Xbox One "is about being a complete story," according to Todd Roshak, Lead Program Manager of Skype for Xbox. The story he’s referring to is one we’ve heard a lot during the console’s pre-launch campaign – the promise of an all-in-one living room device – and we’re finally seeing it realised.
"I’d heard a lot of the possible names," he tells us. "But I loved the name when I heard it because it did encompass the vision that it is this all-in-one solution for your living room, and I do fundamentally believe – and this does go back to the very beginnings of Xbox – it’s still a gaming machine."
Xbox One might still have games at its heart but it’s bringing Skype into our living rooms in a way that’s never been done before. Skype will ship on every Xbox One and will be raring to go from day zero. This isn’t being treated as just some add-on app.
At Skype’s office in Stockholm, Sweden, we were able to take it for a proper spin and get a feel for which features we will and won’t be using when it arrives.
Skype takes full advantage of Kinect’s 1080p camera while the console is the first device to have its own hardware-accelerated version of the Skype Silk codec. The entire thing has been designed with an awareness of both the platform itself and how differently we’ll be using Skype in the living room.
More interesting though is how Skype on Xbox One uses skeletal tracking to automatically zoom and pan the camera around the room. This keeps everyone in the frame even when they’re moving about. It also helps Skype on Xbox One to adapt to spatial constraints.
Handily, Skype can be addressed from anywhere on the Xbox One, so you can tell it to make or answer a call no matter what you’re doing. It certainly gives the Xbox experience much more open and sociable feel.
"Communications is a fundamental human thing," says Roshak. "The ability to sort of make it much more personal and much more intimate, and create that place-to-place experience, that’s why I wake up every day."
To contact someone over Skype you just need to say "Xbox, call [person’s name]", although they’ll have to be added to your Favorites list (limited to a maximum of 10 people right now) for you to do so. This also work to PSTN phones as you’d expect.
That said, Microsoft told us that you won’t be able to have a Skype video call running alongside a game in snap mode from day one, which is disappointing to hear.
This means that right now the only way to have a Skype call while gaming is with it happening in the background as audio only. "It’s something we’ve heard feedback on and it’s something we’ll be looking at," Roshak told us when we asked about the omission of this feature.
Control and command
Like making calls from the Xbox One dashboard, bringing up the Skype app is possible at any time with a simple "Xbox, go to Skype."
When you’re in the Skype app itself you can choose to interact using either the controller, your own voice or SmartGlass. If you’re in a text-based chat with someone, you (annoyingly) can’t yell words at Kinect to type out your message, however you can tap on your phone or tablet with SmartGlass instead, which is a darned sight less fiddly than entering letters with the controller.
When not in the app, you’ll be notified of any incoming Skype calls or messages. However, we’re reassured that you can turn yourself invisible to make sure you’re not interrupted by a call from dad at a crucial moment during gameplay.
And if you’re in in-game chat you’ll be notified of an incoming Skype call and be able to jump into that and return to the game chat when you’re done. Skype has also been built so it won’t affect framerates when you’re moving between Skype and the game – or running both together.
"I think that there’s something about Skype that is very different than just game chat," says Roshak. "It’s that thing that you use to keep in touch with people you care about and people you know. And they don’t have to be on an Xbox – they can be on a PC, they can be on a phone."
Group chat is available on Xbox One with a maximum of four participants, although frustratingly you can’t favorite groups which means you won’t be able to command the Xbox One to call a specific group by voice. But this is something else that Roshak says is on its way.
Preparing for the future
It feels like TV and Skype are truly helping Xbox One prepare for the future. Gamers will be squabbling over resolutions and framerates for a while longer, but Microsoft believes that it’s the software, not the hardware, that will satisfy users in the long term. Skype is a big part of that picture.
"I think that when Microsoft started on Xbox, we got into this whole business because we believe that hardware is an enabling technology, but it’s not what people really interact with," says Roshak.
"It was all about software and services and we delivered that as quickly as we could with Xbox Live and we’ve continued to deliver that with things like message integration originally and now Skype.
That’s our wheelhouse as Microsoft. Our wheelhouse is that we can continue to innovate and iterate on these software and services."
This is just the beginning for Skype, then. "Xbox One, it’s a 10-year thing," says Roshack. "We built it knowing that its going to evolve over 10 years. The hardware can’t just magically change so its really super important to get the hardware right"
There are a few niggling omissions right now – most noticeably the option to have a Skype video call in snap mode when you’re playing a game – but can Skype persuade gamers to choose the Xbox One over the PS4? "I think it’s a key differentiator, absolutely," says Roshak.
"I do think that no matter what, we can do the best job on Xbox because we have the ability to integrate with pieces across the whole chain, we have the ability to tie [together] all the Microsoft services, whether it’s Skydrive or a Microsoft account or Xbox Live. There’s something beautiful we can build by owning the end-to-end experience".
- Check out what we think of the Xbox One