Xbox One: Voice Control

Xbox One: Voice Control

Wait, this actually works??

While I've never been overly impressed with the utility of Kinect's gesture capabilities, I've often noted that the device's voice command functionality shows promise. And with the Xbox One, the promise mostly becomes a reality, with Kinect-based voice control one of the console's best features.

Before getting into the voice control bit, however, I should make the following admission: The Kinect's other capabilities do appear to work dramatically better in this release too. In my office, my Xbox One's Kinect is off to the side a bit, and mounted on a tripod. So I when I first wake up the console, it doesn't sign anyone in automatically. But if I swivel my chair just a hair to the left, the Kinect "sees" that it's me and instantly signs me in. It's only about four feet away.

This tells me two things. One, that this new Kinect version works in a much, much smaller area than the version for the Xbox 360. With that unit, my living room wasn't even deep enough for Kinect to work properly. And two, this Microsoft notion that Kinect can be aware of who is in the room and what is happening is perhaps realized. It's pretty interesting how something so terrible has improved this much.

(I've still not done a thing with the gestures. But I'll be looking at Kinect Fitness with my wife, who has tons of experience with fitness apps and videos, soon.)

Anyway, one of the major advances that Microsoft touts with Xbox One is its ability to be controlled, by and large, by voice. They're sort of pushing the issue somewhat by not even making a media remote available (yet?) but the theory here is that you should be able to perform the most commonly-needed actions on the console via voice.

And the thing is, it does pretty much work.

Microsoft says that the Kinect sensor includes a multi-microphone array with advanced noise isolation that helps it work even in a loud, crowded room, and even while blasting a Hollywood action movie at maximum volume in 7.1 surround sound. During initial setup, in fact, the console has you crank the volume while it plays back a song so that the Kinect microphones can understand where your speakers are, presumably, and adjust itself accordingly.

If you handle power on and off properly—that is, you let the device sleep and wake up rather than perform a full power-down, you can start off each Xbox One session by walking into the room with the console and saying "Xbox, on." As my son noted last night while doing this, it feels somewhat idiotic talking to the Xbox One, especially when it doesn't respond. (He didn't sleep it properly.) But when it works, it's sort of incredible.

As hinted at by the above quote (and by my previous Xbox One article, Xbox One: "Xbox, Record That"), each voice command begins with the word "Xbox." If you just say "Xbox" and then nothing else, a listening screen will appear so you can continue with whatever it is you wanted or get some help.

If you know what you want you can simply speak the full phrase. What Xbox can do via voice is divided into categories like navigation, communication, sign-in, notifications, video and music, TV, volume and gaming. You can see the full list of categories and commands on Xbox Support's useful Voice Commands page. Or better still, download Microsoft's PDF-based Kinect Gesture and Voice handout for the most useful ones.

But here are the basics.

You use "Xbox, go ..." to navigate. "Xbox, go home" will return to the Home view in the Dashboard. "Xbox, go Store" will load the Xbox Store. And so on. "Xbox, cancel" will get you out of trouble.

Search requires you to know Microsoft's Bing branding. You can't say, "Xbox, search" but must instead fire up Bing by saying "Xbox, Bing."

From here, just speak the search. Amusingly, Microsoft suggests trying "Xbox, Bing Superman." Which works. Unless you're trying to find the new Superman movie, which is called "Man of Steel" and does not come up in the search results. Doh. (Further irony: The movie "Striptease" does come up in the movie search results. Try to figure that one out.)

You can start apps and games by saying their names. But it's a bit inconsistent. "Xbox, Skype" will start that app, but you need to say "Xbox, go to Netflix" for that and most other apps and all games. There are in-app commands that make sense for Xbox Music, Xbox Video, and TV and volume, as you'd expect.

By the way, I mentioned that there was a right way and a wrong way to shut off the Xbox One. The right way, obviously, is to speak the command, which is "Xbox, turn off." Fortunately, this one displays a prompt. So just say "Yes" if you really mean to.

Not too shabby. I still feel a bit idiotic talking to the Xbox, however. I'm curious to see if that abates over time.

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