Microsoft's been fairly cagey with the Xbox One dashboard experience up until now, but I got the chance to play with the system while I was in Redmond working on our look at the new Xbox's platform and TV integration. And I was allowed to go deep: platform engineering manager Jeff Henshaw let me log into the system using my personal gamertag, personalize the system, and basically do whatever I wanted. Logging in was ridiculously impressive: the Kinect instantly recognized me and dropped me into my dashboard without any delay. It's both intensely cool and somewhat terrifying; the Xbox One identifies you by your skeleton, and can even see you in pitch black darkness. I could have done this entire demo in the dark, according to Kinect development manager Kareem Choudhry.
If you're familiar with the 360, nothing about the Xbox One dashboard is going to surprise you — I was bouncing around using the controller comfortably in seconds. But Microsoft is betting heavily on voice recognition, which is now always active as a system-level process, and that's where things get interesting. You can now do all sorts of things just by talking to the Xbox: I called called up the One Guide TV listings and changed channels, opened Internet Explorer and navigated to The Verge, and jumped right back into Forza Motorsport 5, which resumed instantly as though I'd never been away. The commands weren't perfect, though — I had to repeat myself a few times, and there's definitely a small learning curve to the exact cadence that works best. You can't be in the middle of a sentence and just say "Xbox, watch TV," for example — you have to pause before issuing the command. Henshaw says picking up the right flow takes most people about 30 minutes.
It takes about 30 minutes to learn to use the voice commands
As for responsiveness, there were a few more loading screens and wait cursors than I expected, especially doing things like snapping apps and loading the One Guide. That said, I was playing with a beta unit almost a month before launch, so I'll give the Xbox team the benefit of the doubt for now; things are bound to speed up. There was also the issue of Comcast's UI showing up as part of the live TV experience, but I've already gone into extreme detail about that; it's just part of the solution for now. And after the demo ended, I made a quick Skype call and watched the Kinect follow me around the room, cropping the 1080p frame down to 720p to zoom in on me. Again: very cool, somewhat ominous.
Overall, though, the Xbox One's dashboard seems smooth and cohesive in a way that previous-gen consoles simply don't. I have my doubts about actually using all these voice commands when I'm actually in my own living room, but this is the first time I've ever considered it. We'll see what it's like when it launches in a couple more weeks.