Xbox One: conceived in an age of prosperity, it's the wrong console for our time

Microsoft's vision of the future is a group of wildly gesticulating children and screeching voices aimed at a beautiful black box that can switch between CBeebies and CBBC in one barked order from a five year old.

Microsoft described the new Xbox One as "a new vision for the future comes to life". I've assembled many speeches around this theme over the years, never for a games console.

Then again, there has never been a console as over-engineered as Xbox One. You operate it using a voice recognition system devised by Mircosoft's top aural engineers. You can scan menus using a new sign language developed by Microsoft's ergonomic technicians.

Microsoft is the sort of company that probably hires TV ethnographers and viewing psychologists. In the wildly chaotic living room of the Watsons, though, the will of dad still prospers. Without control of the "remote", order does not exist. With Xbox One the TV watching quacks have won the design war. The patriarchy has been deposed as we move into the new era of Microsoftocracy.

Well Microsoft, my vision of your future is a group of wildly gesticulating children and screeching voices aimed at the beautiful black box that can switch between CBeebies and CBBC in one barked order from a five year old.

Worryingly, particularly for the middle aged grumpy gamer, is that Microsoft's user experience experts have, in their words "refreshed" the "class-leading" Xbox controller with more than "40 technical and design innovations". I don't want the controller to be "refreshed". I'm used to it. It's perfect in every way. I spend more time using the old unrefreshed controller than I do driving my car. We've been on many adventures together and I don't want to trade it in for an upgraded and refreshed version. Microsoft should hire some political philosophers alongside the audience ethnographers. Edmund Burke could have told them that "change always brings certain loss and only possible gain".

Yesterday's global screencast of the launch event carried it's own pre-launch hashtag: #xboxreveal. One thing that was not revealed was the price of the new system. I'm pretty sure that we'll all want one but can we all afford it? The company has spent a lot of time bringing people closer together with the integration of Skype and improvements to the use of Xbox live for multi-player online gaming. It looks impressive and I certainly want to play with one as quickly as I can.

But the price of the "liquid black" console will be the real game changer. Microsoft has sheepishly admitted to Wired that games discs will have to be installed onto the hard drive. This strongly suggests they will create a fee regime for second hand disc purchasers. If true, it will significantly reduce games ownership in my constituency and I'm sure will create a consumer resistance to the new device that Microsoft's team of market researchers may have underestimated.

We are told to expect more news about the repertoire of available games during the E3 conference next month. Yesterday's list of games was limited, only using the unsurprising Call of Duty franchise to showcase the new kit. Microsoft promise early and new franchises. They're going to have to deliver on this if they want early sales.

Xbox One looks like the next generation of big telly gaming and viewing. Yet without knowing its' price or games catalogue, how can one judge its' value? It was conceived in a time of ever growing prosperity and no-one, not even the Microsoft pointy heads will know whether Xbox One will triumph in tough economic times.

Tom Watson is the MP for West Bromwich East, and Deputy Chair of the Labour Party. He is also an avid gamer and campaigner for media integrity.
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge