CES kicked off this evening with two notable press conferences from technological heavy-hitters Sony and Microsoft. As expected, G4 was there to gather all the news and announcements and eager readers can check out our impressions of the 2011 CES Sony Keynote here. As for Microsoft, Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer took the stage for a keynote that ultimately focused more on the relative successes of 2010 than the future innovations of 2011 and beyond.
There’s no doubt that Microsoft made a substantial push into the consumer space on all three fronts last year, unveiling Windows Phone 7 to the mobile world, the latest version of Office to PC users and, of course, the most commercially viable innovation to the gaming space, Xbox Kinect. Having sold more than 8 million Kinect sensors in the first 60 days, it’s obvious that Microsoft felt comfortable enough this year to brush over the kind of exciting announcements that’d get most gamers and tech enthusiasts primed and ready for action in 2011.
The Xbox portion of the evening played out much like the rest of the keynote presentation…as a recap of the features most of you already know and love. A quick demonstration of the ways in which players can control Xbox Live programs like Zune and ESPN – scanning through films with gestures, queuing up playlists with simple voice commands, and engaging in spirited, real-time debates during sporting events – ultimately showed off a side of the console that gamers have already been consistently enjoying.
All of which lead up to a fairly no-brainer reveal that Kinect functionality would be arriving this spring for Netflix and Hulu, making the vast majority of the in-home entertainment experience fully controller-free.
And if you’d been paying attention to the circulating rumors earlier in the week, you might already have been prepared for the announcement of Avatar Kinect. This new feature takes advantage of the Kinect’s technology to recognize your facial expressions and map them to your own personal Avatar, allowing your cartoonish dopplegangers to smile, grimace, laugh, sneer and dubiously raise their eyebrows all in real-time. The primary use demonstrated in the keynote seemed to be a virtual online meeting space in which you and your long-distance friends – or rather, your Avatars – can gather for a semi-realistic sit-down.
The video demonstration seemed to require that you sit reasonably close to the Kinect for it to pick up the full nuance of your expressions, but if the promo is to be believed, the range of expressions was fairly promising, and the inter-changeable backgrounds of the meeting space – ranging from a living room to a snowy hilltop – made the feature seem like pop-fun if nothing else. It’s difficult to say just how many people will take advantage of the virtual space, but the technology is there for future useage regardless.
Avatar Kinect will be made available for free to all Xbox Live Gold members this spring.
If you were hoping for more substantive gaming announcements, however, we hope you’ll accept Fable Coin Golf for the Windows Phone 7, as that’s about all the actual gaming you’re going to get during this particular keynote. The conversation quickly moved on Microsoft’s mobile device, transforming into a 25-minute commercial for existing features without any real substantive announcement. Unless you’re very excited that the gold you earn in Fable Coin Golf will translate to your in-game character.
Touching on the seven features that make Windows Phone 7 so incredibly, mind-blowingly awesome – or so the very perky demoer would have you believe – the keynote highlighted the phone’s “instant camera” button, its glance-and-go live-updating tile system, the voice search functionality, as well as grouped content (known as Hubs), apps and Xbox Live on the go, allowing players to take their Avatars, gamerscores and favorite games with them wherever they go. The concluding video offered a quick peek at titles like Fruit Ninja, Need for Speed, The Sims and Pac-Man, as well as several classic titles running in the Game Room.
Lastly, the keynote concluded with a look at PC innovation, but not without the obligatory recap of its 2010 successes. With Windows 7 selling more than seven copies per second…with Internet Explorer 9 and HTML 5 “redefining” the web experience…and with 20 million people already on the IE9 Beta, well, Windows isn’t going anywhere. And a quick look at some of the more impressive PCs hitting the market made the point perfectly clear.
Powerful, more efficient processors were the trend this year – aren’t they every year, though? – and a duel touch-screen from Acer showed off an impressive two 14-inch displays with a keyboard-less interface, extending the desktop down onto the flat surface of the second touch-screen. Another laptop easily slid down above the physical keyboard to offer a more compact, widescreen LCD display for portable media viewing, and a newly available Microsoft tablet PC showed off an impressive display of Ink, translating your handwriting effectively in 22 languages while offering a crystal-clear screen with off-axis viewing up to 180-degrees. Impressive stuff.
The evening concluded with the reveal of the next evolution of Surface, now only four-inches thick, fully powered by Windows 7, boasting thick Gorilla glass and no more bulky camera system. Rather, the new Pixel Sense technology turns every pixel into its own camera, making the table able to read and display anything placed onto its surface. The device can now be used as an upright kiosk, perfect for commercial businesses. The demoed example showed a consumer walking up a Surface device and scanning a promotional flyer to see if they’d won their given reward.
The one big miss for the keynote was the lack of any substantive discussion of Windows 8, or “the next version of Windows” as Microsoft insisted on calling it. Rather, Ballmer only announced that the platform’s architecture would be based on SoC (“System on Chip”) technology. Partners include Intel, NVIDIA, AMD and Texas Instruments.
And with that, the night was over.