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Notes from the Ballmer keynote

January 5, 2011
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A few notes from the Steve Ballmer/Microsoft keynote tonight:

Ballmer started the show with talk about Xbox. “Your Xbox is becoming the hub of your living room” –Ballmer’s telling the truth. 50 million Xboxes worldwide, and 8 million Kinect sensors sold in the first 60 days. Staggering numbers…and it’s amazing that after Web TV, Windows Media Center, and PMP devices, Microsoft’s dream of a true living room media hub is finally being realized through a game console.

For instance, ESPN will be showing the BCS National Championship Game through Xbox Live. For my household, the last thing that keeps us on our cable subscription is sports…I can get everything else through Hulu/iTunes/Netflix/Amazon Unbox, but sports are the missing piece of the streaming package. Here’s hoping ESPN on Xbox Live paves the way for better availability of streaming sports packages.

In the meantime, Netflix and Hulu Plus will be available with Kinect motion control in the spring.

Also coming this spring is Avatar Kinect, an imaginary world(s) that you interface with via motion control and a look-alike avatar. Ballmer’s demo of the technology was impressive…the Kinect sensor is sensitive enough to track facial expressions and even eyebrow movement.

A few obvious applications of the technology come to mind, but they’re Second Life,  Sims and VR sex (once Kinect gets some kind of haptic feedback). Are we heading back to those kind of sandbox real-world simulators? It’ll be fun to read blog posts in a couple years saying Second Life was just ahead of its time, and needed the technology to catch up to the idea. 

Also, does Avatar Kinect open the door for an expanded in-game purchase ecosystem? What if I want my avatar to be holding a Mountain Dew or wearing Timberlands?

Count on it. Avatar Kinect is coming free to Xbox Live Gold members in the spring.

Side note: A friend at the agency spent the holidays playing with Kinect, and said the voice-command features might be more revolutionary than motion control. I think it might be too. Motion capture is good for interfacing with imaginary worlds and performing simple commands, but voice control lets us interface with a machine the way we interface with other humans. It’s the difference between having the machine interpret movement, and having it interpret and respond to ideas. 

Kinect is still a 1.0 release–can’t wait to see where it goes.

Next topic: Windows Phone 7. 20K developers, 5.5K apps, Ballmer says the platform is off to a strong start. I just got an HTC HD7 yesterday, and I’m amazed by it. Live Tiles are awesome, the UI is intuitive, and the Facebook integration changes the way I think about my contact list and social networks.

On the chipset and hardware front, Samsung’s slide out keyboard tablet/laptop is sweet (above). It calls to mind the slide-out QWERTY’s on mobile phones. Type on the keyboard or slide it away and use the touchscreen. 

The Asus tablet/keyboard combo is also sweet. It’s a tablet that plugs into a dock for a desktop experience, and has a great-looking screen. I can see these being a hit around the office, as iPads already are.

Microsoft also demoed new Surface tables, and these might actually have a chance of catching on. The old Surface tables are fairly bulky appliances (JWT has on in our lobby). These new versions are VERY thin and very cool. Instead of using cameras to tack hand movement for navigation, Surface now uses what Microsoft is calling “PixelSense” = infrared sensors = every single pixel acts as a camera. The spokesperson says it goes “Beyond touch”…indeed.

Use it as a Kiosk, and for OOH displays and installations. Some commercial applications will call for a mobile tablet like an iPad (like real estate and healthcare), others will be better for an installed appliance like a Surface table.

We know about Surface’s application as a tabletop interface for playing Pac Man and ordering food at a pizza joint. But what about for car dealers, banks, and even kitchen counters? Three or four years ago during a CES keynote, Bill Gates wowed the crowd with a projection and input technology that would let users put a box of cereal on a countertop, which would read the bar code and call up recipes for you, projected elsewhere on the countertop. Very cool idea that still seems years off, but Surface could make it possible.

Imagine putting an almost empty carton of milk on the counter, whereupon the counter automatically updates your shopping list to buy more milk. Or placing a box of Jell-O on a Surface table and having it call up recipes and required ingredients, brought to you by Kraft.

Those were some of the keynote high points for me. If you have thoughts of your own, submit them or shoot me a link.

Full disclosure: Microsoft is a client of JWT and of mine, but I work on their enterprise and B2B campaigns, not on any of the products mentioned above. Nor is Microsoft paying my way to attend CES or to provide coverage. All views are my own, and don’t represent JWT or Microsoft.

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