Here’s How Microsoft Is Adding Voice Control and Gestures to the Xbox (Video)

Microsoft is planning a massive software update on Tuesday for the Xbox, beginning the game console’s transformation into an entertainment hub for the whole family.

The free update will allow users to control the console using their voice and gestures, or even their Windows Phone (if they have one).

In addition, Microsoft will begin to add more than 40 content providers to the console to increase the catalog of live and streamed TV, movies and music.

Microsoft has announced nearly all of these details previously, including some of its content partners, so today’s announcement serves as a reminder now that the final product is ready to go.

Last week, I met up with Michael Suraci, Xbox’s director of marketing, to get a preview of the updates.

According to Suraci, Kinect, the motion sensor that launched last year, is a central part of the update. When it was introduced, it seemed that all it was good for was dance games, but clearly Microsoft had much bigger plans for the camera and the microphone.

Now users can speak naturally to the Xbox, which tears down a number of barriers to family members in the household that weren’t comfortable with the clunky controller. If Microsoft pulls it off, it could teach people that televisions are meant to be talked to, just as Apple has taught people that screens are meant to be touched.

An unknown subset of the nearly 60 million Xbox owners worldwide that have purchased Kinect will be able to use all the new features in the update.

But everyone will have access to many of the updates.

One major improvement is in navigation. For example, the old interface required the user to decide which category they wanted to go into. For example, games, video or music. Then, they had to choose the application, like Netflix, ESPN or Zune.

In the new user interface, the person can search across all of the categories and apps.

As Suraci demonstrates in the video, a user can say: “Xbox: Bing, ‘Fast and the Furious.'”

The results show all of the content that matches that criteria across games, music, video and other categories. The style of the user interface will be recognizable to anyone using a Windows Phone. The format will also be carried over to the upcoming Windows 8 update.

During Suraci’s demonstration, the software got confused a couple of times, but still, searching by voice will be much faster than typing in a string of words, letter-by-letter, using the controller to scroll through the alphabet.

Going forward, the Xbox could replace the need for a second set-top box in the household, but as Peter Kafka has mentioned before, it’s not a service for customers looking to cut the cord. In order to stream live TV, or watch movies, you’ll either have to pay for a subscription — like Verizon FiOS or Comcast’s Xfinity — or pay a la carte.

On Tuesday’s launch, the amount of content that will be available in the U.S. will be somewhat disappointing. But later in December and in early 2012, you will start to see integrations with Verizon FiOS, YouTube, HBO GO and Xfinity On Demand, TMZ, UFC, Wal-Mart’s Vudu service and others.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik