In the former document archives of a Seattle-based insurance firm lurks the quietest room in the world…
The human ear can hear down to zero decibels. Here, the sound of silence has been measured down to negative 20. “Welcome to the world of quiet,” whispers Gopal Gopal, a diminutive, middle-aged psychoacoustician working for Microsoft’s Devices division. As he closes the door, Gopal’s voice changes. I’m suddenly aware of the blood flow in my head. My ears ring and I swallow hard, as if rapidly descending from altitude. He’s standing beside me, but Gopal’s voice is struggling to pass through the air.
To get this quiet, you’ve got to go to extreme lengths. The entire room, which was designed by Gopal, is cut off from the rest of Microsoft’s Building 87 and suspended on 63 giant springs. An air gap surrounds it and the walls are so thick that were a jumbo jet to take off outside the door, the sound inside the chamber would barely be louder than someone speaking. “It’s a floating chamber,” Gopal says, bobbing on the spot and directing my gaze towards the floor. Beneath our feet is a see-through mesh of steel cables, the same kind used to snare fighter jets landing on aircraft carriers. I look down, peering at the cones of sound-absorbing foam that continue into the gloom. The lights and sprinklers are also designed to ensure as little noise is reflected as possible. This room alone – Microsoft’s Redmond campus has more than 20 chambers with varying degrees of quietness – cost more than $1.5 million (£1.2m).
It’s here, in his temple of silence, that Gopal measures the noise made by computer fans. “There’s no such thing as a fan sound. There are different kinds of fan noises,” he says, smiling and moving his hands through the unpleasantly silent air for emphasis. “Power supplies make humming sounds. LEDs make humming sounds. When you’re playing a game and the fan heats up, it makes sounds. It is when we get quieter that we begin to hear those things.” To measure sound, he continues, you need to take readings in absolute silence. “A room like this offers an absolutely controlled environment. Any time a sound is made, it’s reflected by the surfaces around you. This cuts out the internal reflections, so our measurements are pure.” With an incredibly accurate measurement, you can make incredibly small adjustments. “So, what else do we do with this chamber? All kinds of measurements of sound – keyboard sounds, power-on and -off sounds, audio quality, Skype quality,” Gopal explains.
In recent months, Gopal’s team has been tasked with obsessing over just one noise: the sound of a games console switching on. “With the Xbox One, we got good feedback that people liked the sound when you turned it on and off.” He approaches Microsoft’s latest games console, the Xbox One X, which is perched on a spindly table in the middle of the room. “I will turn it on and tell you what we’ve done a bit differently,” he says, pressing the button and rapping his knuckles in the air as the console lets out a rapid-fire beep… beep-beep. “Do you get that?” he asks, excitedly. I stare back at him, bemused. “Those three tones, between the second and third, we shaved off about 25 milliseconds. You can ask: ‘What are these guys doing?’ but 25 milliseconds is very significant for the auditory system. You know something changes. You get the sense of, ‘Ah, it has speeded up’. It’s a teaser to say we have a faster, more powerful Xbox.”
In February 2014, when Satya Nadella took over as CEO of Microsoft, the Xbox was its only hardware success. The Surface RT laptop-tablet hybrid had failed and Microsoft’s disastrous $7 billion purchase of Nokia was soon to be written off, resulting in more than 18,000 job losses. Microsoft promptly ditched its phone business and refocused, putting industrial design at the centre of a new strategy. The brief seemed deceptively simple: how could the company make its hardware unique? But in an industry dominated by the sleek lines of Apple’s iPhone, iPad and MacBook, it was a tough task. In the intervening years, to the surprise of almost everyone, Microsoft has almost caught up. Its latest Surface laptop, released in June 2017, is about as un-Microsoft as you can get. For the Xbox team, who had a tradition of producing unremarkable black boxes with hints of lurid green, the focus on industrial design presented them with an exciting array of tools. Fortuitously, the change of focus also came at a time when the Xbox itself was undergoing a transformation.
A short walk through the labyrinthine corridors of Building 87, perched atop a small hill on the outskirts of Microsoft’s well-preened Redmond campus, is the Advanced Prototyping Center. This is where Microsoft experiments with new hardware designs. “My goal is to be able to do everything,” says prototyping director Bill Maes, who runs the facility. The 20,000-square-metre hall is packed with laser cutters, water-jet machines, wire cutters and a 3D-printing lab that processes up to 300 jobs a day. Around 50 people work on the prototyping team, which moved into its present location in 2014.
Before then, it was hidden away in a clutch of rooms next to a garage.
“Everything we do for industrial design gets painted and finished. It has to look like the finished product”
Maes says. Here, an idea can go from concept artwork to physical dummy in 45 minutes. On the table in front of us, a row of Xbox One X prototypes shows the evolution of Microsoft’s latest console, each showing a subtle refinement or compromise on the last. “We had this idea of a floating monolith,” says senior industrial designer Bryan Sparks, who’s worked on the Xbox team for five years. He was inspired by the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. But first, they looked to the Xbox One S, the console’s last iteration. “We got a lot of great feedback on the One S about its minimalist design and graphic details, so we wanted to keep that spirit. We knew we didn’t want a large box. We had this vision.” That vision, for Sparks’ team, was all about the small details: “No one takes apart their console, but we go into those internals and clean them up. We add graphics,” he says, pointing at a glistening, disembowelled console. “That’s something I take a lot of pride in.”
In another corner of Building 87, I’m in a room being blinded by a slim-built, slightly stooped man called John Morris. “Environment is critical when we’re making products,” says Morris, a senior human factors engineer, as he squints through the glare. His lab is a cross between a biology classroom and a photography studio, with models of skulls and skeletons flanked by an object-mapping chamber and a DIY rig that captures scans of people holding Xbox controllers. “We’re not making Gollum,” he says. “We’re capturing subtle movements of hands and bodies when they’re interacting with products we’re making.” Above us, the rig of LED lights continues to hum at a retina-aching 65,000 lux. Normal indoor conditions range from 400 to 1,000 lux. “These are LEDs and you can feel the heat,” Morris says, seemingly impressed by the unpleasantness of his creation. “This wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago. It’s awesome in Seattle, we’ve got sunshine anytime we want.” After turning down the lights, Morris points to a dim, green glow underneath a television. “We put a lot of work into designing the nexus,” he says, referring to the soft light on the front of the Xbox One X. “We don’t want it to be a blaring beacon at night, but we want it to be bright enough to see in the daytime.”
In the game of one-upmanship with console rival Sony, Microsoft is betting big on two things: small details and big numbers. First, the details: “People have been punching holes in metal for more than 100 years,” says Xbox hardware general manager Leo Del Castillo, running his finger along the intricate array of venting holes on the side of the One X. “When we started, if you asked the tooling engineer, ‘Can we punch these holes so close together that the webbing between them is thinner than the thickness of the material?’ we were told it couldn’t be done. When you get to that level of thinness, it’s going to start bending. Our engineers took it as a challenge and decided to solve the problem.” Then there are the numbers: the Xbox One X is powered by a custom eight-core 2.3GHz CPU, a six-teraflop graphics processor running at 1172MHz, 12GB of memory, and 326Gbps memory bandwidth. In short: it’s powerful. But so what?
For developers, the move to 4K is significant. “It allows us to use all the animated pixels,” says Matthew Allen, director of technical art at Shadows of War developer Monolith Productions. “The artwork is huge so you’re building massive textures and rendering them out.” It’s a point I hear repeatedly: developers have been designing characters and worlds with meticulous detail for years, but until now individual nose hairs and tiny cuts on skin and clothing could only be seen on the highest-end PCs. Although 4K is adding the detail, high-dynamic range (HDR) helps those details stand out. “I like the improvements we have to foliage and trees,” says Mike Rayner, technical director at Gears of War developer The Coalition as he guides a glistening mechanoid along a hillside path, casually demolishing buildings. “The metal, armour and weapons… they really pop,” he says. “HDR is hard to explain,” adds Frank O’Connor, franchise development director for Halo. “It adds fidelity and detail, rather than just contrast. It could be as meaningful to people as 4K.”
For Minecraft developer Mojang, the increase in processing power was about making an already gigantic world even more sprawling. “It allows us to do things you couldn’t do if you were just chasing photorealism,” says principal software engineer Cameron Egbert. “A lot of games are fixed, but our world is dynamic. The extra power allowed us to do all these fancy things without having to worry,” adds art director Brad Shuber. Extras include animations on water and beautiful sunsets. “It lets our community build stuff they couldn’t build before,” Egbert concludes.
To reap the benefits, loyal fans won’t just have to fork out £429 on the One X, they will also need a 4K TV. “I’m guessing that around half the people who buy a One X on day one will already have a new TV,” says Albert Penello, senior director of product management and planning at Microsoft. That guess is based on Microsoft’s faith in a small, but growing trend. In 2016, 50 per cent of new TVs sold in the US supported 4K. That figure is predicted to rise to 60 per cent in 2017 and 80 per cent in 2018. Unlike 3D TV, much-hyped but a commercial failure, Microsoft is confident 4K is a safe bet. But betting on a new technology that few can afford carries inherent risks. That’s why Microsoft has the Dream Killer.
“It’s where we break designers’ hearts”
says principal design manager John Snavely, one of the leads on the redesign of the Xbox software interface. Hidden away in a side room, the Dream Killer is a reminder to all engineers and designers that many gamers don’t have the latest technology, even if they’re happy to shell out on a new console. “It’s a TV we should’ve thrown away a long time ago. It’s awful. We put a lot of time into making sure our content looks good on the Dream Killer,” Snavely says.
The launch of the Xbox One X on November 7 comes after a difficult few years for the platform. When Microsoft revealed the original Xbox One in May 2013, it was positioned as an all-encompassing set-top box rather than a games console. But Microsoft’s desire to own the living room failed and it’s been playing catch-up ever since. “I totally understand what you’re talking about in terms of the launch of Xbox One and that TV stuff, and Kinect. It was a vision that was different,” says Phil Spencer, who became head of Xbox in March 2014. Normally erudite, Spencer stops and starts before settling on a carefully worded answer. “I understood the vision that the prior team had. Hopefully, our last three years shows that a focus on the gaming customer is critically important to us.” The One X – and its less powerful sibling the One S – are an attempt to pick up where the Xbox 360 left off.
Spencer attributes the change in attitude to decisions made at the top of Microsoft: “It’s been nice to see what Satya Nadella talks about now. The support we have for being in the games industry and not being something else is incredibly high.” Not everything has gone to plan, however. Launched in August 2016, the Xbox One S was overshadowed by Sony’s more powerful PS4 Pro, the first home console to support 4K gaming. The One X, which comfortably outperforms the PS4 Pro, brings closure to a wearisome round of muscle flexing. Three major console launches in little over four years will leave many unimpressed, but Penello makes no apologies for it. “We wanted our fans to have the most powerful console,” he says. For those not turned on by talk of transistors and teraflops, the 4K-gaming hype will feel empty. But among developers, the significance of the One X is about fundamentally changing the way games are created and played.
“The original Xbox was the DirectX Box,” Penello says, referring to the DirectX software introduced with Windows 95. The idea behind DirectX was to make PC gaming continuous: buy a game and, within reason, you should be able to play it forever. Penello has worked at Microsoft for 17 years and in the games industry for 23. A broad-shouldered man whose voice fills any space, he is all firm handshakes and retro-gaming references. “I was Atari versus Intellivision,” he jokes. Console gaming has always struggled with the burden of its past. A vinyl record bought 30 years ago can be ripped to another format and enjoyed today. On a PC, the copy of Worms 2 you bought in 1997 still works on Windows 10 today. In console gaming? Not so much. “Consoles were more bespoke than PCs,” Penello explains. “Why can’t I make Ms. Pac-Man run on my Pac-Man arcade board? Well, they’re two different boards. Atari was an arcade company. Nintendo was an arcade company.”
Caught between the technical difficulty of backwards compatibility and financial necessity to launch new hardware every few years, console manufacturers have forced people to ditch old software in order to play the latest games. “Console gaming is the only form of entertainment that doesn’t let you do that,” says Kevin Gammill, group program manager at Xbox. Gammill, spiky haired and wide eyed, often finishes Penello’s sentences, and vice versa. “Why can’t you put your entire Atari 2600 catalogue into your ColecoVision?,” Gammill asks. “The delivery mechanism has changed, people have moved to digital. Knowing that digital thing you just purchased will carry forward with you is important. That’s a new paradigm we didn’t have in 2001.”
Console gaming has been slow to learn from Netflix, Spotify and Steam. Freed from the constraints of physical media, companies no longer have to hoover up all their profits in alarmingly short launch windows. “Just like there are movies that don’t do well at the box office but then become cult hits, the same thing happens with games,” says Shannon Loftis, general manager of publishing at Xbox. The end result is that developers can take more risks. “Before the current console generation, it felt like everybody was hesitant to try something different,” she says. “Suddenly you have these small developers making games that are surprise hits and that has revitalised the ecosystem.”
It’s a shot in the arm that’s long overdue for an industry with a penchant for sequels and safe bets. “I’ve been in this industry for a long time,” Loftis says. “I was the moderator for the post-mortem of the original Age of Empires. The overwhelming sentiment was that we had something special, but we weren’t done with it yet. Of course, we made a sequel, but sequels won’t necessarily be what needs to happen with games like that from now on.” The concept of patching and updating games and releasing downloadable content is nothing new, but Loftis sees something more significant on the horizon. “What would you do with a platformer if you knew your platformer was going to live forever?” she says. “We’re still in prototyping mode but it’s something that’s changing the way developers and designers think.” Most games have a short window when people play them. What would it mean for creative output if it wasn’t all about short-term profits?
That way of thinking also works in reverse. When Spencer Perreault’s colleagues said that getting first-generation Xbox games to work on the latest consoles was impossible, the software developer set out to prove them wrong. “He said, ‘I’m going to figure it out,’” says Bill Stillwell, Xbox platform lead and head of the backwards-compatibility project. “Sure enough, he dragged me to his office one day and fired up a game.” Perreault’s breakthrough was significant. Since the dawn of the home-console era, hardware manufacturers have consigned games to premature deaths. In gaming’s tussle to be taken seriously, embracing heritage without ripping off fans is crucial.
For Phil Spencer, the focus on backwards compatibility is also an opportunity to recognise gaming’s true potential. “I see games as an art form. Console games can get lost when hardware generations go away. It can become more challenging to play the games of our past,” he says. Spencer was hired as a Microsoft intern in 1988. He was soon leading the Encarta team before moving to Microsoft’s gaming business in 2007. “There’s something to be learned from experiencing what I played as a kid. There’s good business there for the content owners, but as players, it’s nice to be able to understand how our artform has progressed.” Microsoft has supported backwards compatibility since the launch of the Xbox 360 in 2005. Around half of all original Xbox games were compatible with the new system. More than 400 Xbox 360 games are playable on the three Xbox One console variants. A selection of original Xbox games will soon be added to that list. The concept of general compatibility, where games can work forever, is a new one for the console industry.
Having the One, One S and One X on sale at the same time might seem contrary, but for Microsoft, it’s the latest twist in the DirectX Box road it started in 2001. The aim now is the same as it was then: to make console-game development more like PC development. The Xbox One, then, is the entry-level model; the One S is mid-range; and the One X lets developers turn everything up to 11. Crucially, any titles released for the One X must also work on the far less powerful Xbox One. For developers, it allows them to keep working with familiar software tools. “New hardware doesn’t have to invalidate the software work we’ve done,” Spencer says. “In past console generations, there’s been manipulation to stop compatibility so that everybody has to buy things new, sometimes even the same versions of things they already own. Content should be the thing that drives our industry. I want that content to be front and centre for as long as possible.”
The console industry has been slow to get the message into its corporate skull. “I don’t think it’s taken so long because nobody wanted it,” says Chris Tector, studio software architect at Forzadeveloper Turn 10 Studios. Forza Motorsport 7 is the fifth title Tector’s team has built on the Xbox One architecture. “It’s something developers were able to cultivate and grow.” So it’s a maturity thing, I ask. “That’s what I’m getting at, yeah.”
Turn 10, along with other first-party Microsoft developers, is based in Redmond Town Center, an eerily well-ordered, privately owned development. When I arrive at noon, the streets are lifeless. The main boulevard’s cookie-cutter shops are all open for business and all empty. Microsoft fills three sizeable but squat office buildings on the east side, with Mojang buddied-up with 343 Industries, the studio working on the Halo franchise. Turn 10 has just moved in across the road. For Tector’s team, the extra oomph of the One X has let them have some fun. Each grain on the Tarmac has been recreated in perfect detail; the visors worn by drivers have fingerprints on them. “We used to get irate because you’d discover a dandelion, this was way back on Forza 2, and you’d ask, ‘What are you doing putting that much detail on a flower on the side of the track?’ Now we’re marvelling at how much we can get in.” Tector explains.
An ebullient man with caterpillar eyebrows, Tector is adamant that gaming’s move into 4K and HDR is significant – both technically and artistically. “The way we choose to balance a scene is the same as the art you find in any linear media,” he says. “When people hear about power, they think that you’re going to ram it down their throats and it’s going to be lots of pixels. I believe that games haven’t got to the point where we are with movies. We’re reproducing just about everything that you can see in films, but we’re not there yet with games. I’m very excited about where we’re going.” It’s hard not to get caught up in Tector’s belief that increasing processing power can help gaming become more artistic, but looking at the games being used to push the One X, it’s clear that the industry still leans heavily on tried and tested formulas.
While Microsoft and Sony push pixel counts to the limit, Nintendo’s innovative Switch console has caught the industry by surprise. In July, the company announced it had sold nearly five million units since it launched in March 2017, beating even the most optimistic of analyst predictions. The console’s standout launch title, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, is one of the most acclaimed games of all time, despite suffering from occasionally crawling frame rates and graphics that owe more to an oil painting than 4K photorealism. “The Nintendo conversation is always hard because they are so unique,” Penello says. “We’re a technology company and our customers like performance. They want high-end graphics. It’s in our nature. So Sony and us play in that space. Nintendo plays in a different space.” Earlier this year, Yoshiaki Koizumi, one of the masterminds behind the Switch, discussed the secret to Nintendo’s innovation: “It’s not necessarily about technology.” For Microsoft, the opposite is true: innovation and art are irrevocably linked to technology.
So why has the Xbox ignored virtual reality, seen by many as the next logical step for immersive entertainment? “There’s still a tonne of experimentation in VR,” Penello says. “That’s not designed to be a backhanded statement.” He makes the comparison with 3D TV. “There are obviously consumer products. Moving the problem into the display of your goggles versus the limits of the TV was a result of some of the 3D TV challenges. But VR has so much potential. Is it a viable consumer product? For a certain size of audience.” At Microsoft, that size of audience is the focus of its £2,700 HoloLens augmented-reality headset. Sony’s PlayStation VR, priced at £349 and launched in October 2016, has sold more than one million units, surprising many in the industry. For Penello, VR isn’t something to rush into. “We learned with Kinect and the Wii that just translating a typical game experience to VR is not a winning strategy. It’s the oddball VR-specific stuff that makes it sing. It wasn’t something we wanted to distract developers with this year.”
The extra power, Microsoft hopes, will not only provide support for the predicted surge in 4K TV sales, it will also make games hit you right in the feels. “Having that moment when you race in the rain, on Nürburgring, in this purpose-built car and you’re hearing the rain hitting the body, it gives you that feeling of when a storm’s started while you’re driving and you’re tensing up inside,” Tector says, his voice quickening with excitement. “It’s all these components: the graphics, audio and simulation – you’re fighting the car to keep it on the road – it builds up and turns into one of those moments.” Loftis puts it more succinctly: “I know there’s animation smoothness. I know there’s scene depth and scene richness,” she says, pausing briefly and fixing me with her gaze. “But it’s the emotional impact that I hadn’t anticipated.”