2013 was the year of the “second screen.” With mass market penetration, millions of consumers began complementing their TV viewing with a tablet or phone. SmartGlass was Microsoft’s attempt to integrate this phenomenon into the gaming and Xbox experience – interactive meta displays when watching movies or TV; mini-maps for games or extra controls. But mostly it was just garbage. Have Microsoft upped their game this time or is it more of the same?
SmartGlass for the Xbox One is curiously a completely new app; you can’t connect using the old app – it remains only for use with the Xbox 360. More specifically, the communication to your Xbox has been sped up by making it a direct network connection – in the previous version, commands would be relayed through a remote server, which introduced lag. It still requires you to log in with a Microsoft account for Xbox Live features when your Xbox is offline.
Once in, select Connect from the top menu to find your Xbox. You’ll only need to do this once, but I found there was a few seconds lag re-connecting if my device went to sleep.
The basic dashboard access hasn’t improved much – you get friends lists, and can control media playback or start games – no quicker than you could just by using your voice. If you live in the US, this includes access to channel guides and TV controls.
When your Xbox One is off, you cannot control any aspect of it or launch games remotely, but you are able to view or add friends, and message people. For those who care about imaginary internet points, there’s the obligatory achievements section too.
There’s no doubt that SmartGlass is a cool concept. I first experienced it on the 360 back with Dance Central, where it is used in Party mode to select the next song without interrupting gameplay, allowing for a gapless party experience. It was buggier than cheap a motel bed, and there wasn’t much else you could do with it, except for basic control of the Dashboard which you could do anyway from the console itself. Very few games made a compelling use of the companion app, but it looks like developers are putting a lot more effort into adding features. Case in point: Dead Rising 3.
Dead Rising: Your Smartphone is a Smartphone
Open-world games often feature smartphones – used to get missions, or perhaps access to a mini-map. In Dead Rising, that’s exactly what your SmartGlass app becomes. It’s a physical version of the in-game smartphone, an immersive feature that ties your physical reality deeply into the game world. GTA IV tried it, but it was mostly just a promotional tool with a selection of mini-games.
In Dead Rising, it’s actually a great enhancement, a shining example of how SmartGlass companion apps should be done. There’s exclusive missions that you can receive from a survivor sat in a bunker, with special ZDC missile launches as a reward. There’s quick access to a “to-do” list, or your current missions. The mini-map is particularly easy to navigate using touchscreen controls to zoom and scroll.
Most surprising for me was that when a phone call is received in-game, the ringtone and phone voice actually comes through the SmartGlass app – it’s not just a superficial set of control buttons. Phone calls could arrive at any time, even in the middle of a hectic zombie battle, which really adds to the realism.
Particularly useful is the ability to do a local search to find in-game items like stores or vehicles; this is something not offered through the game interface, and can only be used from a mobile.
As someone living in the UK, I’m seriously disappointed by the lack of a channel guide or DVR control, but that’s a wider problem of Xbox One and not specific to the SmartGlass app. If Dead Rising is anything to go by, companion apps when done right can be an incredible extension of the game world, so I’m looking forward to seeing how other games make use of it. That said, I was surprised to see some Microsoft’s first party titles, like the native Xbox Fitness app – don’t use it at all.
As you can see, companion apps have a real potential – and Dead Rising has it right. I can’t wait to see how the upcoming cyberpunk-thriller WatchDogs uses the system. How about you? Have you played any other SmartGlass supported launch titles, and did they add something to the gameplay?
Download: Xbox Smartglass (Free)