XBox One's always-on camera shows the subtle ways we accept being watched

It's easy to overstate how creepy the Kinect camera's constant surveillance will be, but that doesn't stop it being still quite creepy indeed.

Microsoft’s XBox One launches on Friday, and it's quite good for illustrating the many ways in which we make slight changes to our expectations of privacy in exchange when we think the trade-off if worth it.

It's a cliche, but to illustrate this point, here's the advertising technology imagined for Minority Report:

And here’s what happens when you walk into a room with an Xbox One in it:

Skip to 6:01. What you’re seeing is the Kinect camera recognising a person’s face, and tracking them. If it’s somebody who has an XBox Live profile, it will know who they are and log them in by the time they’ve sat down and picked up a controller.

There is little difference, functionally, between these two examples, and you can see how the second example might lead into the first. You don’t have to register your face with your Kinect - Microsoft has made that clear - but there are all kinds of privacy ramifications of introducing this kind of technology into a games console.

You can Skype chat with friends across the world, but you “should not expect any level of privacy” while you do so. The Kinect camera will always be listening to you, waiting for you to give it a voice command, because Microsoft wants its new console to be at the very centre of your home entertainment system, and have every other device - including satellite or cable TV - going through it. You could turn it off, but then you wouldn’t get to do this:

(Video: Major Nelson)

Twitch, the streaming platform that lets you broadcast your game as you play it so friends or others can watch, comes as default on the PS4 and will arrive on the XBox One in early 2014. There are a series of achievements that can be unlocked just for sitting and watching other people play games, for hours on end. The aim is to get you sitting in front of your console and TV as much as possible, and let Microsoft quantify that.

While the Kinect won’t be watching to make sure that you’re watching it, there are patents for that kind of functionality. They come with diagrams that truly are works of dystopian fiction:

 

This isn’t to say that the Xbox One is part of a sinister plot, or conspiracy, of any kind - it’s just that it is a nice example of the ways we can be convinced to trade our privacy for certain things, and how a series of small judgements that individually feel negligible can add up to a more serious long-term issue.

Once voice and gesture control, or the convenience of being signed in automatically by a camera, becomes a mundane thing, it becomes easier to slip in other things - maybe not for this generation, but for the one after it. Adverts between shows for products mentioned by the characters, or maybe eventually adverts for products that you were talking about with your friends. Those warnings at the beginning of films that the version you’re watching is only licensed for home use - not for schools, or prisons, or oil rigs - will actually mean something if a camera can tell you have too many people watching at once.

It makes it harder to protect our privacy, to stop that blurring of what part of your life is yours and what part belongs to others. Having our picture taken doesn't mean that a part of our soul gets caught inside the photo, but having our picture recorded, quanitified, monetised by third-party advertisers, and cross-referenced with other networks so that private companies know exactly how to tailor their products to you, well, that would feel intrusive. We might not realise the steps we've tacitly taken to reach that point.

Customers excited about the XBox One. (Photo: Getty)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Marvel has moved past the post-credits teaser, and it's all the better for it

Individual stories are suddenly taking precedence over franchise building.

The lasting contribution of 2008’s Iron Man to contemporary cinema comes not from the content of the film itself, but in its Avengers-teasing post-credits scene featuring an eyepatch-sporting Samuel L. Jackson. While post-credits scenes were not invented by Marvel, their widespread adoption in other blockbusters is a testament to Marvel using them to titillate and frustrate.

Fast forward nine years and Marvel’s direction has significantly altered. Having moved to a three-film-a-year structure ahead of next year’s climactic Infinity War, their two releases this summer have featured less explicit connective tissue, using post-credits scenes that are, in typical Marvel fashion, self-reflexive and fun – but this time with no teases for films to come.

Where previous Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films have trailed characters donning superhero mantles, confrontations to come, or more light-hearted team ups, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 decided to lovingly poke fun at Marvel grandmaster Stan Lee, leaving him stranded on a godforsaken space rock in the outer reaches of the stars. Spider-Man: Meanwhile Homecoming targeted filmgoers who had stayed until the end in expectation of a tease, only to receive a Captain America educational video on the virtues of “patience”.

That isn’t to say that connective tissue isn’t there. Marvel seems to be pursuing world building not through post-credits stingers, but through plot and character. In the past, teasing how awful big bad Thanos is ahead of the Avengers battling him in Infinity War would have been done through a menacing post-credits scene, as in both Avengers films to date. Instead Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 uses character as a tool to explore the world at large.

Nebula’s seething rage is, rather than just a weak excuse for an antagonist’s arc, actually grounded in character, explaining to Sean Gunn’s loveable space pirate Kraglin that Thanos would pit his daughters, her and Gamora, against each other, and replace a part of her body with machine each time she failed – and she failed every time. It’s effective. Thanos’ menace is developed, and you feel sympathy for Nebula, something Marvel has historically failed to do well for its antagnoists. Her parting promise – to kill her father – not only foreshadows the events of Infinity War, but also hints at the conclusion of a fully formed arc for her character.

In the high-school-set Spider-Man: Homecoming, the stakes quite rightly feel smaller. The inexperienced wall-crawler gets his chance to save the day not with the galaxy at risk, but with an equipment shipment owned by Iron Man alter-ego and billionaire inventor Tony Stark hanging in the balance. While such a clear metaphor for widespread change in the MCU might be a little on the nose, the set-up is effective at plaing the film at street level while also hinting at overall changes to the structure of the universe.

Stark gifting Peter a new (and oh so shiny) suit is a key set piece at the end of the film, whereas in 2015's Ant-Man’s Hope Pym inheriting her mother’s own miniaturising suit it is relegated to a teaser. Peter’s decision to turn it down not only completes Peter’s transition past seeking the approval of Stark’s unwitting father figure, but it also leaves the Avengers in an as-yet unknown state, still fragmented and incomplete after the events of 2016’s Civil War. To anticipate Spider-Man joining the Avengers proper is to anticipate the forming of the team as a whole – keeping our collective breath held until we stump up for tickets to Infinity War.

With this happy marriage of the macro and the micro, individual stories are suddenly taking precedence in the MCU, rather than being lost in the rush to signpost the foundations for the next instalment in the franchise. It’s a refreshingly filmic approach, and one which is long overdue. To suggest that Marvel is hesitant to overinflate Infinity War too early is supported by their refusal to share the footage of the film screened to audiences at the D23 and San Diego Comic Con events in recent weeks. Instead, the limelight is staying firmly on this November’s Thor: Ragnarok, and next February’s Black Panther.

Stan Lee, at the end of his Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 post credits scene, cries, “I’ve got so many more stories to tell!”, a hopeful counterpoint to a weary Captain America asking “How many more of these are there?” at the end of Homecoming. With Disney having planned-out new MCU releases all the way into 2020, entries in the highest-grossing franchise of all time won’t slow any time soon. We can, at least, hope that they continue their recent trend of combining writerly craft with blockbuster bombast. While the resulting lack of gratuitousness in Marvel’s storytelling might frustrate in the short term, fans would do well to bear in mind Captain America’s call for patience.