There’s been a lot of news recently about the next generation of consoles. Much of this revolves around hardware – chips and specs – but there hasn’t been a lot of mention about the software. Sure, we’ve heard rumours about games, but not much about the user interfaces that will feature in the next PlayStation and Xbox. Since our consoles have so many features, being able to easily and quickly navigate around is an important aspect.
Our current generation of consoles is really the first to need such a deep interface. Up until this point, consoles had only a few options for settings and memory management. There was no storefront to visit, friends lists to peruse, internet browsers, or streaming video services, so there was no need for a complex user interface. These days, our consoles have so many features that our current UIs aren’t really cutting it anymore.
Microsoft were really onto something when they introduced their “New Xbox Experience” a few years back. The idea of completely revamping your UI had never been done on a console before, so they should be praised for it. However, many find the Xbox 360’s current setup (which has been changed again since the NXE) to be a little frustrating. It’s just not customizable enough, so features you may use a lot are buried deep in menus, while other features you don’t use at all may be front and center.
The PlayStation 3 interface is even worse. Some people defend the Cross Media Bar setup, but I’ve never been a fan. I always find myself hunting around for stuff (which I don’t always find) and even simple settings changes can require dozens of button presses. Also, there’s no universal memory management, so trying to figure out what’s taking up all the space on your hard drive involves scrolling across the entire XMB and checking every type of media one by one.
It’s clear that neither of these interfaces are perfect, and in the time since the Xbox 360 and PS3 were released, we’ve seen the rise of portable devices with much simpler, cleaner UIs. Yes, I’m talking about smartphones and tablets. Whether or not you’re a fan of the iPhone, it can’t be denied that Apple made a great UI that’s far easier to use than, say, a Windows PC. Even Android, which has a bit more of a learning curve, is far easier to understand than many other computing devices.
It’s clear that Sony and Microsoft are moving in a downloadable-apps sort of direction, so taking cues from smartphones and tablets might be the best bet. This is the sort of thing that Nintendo has been doing for the last couple of generations, and it seems to be working out okay for them. As nice as a fancy, stylized homescreen can look, sometimes it’s far easier to have a simple grid of apps to choose from. This way we could dock all those downloadable games we play a lot, as well as our most toggled options and settings, so navigation would be quick and easy.
In some ways, this is the approach Sony is taking with the PS Vita, which features a very iPhone-y interface. Unfortunately, it still lacks a few key things, like the ability to make custom homescreen shortcuts (such as to a certain friend or specific setting), and a universal memory analyzer, such as the one found on the Xbox 360. With so much of our content being downloaded these days, having one place to see everything in your storage is essential. Despite these omissions, the Vita still has a great interface, and I’d love to see Sony evolve it for the PS4.
While we really don’t know if Sony will keep their XMB or move towards a more Vita-like interface, I think it’s safe to say that we have an idea of how the next Xbox will look. Yes, it’s probably going to look just like Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8. The current Xbox 360 dashboard features a UI that’s similar, but I think they’re going to go all out next time. I’d be absolutely fine with this, as long as they allow me to customize it and keep the things I use most close at hand.
One other feature that’s pretty essential is the ability to return to the dashboard mid-game. This was finally achieved on the PS4, while the Xbox 360 has its Guide, but it would be nice to be able to suspend a game at any point and have full access to everything else on the system. With the increase in RAM we’re no doubt going to see in the next generation, the prospect of multitasking should be easy, but whether or not Sony and Microsoft choose to implement it is another thing…
It won’t be long until the curtains are pulled back and we get a real look at the Xbox 720 and PlayStation 4, but until then we can only hope, dream, and speculate. So while we’re doing that, I’ll ask you the question – what kind of UI would you like to see in the next generation of consoles? Leave a comment with any ideas, and if I get some good ones, I’ll do a follow-up post featuring the best suggestions.
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