We think of video game consoles as being principally about, well, the games. But when the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 went head-to-head in 2006, it wasn't games that truly determined the victor. What eventually drove the Xbox 360 to first place was the underlying vision — a place where your friends could connect, chat, and compete — as well as additions that no one saw coming, including Microsoft's Kinect and Netflix.
Based on what we now know about the next Xbox and PlayStation, we can expect a fairly similar scenario this time around. As far as games are concerned, the hardware sounds quite similar out of the box. Both consoles promise to track your motions, power on instantly, and seamlessly update themselves in the background, among many other common features.
Xbox and PlayStation fans could find themselves in very different places down the road
But if we look at that long-term vision, new Xbox and PlayStation fans could find themselves in very different places down the road. Microsoft wants its box to be the center of your living room in every way, while Sony is promising a future where you theoretically might not even need a powerful box in your home.
Here's 10 minutes in the life of a future PlayStation 4 owner, should Sony's vision pan out: press a button to instantly wake your console, sign into your account, and go channel surfing through a catalogue of games. Not browsing pictures and descriptions of games, mind you, but clicking through channel after TV channel filled with video footage, both live and pre-recorded, of your friends actually playing. When you hit upon a game you like, you press another button to start playing it instantly too: Sony promises to let you play games as they download, and stream others outright to the game console.
Then, say you need to get up and walk somewhere. With many games, you'll be able to take it right with you, continuing your progress on a PlayStation Vita handheld as you walk around the house, or more likely, continue to play (or at least watch others play) from an internet-connected tablet or smartphone wherever you go. While the box itself will be a requirement in the short term (while Sony figures streaming out) future PlayStations could theoretically just be any controller and screen connected to the cloud.
In Microsoft's vision, by contrast, that future Xbox owner will have a rather different experience. Microsoft wants its new Xbox One to erase the boundary between set-top box and TV, to become the one device in your living room. You'll simply say "Xbox On" to instantly turn on your entire immersive living room entertainment system.
Just say "Xbox On" to fire up your living room The voice command will fire up the console, your receiver, and your TV simultaneously, and the new Kinect camera will recognize your body and face, automatically signing you into your profile and preparing you to consume several kinds of content at a moment's notice. Where you'll be channel surfing games on the PlayStation 4, the Xbox One will let you literally channel surf live TV, assuming the infrared holds up. You'll issue rapid-fire voice commands to switch between games, web, apps, and television, or use the multitasking chops of the underlying Windows 8 operating system to take a Skype voice call and play your game simultaneously. And when it is time to game, you won't have to swap discs: you'll have already stored them on the Xbox One's hard drive.
While the power of the cloud will also contribute to the games that Microsoft's envisioning, allowing you to play downloadable titles as they install, the future goal is rather that computational power gets piped into your console to make those games more immersive. After all, in Microsoft's visions, all roads lead to your living room hub. All information goes there. And should Microsoft's Illumiroom dreams come true, that might be a fantastic decision, because the Xbox One could use that information to turn your living room into the long-awaited holodeck.
Assuming that neither Sony nor Microsoft manage an outright coup with a better price, a better release date, or sufficiently compelling exclusive games, this is the choice you'll make: do you bet on the company who wants to let you take a traditional gaming experience anywhere you'd care to be, or the one that demands you stand still in exchange for increased immersion and functionality?