The Xbox One may be only just out the door, but senior principal industrial design manager Carl Ledbetter and his team are already pondering the possible form of its successor. Speaking to OXM at Microsoft's new London Studios HQ near Oxford Circus this week, Ledbetter discussed reactions to the console's "boldly understated" look and feel, and hinted at on-going experiments as to the "aesthetic of the future".
"I personally just get really excited about what the studios here are doing, what the studios with [Microsoft European Studios boss] Phil Harrison are doing, because I really feel like we're just getting started," he commented during a presentation. "There are so many things we're looking at, it's going to be amazing where we are in ten years."
The Xbox One's design is the result of extensive testing, as you'd imagine - over 100 test models for the base hardware have been constructed, together with 200 possible controller designs and 75 possible ventilation covers. But what does Joe Public think of it, beyond the controlled environment of the testing laboratory?
"We have two teams right now that, from the day we launched Xbox, we actually started following people around," observed Ledbetter. "We would ask them in line - 'hey, can we come home with you, watch you set it up, and see how your experience is'. We have user researchers that are doing that. We've also identified some customers where we're just constantly going and checking how they're using it, and we're starting to learn things all the time."
Among other things, Ledbetter's data-gatherers have been crunching reactions to the console and Kinect sensor's power light settings. "I would say the lights, and how the lights behave, is a really interesting one," he said. "A lot of people don't even notice this, but we have a light sensor in the Kinect, that allows the levels of the logo to dim down when your lighting is down, so it's not too bright. And so we're watching how that's working, what people think of that."
"Trust me, you notice it when it doesn't work," interjected Phil Harrison. "In some of the early prototypes, before we finished the console, we had a take-home programme for some people inside the company to be our tester guinea pigs, and when that light is on full brightness in a dark room, you definitely notice it. It's really subtle engineering, to add that feature, and as Carl said earlier, the best design features are invisible - you don't actually know they're there."
Beyond that, Microsoft is throwing around various models at research labs in an effort to anticipate trends in hardware design. "What's going on in culture?" mused Ledbetter. "What constitutes the culture of games?
"Even now the Xbox One is out, we're not just sitting around thinking well, we're done with that. We're already thinking about: What is the future of games? Where can we go next? What is going to be the aesthetic of that? What is the posture of devices in the future? What do the input devices look like, and how do they behave?
"And so we're actually testing ourselves, and the software people, and the creative people designing the content, to really push what that can be. And so we're already starting to create piles of amazing things, where we don't even know whether they're real yet, but it starts to test us about what is the aesthetic of the future.
"It's kind of a long-winded answer, but we really always question what can it be. Probably the most exciting thing that's happening right now from a design perspective is with the acquisition of Nokia, when we start looking at devices from Microsoft, how do those become more interesting, more holistic, together. That's one of the things our team is working on now - where can we go as a company together? Where can Xbox go?"
Watch out for more from Ledbetter on the site and in future issues of OXM. Here's a topic for the thread: decide the shape of the next Xbox. Me, I'd plump for a starfish-shaped case that doubles as a very unwieldy shuriken. For inspiration, revisit our round-up of the worst "Xbox 720" mock-ups.