopes, while letting the exoskeleton keep on truckin’ for over eight hours (a military requirement) before running out of fuel.

While we had the doctor at our disposal, we thought we’d ask how the exoskeleton manages such a blend of dexterity, agility and strength that it can both boot around soccer balls and lift 200 pounds with ease. As it turns out, the crux of the invention was head-slappingly simple: though a patent-pending idea Smith calls “get out of the way control,” the unit measures the load on each joint as its operator moves about, and figures out the direction it needs to move in 3-D space to literally move out of the way. Smart, right? If you agree, then we’ve got a reading assignment we think you’ll enjoy — Popular Science chronicled the genesis of the bionic suit in this must-read feature.


Ubuntu prototype uses face recognition to intelligently move UI elements

21 09 2010

24diggsdigg Not that we haven’t seen mock-ups before for systems using webcams to intelligently move user interface elements, but it’s another thing entirely for a company to make a public proclamation that it’s tinkering with implementing something of the sort into a future build of its OS. Over at the Canonical design blog, one Christian Giordano has revealed that the company is in the early stages of creating new ways to interact with Ubuntu, primarily by using proximity and orientation sensors in order to have one’s PC react based on how they’re sitting, where they’re sitting and where their eyes / head are at. For instance — once a user fires up a video and leans back, said video would automatically go into fullscreen mode. Similarly, if a user walked away to grab some coffee and a notification appeared, that notification would be displayed at fullscreen so that he / she could read it from faraway. There’s no mention just yet on when the company plans to actually bring these ideas to end-users, but the video embedded after the break makes us long for “sooner” rather than “later.”


Brother’s AirScouter floats a 16-inch display onto your eye biscuit

17 09 2010

First announced in July, Brother’s updated AirScouter wearable display is finally getting its first live demonstration at Brother World in Japan. The prototype Retinal Imaging Display (RID) projects safe, fast-moving light directly onto your retina that appears to the viewer as a 16-inch display floating transparently at a distance of about 3 feet. The tech used by Brother was harvested from its own optical system technologies found in laser and inkjet printers. Brother plans to launch the AirScouter for industrial uses in Japan where the glasses could overlay operating manuals onto machinery, for example. Later, Brother plans to adopt its RID tech into consumer products worldwide making for a more immersive (and practical) augmented reality experience.

3D Blu-ray on the PS3: it works!

17 09 2010
3D Blu-ray on the PS3: it works! (video)

We’ve been waiting for 3D Blu-ray support to hit the PS3 for a good long while now, and Sony‘s been promising it would happen for, well, exactly that same amount of time. Yesterday the company confirmed that the 3D-enabling 3.50 firmware update is less than a week away, dropping on September 21, and here’s proof that it works: a demonstration unit up and running at TGS.

Muscle building miracle discovered by scientists

11 09 2010

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