Xbox Live Sky Player
Last year, Microsoft enlisted the help of Rare in giving the Xbox 360's aging dashboard a much-needed lick of paint, completely transforming the look and functionality of the console's interface in the process.
Now, following the rejuvenation of the first next-gen console to enter the race back in 2005, Microsoft is looking to cram as much as they can into the New Xbox Experience, with social networking in the ubiquitous guises of Facebook and Twitter on the way as well as music on-demand via the forthcoming Last.fm channel.
But perhaps the most significant addition to the Xbox 360's burgeoning bag of tricks has to be the announcement of Sky Player - something that will turn Microsoft's machine into a veritable multimedia hub.
Announced at the end of May, Sky Player for 360 will provide a similar service to that currently available for a home PC, but with the added accessibility inherent in the console's cascading menu pages that allow you to effortlessly browse through channels and content by category.
Navigating through the menus is identical to scrolling through the Live Marketplace or Arcade, meaning that 360 owners will immediately feel right at home using A to select an item and then watch it.
Video then streams almost instantly with only a short pause to load before you're viewing a crystal clear broadcast. While the picture is adequately crisp, the service won't support HD upon launch, although it's a possibility that may be considered in the future.
Around twenty channels are currently in the offing for Sky Player on Xbox 360, although the exact line-up is yet to be confirmed. The usual array of news, sports, movies and entertainment are on offer, but whether the subscription model will offer similar packages to the ones presently available through a standard Sky hook-up is also still under discussion.
So, what's the difference whether you watch Sky through traditional means, via a PC or through Xbox 360? The biggest draw in hooking up the service through the console is to watch programmes with friends, who appear onscreen as their Live Avatars. This is especially cool when watching a sports event such as a Premiership match, where your Avatars are all seated around the screen viewing the action with you.
Pressing various face buttons enables your Avatar to gesticulate, perhaps laughing in your mate's face when your team scores for instance. You can switch between the skybox Avatar view and full screen at any time too, so you're not restricted to watching the action with small cartoon figures prancing around in front of it the whole time. Sky News is also streaming 24 hours a day with rolling broadcasts and there's a whole load of entertainment and movies over on the other channels.
With release currently set for late this October, details should hopefully be forthcoming regarding prices and packages fairly soon. Until then, what we've seen of the Xbox 360 version of Sky Player thus far seems incredibly user friendly, but whether it'll be a worthy addition to the 360's functionality depends entirely upon the pricing structure to be decided. If Sky and Microsoft can collaborate in bringing the TV service to the console at a reasonable cost, then we're onto a winner.
We got a few minutes to chat about the newly forged partnership between the television giant and the Billy Gates posse and their plans for the Sky Player service when it eventually launches this autumn. General Manager for Xbox Live, Jerry Johnson and Sky's Director of Third-party channels, Adrian Pilkington were both on hand to discuss what punters can expect from day one and what the future might hold for the application.
So who approached who with the idea of bringing Sky Player to Xbox 360 owners?
Jerry Johnson, GM Xbox Live Europe: I think it was very symbiotic. Both of us just came together. When we launched NXE and we opened up the platform so that we could start to do more modular development. In preparation for that, we were already in talks with Sky at that time. We were actually thinking about how we could bring the power of the console and the Live service together with great content - that great on-demand content that Sky has. It was how we could bring together the great entertainment brand of Sky with the Live service. Who asked who to dance first?
Adrian Pilkington, Director of Third-party channels for Sky: It was a natural fit, I think in terms of the brands and the vision, so a natural conversation took place where quickly we formed a working relationship and saw that there was something we could do together.
What will be the biggest advantages to getting Sky on your Xbox 360 as opposed to other existing means?
JJ: It all comes back to choice and what the users are looking for. A Sky user who might no be able to get Sky DTH (Direct To Home) into their house now has the option to get Sky Player through their PC and soon to be through Xbox. The ability to get that whole new consumer and in addition - for existing DTH subscribers - Sky Player is a great opportunity and option for people to experience that content as a bonus alongside the set-top box. When we look at what we're doing with Xbox 360 in bringing these things together, you've got the kind of options that have been introduced with Sky Player and then you're layering that on top of the power of the hardware, the community aspects of the Live service and when you bring all those elements together, we believe it's a very compelling offer that provides a choice to a broad set of customers.
AP: I'd agree with that, exactly! (laughs). With Sky there's obviously a similarity and understanding between the brands, but also there's a huge community of Xbox 360 owners out there already connected and that's a very powerful community for us to consider for Sky.