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Cortana overhaul will let you feel less dumb talking to your Xbox One

Completely revamped, easier voice commands and lots more coming to the Xbox dashboard this summer

Soon, you'll be asking your Xbox One to do things, rather than ordering it around.

I realize those might sound like the same things, but if you use Xbox One voice commands on a regular, even daily basis — as I do — you might grok the difference. Currently, when talking to friends about Kinect voice controls, I compare it to barking orders to a generally well-behaved but occasionally stubborn dog. "Xbox," I'll say much louder than I would if I were talking to a human, "watch HGTV."

Yes, this is a command I give my Xbox One on a regular basis, and every time I hope it's not an episode of Island Hunters.

This is also a command that my Xbox One occasionally screws up, not quite hearing me pronounce the words very clearly. And then to compensate, I'll raise my voice and say the same command again, louder, as if volume was ever the problem, as if the annoyance in my voice might somehow make the Kinect's dog brain understand what I desperately want it to understand, because I need to watch House Hunters.

Microsoft wants to fix this.

A bigger problem than the Xbox One not quite hearing you correctly is not knowing exactly how to talk to it. Because the Xbox One's voice commands are very semantic, if you don't remember the exact term for what you want to do, you're basically screwed. "Xbox go to Netflix" works but "Xbox Netflix" doesn't and I don't think "Xbox Play Netflix" works. I understand why voice commands function this way, but it doesn't help when I can't remember how to message someone via voice commands and can't get a party started and want to throw my controller across the room and read a book instead.

The solution, according to Microsoft, is Cortana.

For the five people out there who own a Windows Phone, or, perhaps, the millions of people who have experimented with Microsoft's Siri-killing digital assistant on Windows 10, this will seem long overdue. Which is because it is overdue — you may remember Microsoft talking about Cortana integration in the New Xbox One Experience last E3, and some users found a way to enable a version of Cortana in the beta Xbox One Dashboard that launched last Fall before it was disabled.

Exactly why Cortana has taken this long to make her debut on the Xbox One is open to discussion and speculation elsewhere. In the meantime, Microsoft is using her to completely redefine the way in which you control your Xbox One via voice commands.

new xbox one game collection screen

Microsoft is also reorganizing your game collection

The most immediate change begins with invoking the Xbox One to give it instructions. Replacing the obvious "Xbox" voice cue, you'll instead want to start saying "Hey Cortana." This seems like a slightly silly thing — I don't feel self-conscious saying an object's name, but asking for my pseudo-AI assistant sounds weird. But from there, the need to stick to a short list of approved commands, rigidly enforced, appears to be gone.

Instead, as demonstrated by Xbox's Albert Penello to me a few weeks ago, you'll ask Cortana to do things in an organic way. This might take some getting used to. Microsoft doesn't seem to expect you to imperiously order your console around anymore. Instead, Penello told Cortana he wanted to play Killer Instinct. Not via abstracted commands, mind. He just said "Hey Cortana, I want to play Killer Instinct."

This brings us to another challenge the Xbox One has faced with its robotic demands for specificity. Right now, it's not enough to just say "Xbox play Killer Instinct" if you have, say, multiple versions of Killer Instinct on your console. A better example might be Call of Duty. Right now, neither of those commands are enough to make things happen, really.

But with the addition of Cortana, the Xbox One has a much more sophisticated ability to do what you want it to do. If you tell Cortana you want to play Call of Duty, the system will list the Call of Duty titles you have installed, and ask which one you want to play. Conversely, if you only have one Call of Duty game installed on your console, Cortana will start it, rather than demanding the full name of the game to get things going.

Cortana is also providing other, more powerful navigation abilities. You can give Cortana much more sophisticated, idiosyncratic commands and expect results, including asking to start a party with a person on your friends list using their real name. Penello showed this, and did it largely without semantics. He just told Cortana he wanted to start a party with a friend, using their first name, and the system did it. Users with Windows 10 who have set up Cortana properly can even ask for location-driven information like sports scores via Xbox One. It's the first time a smart assistant has been shown working on a modern console, and it's remarkably effective.

There's additional good news for Xbox One owners without Kinect, which is likely most of you, at this point — starting later this year, you'll be able to give voice commands to an Xbox One via a headset microphone as well as via the Kinect's onboard microphone.

There are other changes coming to the Xbox One's dashboard, though Microsoft is mum about many of them, such as a reorganized library that will mainly be of use to people with dozens of games — like me, for example — and other minor quality of life improvements throughout the OS. In addition, the store is seeing a fairly major overhaul in anticipation of the merger of the Xbox and Windows 10 stores.

Some of the more interesting additions coming to the Xbox app on Windows 10 apply to games outside of Microsoft's garden. Microsoft is adding information about "the biggest" PC games to the app, allowing them to appear in Xbox feeds along with video captures and friends who are playing them.

This is all in advance of the convergence of the Windows 10 and Xbox stores this summer, though Microsoft is quiet on some of the larger benefits users can expect when that happens. This is almost certain to become more clear next week during Microsoft's press conference at E3, where big news is expected about the future of the Xbox platform. You can find additional info about the upcoming dashboard update at Xbox Wire.

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