This morning Microsoft made good on last week's rumors with the announcement of Xbox SmartGlass, a companion app for mobile devices and Windows 8 PCs that lets you control and interact with videos and games you play on the Xbox 360. We were given an early look at the app running on a Windows 8 tablet and a Windows Phone device, and while there were some bumps in the road we have to say we're quite impressed at the product's potential. In its most primitive form, SmartGlass is a Wi-Fi remote app for video. When launched, the app goes into "listening" mode, and seamlessly syncs up with any SmartGlass-enabled content, providing the usual array of controls (we were shown School of Rock from Microsoft's own first-party movie service as well as a clip of Game of Thrones from the HBO Go app). That's just where the story begins, however; what SmartGlass really offers is a way to access additional interactive material while you're watching a program or playing a game.
Write-once, run-anywhere for value-added content
SmartGlass is based around what Microsoft is calling "activities," which can include anything from a director's commentary to an interactive map (unfortunately, the Game of Thrones example shown off this morning didn't work during our demo). Additional information about a movie or TV show's cast and creators is a logical step, and SmartGlass doesn't disappoint: during School of Rock, one page displayed a shifting array of faces, representing each actor present in a scene — all in real time. Selecting a given actor on the demo tablet brought up their filmography, and it was possible to play other movies the actor was featured in, jumping to the specific scenes where they were present. All of this added content is keyed off the timecode in the video stream, and Microsoft is hoping content creators will take the additional material they're producing for Blu-rays, DVDs, websites, and apps, and use it in SmartGlass as a type of write-once, run-anywhere for value-added content.
The other large element is the extended functionality SmartGlass brings to games. The demo this morning showed off a version of Madden that allowed a tablet to be used as a secondary controller, with the gamer selecting plays, or as a way to initiate multi-player sessions and scan stats in Halo 4. While we didn't see those demos ourselves, we did see a version of the new title Ascend, where a Lumia 900 running SmartGlass offered up a real-time map displaying the progress of our character as they explored the world.
Feature parity for all versions... in theory
SmartGlass is going to be available for Windows 8 PCs along with iOS and Android devices, and Microsoft intends for all versions of the app to have feature parity — but there are some fuzzy areas still. One of the features touted this morning was the ability to start video on one SmartGlass device, then pick it up where you left off on another, and even stream video content from the SmartGlass app directly to your 360. Microsoft wouldn't definitively state that the video streaming would be coming to the iOS and Android versions, however, and given Apple's preference for AirPlay over DLNA, we wouldn't be surprised if we end up not being able to stream our home videos from our iPhone to our 360 using SmartGlass.
It could succeed where Apple has failed
Microsoft refers to SmartGlass as a platform, and that's really what it appears to be building here. If the content providers jump on board — Paramount and HBO both helped create the demos we saw, and we were told Microsoft's other brand partners will be taking advantage as well — the system could become the interactive, digital video-equivalent of DVD special features. Not just for a single movie, either, but for all your video content. It's ground Apple has tried to cover with iTunes Extras, and in terms of richness is an area where one would think Google would have been able to excel with Google TV. Neither has succeeded, but it appears Microsoft may be bringing together the disparate elements together in a way that is actually functional for end users (of course, Microsoft has made similar promises that haven't come through before). That's not even touching on the possibilities on the gaming side, which would seem to render a system like the Wii U all but a curiosity. The app will be launching sometime before the end of the year, which should leave Microsoft plenty of time to get its content partners on board — and to get that Game of Thrones map working just right.