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MEMORY LANE - Television’s X Factor

Tue, 11/30/2010 - 7:30pm
Stewart Schley, Media & Technology Writer, Denver, Colo.

All from twinning an Ethernet connection with a video game console

The idea behind the improbable pairing of a geeky software giant and an obsessive community of video game developers was never about television, and it certainly had nothing to do with Netflix or ESPN.

Stewart SchleyAll that came later. Instead, the driving force behind the development of the Xbox, the video game platform introduced in November 2001 by Microsoft Corp., was all about the games and an obsession among game developers to make them as provocative and immersive as a Wes Craven horror flick.

Among other things, that meant polygons. Lots of polygons. To create depth and detail, developers needed a graphics card that could render thousands of the triangle-shaped elements on the screen in a heartbeat. J Allard, the Microsoft technology strategist who headed the Xbox development team, gave them a boatload by powering the original Xbox with an Nvidia graphics card that spat out up to 125 million polygons per second, the better for painting layer upon layer of pixels that created lifelike detail and dimension. That, plus a PC-like configuration of a 32-bit, 733 MHz Intel Pentium processor and a beefy 64 megabytes of SDRAM, made the Xbox the most muscular game console yet. It had enough swagger to entice serious game developers to put significant investments in developing new games like Bungie’s breakthrough Halo: Combat Evolved.

Allard wasn’t done yet, though. Thinking bigger-picture and with prodding by Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, Allard was intent on playing a part in an emerging story around “convergence,” or the harmonizing of various multimedia devices, content and interaction capabilities. It seems like an obvious call now, but consider the historical context: This was around 2000, when, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, fewer than 5 percent of U.S. households had broadband Internet connections. Nonetheless, Microsoft added two important wrinkles to the Xbox: a 10/100 Base-TX Ethernet port and pre-installed software for an online gaming service.

The Ethernet integration and companion software were designed to enable gamers to play each other from distant locations. Unveiled at the E3 video game conference in the spring of 2002, Microsoft’s Xbox Live service consisted of an add-on headphone-style voice communicator and an Xbox Live disc that would unlock the box’s built-in software, which allowed for user authentication, credit card billing and related functionality. Behind the scenes, Microsoft devised a server array that would enable the concept of what Microsoft called a “global couch,” with matchmaking intelligence that could help users identify and play games with like-skilled opponents over a broadband connection. Game developers responded by producing games, like Microsoft’s NFL Fever, that could support up to eight simultaneous players.

The other mainstay capability of the Xbox Live platform was the ability to store and deliver content. Games, and game enhancements, could be selected and downloaded to Xbox devices.

But what was a video game, really, except for an expression of digital code? The same architecture that supported video game downloads and interaction could push other types of content down the pipe, through the Xbox and onto the connected video screen. It wasn’t long before Microsoft added another form of entertainment to the Xbox Live service: downloadable TV shows and movies from major television and film distributors. For $1.99, users could fetch the latest episodes of popular primetime TV shows. Movie rentals started at $2.99. Over time, Microsoft built the Xbox Live service into a formidable video repository, with more than 25,000 titles now available.

Lately, Xbox Live has taken on a video-streaming orientation as it expands the range of content that’s available. It was the first video game to offer integration with Netflix’s popular Watch Instantly video-streaming service, and a recent arrangement with ESPN makes live sports from the ESPN3 online network available to users of a successor video game console, the Xbox 360. That may be just the beginning. For a glimpse of what the future could hold, consider U.K.’s Sky TV, which now makes 32 live TV channels available over the Xbox 360.

According to researcher NPD Group, close to 20 million U.S. homes now have Xbox 360s, and an unknown number of them – estimates suggest around 5 million – watch television using Xbox Live. It’s not exactly tantamount to a cable or satellite TV service, but it’s not that far off, either. All because in 2001, somebody had the novel idea of twinning an Ethernet connection with a video game machine. Sometimes, it really does pay to plan ahead.

E-Mail: stewart@stewartschley.com

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