The soon-to-be released Xbox 360 dashboard update features a slick Metro-based user interface and new cloud-saving functionality, but the most interesting aspect for cable-cutters and other streaming videophiles is the integration of Bing video search and Kinect voice recognition.
Xbox Live update (December 2011)
We've had some hands-on time with a preview version of the dashboard update. And while our test unit lacked the cross-platform search, updated Netflix app, and other video app improvements that will be in the official update, we've been able to test simple voice-recognition video searching via Kinect and it's a promising (albeit imperfect) approach to the video search problem. (We'll be publishing a more in-depth hands-on with all of the streaming-video-based updates later this week.)
It's easy to get numb to the magic of voice recognition, but searching for TV and movie content on your TV simply by speaking is still pretty incredible. Typing out movie titles using an onscreen keyboard is very tedious and it's great to just say "The Departed" and have the correct search results show up in a second or two. In the demo we've seen of the cross-platform search, the results list all of the services the content is on, too, eliminating the need to memorize where specific content is available.
We threw quite a few search options at our Kinect over the weekend and while it wasn't 100 percent accurate, it was close enough that we ended up trusting that it would come up with the right result. Surprisingly Kinect had no trouble understanding a search for director "Werner Herzog", but searching for "Kids in the Hall" resulted in a search for "Kate Zentall". In fact, no matter how much I enunciated, I couldn't get "Kids in the Hall" to show up.
As good as Bing video search and Kinect voice recognition is, we still ended up feeling like a hybrid between voice control and using the controller was best. Saying "Parks and Recreation" is certainly faster than typing it, but for all the steps after that (selecting the right title, navigating seasons, specific episodes), it's much faster to navigate with a controller.
There's also the fact that the Kinect requires you to speak with very specific commands--you have to say "Xbox Bing Parks and Recreation" instead of something more natural like "Play the finale episode of Parks and Rec from season three." And you'll need to speak slightly louder than if you were talking to someone in the room, occasionally veering toward "crazy person yelling at the TV" territory.
Even with the shortcomings, Bing video search with Kinect's voice recognition feels like a legitimately useful feature that's the fastest way to get to content when you know what you want to watch. On the other hand, we haven't seen anything (in demos or previews) that indicates that the dashboard update will provide the same unified content experience for browsing content, which means you'll still need to dig through the various video-streaming apps if you're just looking for something to watch, but don't have a specific title in mind. That's something Google TV's Honeycomb update actually does quite well, although it has its own set of the frustrations that hold it back.