Microsoft working on next-gen home entertainment system

20 April 2007 No Comment Mike Evans

Microsoft Multi-Component Gaming System network home entertainment centre
A new Microsoft patent reveals the company’s plans to quite literally take over every conceivable home entertainment device in your home, combining them all into one huge distributed home entertainment network. The patent shows a “console” (presumably an XBox 360 or a next-gen XBox) being the central hub of the network, communicating with dozens of handheld devices. What’s interesting is that Microsoft doesn’t restrict what these devices are, and lists handheld gaming devices, mobile phones, PDAs and PMPs as possibilities.

The “Multi-Component Gaming System” (MCGS) as the patent calls it is completely distributed. Not only can each device share the content from any other device, it can also share the hardware resources of any other attached devices as and when necessary. For example, if your XBox hasn’t enough processing power to display three simultaneous pictures in a picture-in-picture setup, it’ll borrow the graphics rendering power from a handheld gaming device, and let that display the third picture.

Another example is distributed memory – if your XBox is running out of storage space, it’ll simply borrow whatever’s available from the other connected handheld devices. Even more intriguing, different handheld devices can swap what Microsoft calls “Doppler sound effects” for objects in motion, making the user think that an in-game object is really moving just by its sound.

From the patent:

“Non-gaming applications on a gaming component can be controlled by another gaming component in combination. For example, the handheld gaming device can be used to control music playback on the console gaming device.”

“Any device coupled to a gaming component via its input/output ports is available to other gaming components in combination. Examples of coupled devices include monitors, speakers, audio processing equipment, video processing equipment, or a combination thereof.

For example, one of the input/output ports of the console gaming device can be coupled to a large screen display and another of the console gaming device’s input/output ports can be coupled to a home theater audio system. Accordingly, the video and audio of a game being played on the handheld gaming device can be rendered on the large screen display and the home theater system, respectively, via the console gaming device 42.”

Of these devices, Microsoft currently only makes one: the Microsoft Zune MP3 player (although Windows Mobile is used in a variety of smartphones and PDAs). There’s no Microsoft handheld gaming device, and the Windows-Mobile based devices are all built by other companies. If Microsoft really does have plans to develop the MCGS, it’ll have to either build new devices itself, or (more likely) develop a reference specification and let other device manufacturers build the devices that are then compatible with the MCGS.

Microsoft have been making in-roads into the home for some time now, with the release of the original XBox and the much more impressive XBox 360 with its superb connectivity and media streaming options, and the seriously unimpressive Zune. Given that the business software market is saturated, the home entertainment market was the next logical step for the company, but it needs a way to beat the incumbent home entertainment maestro that is Sony.

Sony’s new PS3 also has similar device- and network-connectivity to the XBox 360, and so providing a super-home entertainment network in the form of the MCGS would be one way for Microsoft to differentiate its products from Sony, and to lock them out from the home (as a Sony device will never interoperate with a Microsoft device!)

If the MCGS is actually built by Microsoft, it’ll be the most sophisticated home entertainment network the world has ever seen, and its ability to share resources such as CPU, graphics processing and memory between devices will rival that of grid computing, which is currently only used in high-end super-computing scenarios.

It’ll also mean the development of dozens of new devices that will be compliant with the MCGS, all of which should be able to share media seamlessly with one another (providing Microsoft don’t hobble the system with painful DRM, like they did with the Zune).

How likely is it that this sort of system will actually be produced? Well, in an interview with TVG, European XBox big-wig Chris Lewis said “at the moment, we are focused on creating connected experiences around music for Zune. You can already plug your Zune device into your Xbox 360 to stream music, pictures and video content. Looking ahead, the vision for connected entertainment provides a number of consumer scenarios and with our heritage in Xbox and Games for Windows, gaming is certainly something we’re considering for the device.”

In other words, it’s going to happen. My guess is Zune 2.0 will combine gaming with video and MP3 playback, all of which can be streamed back and forth between your XBox 360, Zune, HDTV and hi-fi in a limited implementation of the MCGS. This configuration will only require the development of the Zune 2.0, and won’t come with the distributed resource-sharing envisaged for the MCGS (largely because the XBox 360 doesn’t support this). For the full MCGS, you’ll have to wait for the successor to the XBox 360, which should be ready in four years’ time or so.

And if all this doesn’t have you salivating, you can bet that Sony are thinking up something equally ingenious as Microsoft plots. The PS3’s hardware is insanely powerful, and Sony will already have thought of ways of integrating it tightly with its huge range of existing home entertainment devices. In addition, let’s not forget that Sony already has a large range of Walkmans, mobile phones, HDTV, hi-fis and portable gaming devices, giving it a huge advantage over Microsoft should it choose to develop a similar system.

The future of home entertainment suddenly got a whole lot more exciting!

[Source: US Patent Office, via Unwired View]


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