Xbox 360 Preview

Xbox Live Sky Player

Microsoft reach for the Sky

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.

If the Sky service proves to be popular with Xbox 360 customers, can you possibly foresee exclusive content for subscribers?

JJ: Right now we're really focussing on what we're going to be doing at launch and it's all about the user experience. I think the partnership has started off amazingly well. I've been with Microsoft for twelve years now and I honestly say it's one of the strongest, most synergistic partnerships I've been able to take part in. I have no doubt that we'll continue to evaluate all sorts of different features and ways we leverage new content and experiences throughout the partnership.

The Sky service is due this autumn with pricing to be announced around the same period. Is there a ballpark figure in mind right now or is that still being discussed?

JJ: We're not discussing the commercial aspect yet. We're really just focussing on the strength of the partnership and the opportunities we have in bringing this thing together and giving you a glimpse of what users can expect.

And there's a twenty-channel line-up for launch. Is that correct?

AP: We've not announced the channel line-up yet, as you know, but we're hard at work in terms of making sure the content proposition is as great as it possibly can be.

You've announced that there will be a number of packages for subscribers to choose from. Are they the same as what you can currently get with a DTH subscription or have they been uniquely tailored for the Xbox 360 platform?

AP: In terms of being able to browse and select content, then Sky has a lot of understanding about how people like to do it and how people search on demand, so we're bringing you all that, with the understanding of how people use the Xbox user interface to navigate through content. We're bringing all this together to see what the best models for playing content are and again, through this whole process we're looking to offer customers a variety of different ways in which they can just browse through content and give them the choice of what they prefer.

The 360 controller is a fantastically intuitive device for being able to search TV content on a ten-foot interface. So, I think we're very pleased with how it's gone so far and I think that if you've worked the demo, you'll see for yourself that it's quite intuitive.

Will the process of subscribing to Sky via Xbox Live be the same as a DTH subscription too?

JJ: If you're familiar with the Sky Player subscription, taking a look at that is a guideline for what to expect. It's an offering to someone who might be a DTH subscriber and looking for different ways to enjoy the content they love from Sky on TV already, to users that might not already have a relationship with Sky but actually want to enjoy the content for the first time through Xbox. We believe there's going to be an offering for everyone.

AP: Yes, exactly. There's a product there both for existing Sky consumers who want to view their Sky content in different ways with different interactivity and services and there's also an opportunity for non-Sky customers with Xbox 360s to evaluate and embrace Sky if it's for them - you don't need a dish - so it could be a suitable subscription model for them.

JJ: Bringing the two offerings together really provides two things. It enables us to both reach out to new customers, while also providing existing customers to have a deeper engagement with all of our services and content.

We're wildly speculating here, but what would your reaction be if Sony were to announce a deal with Virgin Media for PS3 to compete with the Xbox 360 Sky Player service?

JJ: My reaction would be to continue to focus on the great things we're going to be doing with Sky. I believe in the strength of the content and the quality of the service provided by Sky and we're very happy about the opportunity we've got to work with them. At the same time I also understand and respect that we've put a lot of value into what we've done from the Live service perspective in actually building a community of 20 million gamers and now those 20 million people will have the opportunity to enjoy interactive entertainment across the Live service.

I would look back at those strengths and my focus is going to be how we can continue to grow our partnership with Sky.

The service is currently only offered in standard definition. Are there any future plans to offer HD Sky content?

JJ: Our focus for now really is bringing standard definition broadcasts to the Xbox, but part of the partnership is to continually evaluate what the consumers are asking for and trying to meet their demand for choice while also living up to the expectations in delivering a quality service and quality content. We want to balance all of these things to ensure that we're bringing what our customers are asking for to the table.

Will Xbox Live's Video Marketplace continue to offer the same service for movies on-demand once Sky is integrated?

JJ: I think that comes down to choice again. The deal we have with Sky is to bring a very large catalogue of movies, a very large catalogue of broad entertainment, obviously television and studio specific content as well as video on-demand and Live streaming, not to mention things like sports and news. Those things are going to be standout on our platform no matter what other content providers are available. And it all comes back to us giving you choice to view what you want on our platform and we believe Sky is the best partner we can have in this market to actually deliver on that. But video marketplace will still exist, yes.

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