NEWS - Monday, June 27, 2005

Designing The Xbox 360

Microsoft's Xbox team was sure of one thing when it set out to design a new console: If the system won the approval of Japanese consumers, then others would love it as well. The goal sounded simple enough, but it was something Microsoft had failed at before. The company has sold only 1.7 million original Xbox consoles in Japan, where gamers deplored the system as too brash and bulky. "You couldn't get it through the door of apartments in a lot of places," joked Peter Moore, a corporate vice president in the Xbox division. Microsoft also wanted its new console, which it named the Xbox 360, to become a part of home-entertainment systems around the world. To do that, it had to appeal to non gamers: the wives who rolled their eyes at their husband's expensive toy, the mothers who had banished their child's Xbox to the basement TV. The company won't know if it succeeded until after the Xbox 360 goes on sale in November. Software is Microsoft's forte, not design, and the Xbox team knew better than to guess at what kind of console would seduce the Japanese consumer and win non gamers throughout the world. So Microsoft did what a company with $38 billion in the bank can do. It poured money into the effort, flying around the world to interview consumers about their tastes and hiring a cadre of design and engineering firms. People wanted a softer look. They wanted Microsoft to tone down the logo. They loved the use of chrome. At the same time, the team solicited the opinions of Microsoft executives. Jonathan Hayes, the 37-year-old design director for the Xbox platform, didn't show them actual models for fear that each executive would pick one to champion. Instead, he asked them to consider four themes: mild, wild, architectural and organic. The original Xbox was certainly on the wild end of the spectrum. Apple Computer's iPod is mild, executives said. Mild will still look fresh five years from now. Wild will seem dated. To design the final system, the Xbox team narrowed its field of consultants to two: A San Francisco group called Astro Studios formed the concept, and refinements were added by a firm in Osaka, Japan, called Hers Experimental Design Laboratory. Hers was a crucial partner, with its knowledge of Japanese tastes and its emphasis on peaceful, pure design. Astro, which had previously designed sport watches for Nike, pumped in energy and action. In fall 2003, an Astro designer suggested curving two console sides inward, creating a double-concave look that would increase the surface area on the sides. That would enable the console to pull in more air to cool down the high-powered engine inside. The Xbox team seized on the idea, repeating the concave shape in the on-screen layout of its Xbox Live online gaming service. The design process delved further into the mild and organic categories. Microsoft selected a color consultant in Southern California that had developed the color scheme for the new Volkswagen Beetle introduced in 1998. Microsoft would go through 30 color combinations before settling on four: three variations of gray and a white with slight green undertones. It was settled. The Xbox 360 would be a creamy white called "chill" and framed by four lines -- two concave, two flat. For its centerpiece, Microsoft's engineering consultants devised a glowing circular power button called "the ring of light."


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