Hardcore video gamers don't exactly have a reputation for being mild-mannered. During an intense game in which your onscreen character is getting throttled, there's a good chance that both controllers and curse words can fly across a room. But what if the game understood your shouts of barely coherent anger? Wouldn't it be cool if when you told Halo's Master Chief to jump, he asked "How high?" In early June, Microsoft unveiled an expansion of its voice-control features for its Xbox 360 console at the E3 trade show in Los Angeles.
The console's Kinect bundle lies at the center of Microsoft's ambitions. Released last November and best known for its motion-sensor capabilities, allowing for controller-free gaming, the Kinect also sports some pretty accurate voice recognition software underneath its hard plastic exterior. It's no Dragon NaturallySpeaking, but it gets the job done; by simply saying "Xbox" and uttering a supported command, you can control your console using the power of your dulcet tones. For example, saying "Xbox, play disc" plays the disc loaded in your Xbox's tray, and you can control movies and videos with commands like "Xbox, fast-forward" and "Xbox, pause."
Microsoft laid out a scheme to expand those voice control functions during the company's keynote address at E3. The first step combines the Kinect's voice commands with the newly announced Bing search feature coming to Xbox consoles this fall. A dumbed-down, console-friendly version of Microsoft's search engine, the Xbox 360's Bing will scan Hulu, Netflix, YouTube, Live TV and the various Xbox Marketplaces for whatever content you search for, and then display any relevant results. (Check out this video demonstration of Bing on Xbox.)
If you have a Kinect, you'll be able to use the Xbox's Bing search without ever having to touch a standard controller. Just say "Xbox, Bing"and then toss out a search term. During the E3 keynote, a Microsoft rep demonstrated the new feature, saying "Xbox, Bing, X-Men," and every X-Men related game, movie and television show offered by Microsoft or its content partners appeared onscreen. Pretty spiffy!
The expanded voice control offerings don't end with Bing. At E3, several game developers revealed new titles that took full advantage of the Kinect's voice control features. In particular, BioWare co-founder Ray Muzyka's presentation of the voice commands built into the company's upcoming "Mass Effect 3" role-playing game offered a glimpse into what expanded voice recognition could mean to gaming. He showed off the game's ability to recognize verbal dialogue during conversations and demonstrated verbal movement and combat commands in the middle of battle. No more manually navigating through clumsy menu screens! Here's a video showing how voice commands are integrated into Mass Effect 3.)
While it remains to be seen if the initiative will be a success, the Kinect's voice control features certainly open up the possibility of completely handsfree gaming in the future. With voice recognition software already eliminating the need to ever touch a mouse on your PC, repetitive stress injuries could soon be a thing of the past (though losing your voice is a distinct possibility).