Bing lead program manager Michelle Holtmann coordinates the search team's work with the company's Xbox unit.

Michelle Holtmann has been at Microsoft for almost 12 years, which means she understands the natural conflicts that can happen when two giant divisions decide to work together. But the lead program manager on Microsoft Bing still jumped at the opportunity to work on a team bringing the company’s search technology to its Xbox 360 video-game console.

She remembers thinking to herself, “If we can pull this off, we’ve got something that I don’t think any other company can touch, because of all the assets that Microsoft brings to the table.”

Using voice commands and Kinect to find content with Microsoft Bing in the revamped Xbox Live dashboard.

They’re known informally inside the company as the “BingBox” team, and the results of their work will be on full display today as Microsoft refreshes its Xbox Live dashboard with a massive software update.

The update includes a built-in search feature for quickly finding movies, shows, games, music, apps and other content. It takes advantage of the voice-recognition features built in to the company’s Kinect sensor but also allows people to enter text using a controller or keypad.

If the rollout goes smoothly, the effort has the potential to boost Microsoft’s search business in its long battle against Google, by exposing the Bing brand to the audience of 35 million Xbox Live members. On the web, Microsoft has grown to about 15 percent market share in the U.S., or 30 percent counting the search results that it powers for Yahoo, according to data from comScore Networks.

Google still controls about 65 percent of the U.S. market — but it doesn’t have a game console, at least not yet.

In addition to powering the search feature across the new Xbox Live dashboard, Bing now has a dedicated tab in Xbox Live — a page known internally as a “twist” — with a search box for finding content on the console, and a background image that will change weekly, similar to the daily image on the Bing home page on the web.

In fact, it might be difficult to avoid the Bing brand in the new Xbox interface. To search for a Harry Potter movie using the Kinect sensor, for example, you will need to say, “Xbox, Bing Harry Potter.” If you say instead, “Xbox, Search Harry Potter,” it won’t work.

Yes, Microsoft is determined to get you to use Bing a verb … like it or not.

The company’s decision to put Bing in the spotlight in the new Xbox Live dashboard makes the stakes even higher for the nearly 40 members of the BingBox team. And their project was an engineering challenge on a variety of fronts.

First, from a practical standpoint, the Bing team is based in a downtown Bellevue high-rise, a few miles from Microsoft’s Xbox campus in Redmond. Special routers had to be installed in their building to get the BingBox engineers on the Xbox developer network.

As they dug in, they realized their core assignment wasn’t going to be as easy it might have seemed on the surface.

Sure, the universe of content on Xbox is only a slice of the vast web that Bing normally indexes. But there were other challenges. For example, when they started, differences in the descriptive metadata from different content providers meant that the search algorithm would see one movie service’s copy of The Green Lantern as different from another service’s copy, showing the same movie repeatedly in the search results.

The team was able to overcome obstacles such as that using its experience from the world of web search, including technologies from Microsoft Research and tricks such as using human judges to refine search results and teach the underlying algorithms to become better over time.

Another challenge was time. As the BingBox got up and running this spring, they were told that the Xbox division wanted working code to show of the search technology to show at the all-important E3 video-game conference. Not normally immersed in the world of video games, the search team checked their calendars and realized that was in June, just a couple months away at that point.

They put their heads down and made it happen.

Even though its work on the console is unique, Microsoft’s BingBox team is operating in an increasingly competitive environment, with speculation that Apple will integrate its Siri intelligent assistant into its next-generation television technology.

Microsoft is adding YouTube to Xbox Live, but the content won't yet be indexed by the universal Bing search feature, requiring users to find videos from inside the YouTube app.

The search feature launching today with the new Xbox Live includes most of the content on the console — but not all. For example, even though the new Xbox Live adds live television and YouTube videos, users will need to navigate to that content using menus, rather than search, because the Bing index on Xbox doesn’t include them at launch.

“There’s a pretty large process that goes into indexing all the metadata content,” said Lisa Worthington, a senior product manager for Xbox Live, explaining that the company prioritized long-form content such as movies and recorded TV shows, but ultimately will include live TV and YouTube in the index. “Eventually that’s a place we’ll want to go. We have a vision for that.”

That means more challenges ahead for the BingBox team, which is just fine with Holtmann, who has worked in the past in areas including Windows antipiracy and Windows Mobile core networking. She says she was motivated to work on the Bing-Xbox project in part because of her excitement about Microsoft’s goal of improving the way people interact with technology in the living room.

And contrary to the traditional corporate stereotype, she says the Bing team has been welcomed as an extension of the Xbox unit.

Holtmann says, in an almost confessional tone, “It’s actually been the most fun I’ve had at Microsoft.”

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  • Me

    She remembers thinking to herself, “If we can pull this off, we’ve got something that I don’t think any other company can touch, because of all the assets that Microsoft brings to the table.”
    — Except the X-Box is still terrible as a console.  I’ve sent mine in TWICE now and I play maybe once a week.

    • Notme

      Yawn. Haters gotta hate.

      • Goodsamartian

        Meh, standard Microsoft response. Meh!!

  • Guest

    “If the rollout goes smoothly”

    Already hit a snag and is delayed apparently. Don’t know for how long.

    OT: IDC predictions on Windows 8. Sort of a big story, no?

    • Todd Bishop

      Thanks. Just fyi, I posted about the delay just now. They’re saying they’ll give an update this afternoon on the status.

      I had the IDC Windows 8 prediction on my to-do list but wanted to get the full report to understand the context, rather than just repeating what others are saying. Just got it from them and planning to post soon.

      • Guest

        Saw that, thanks. At least this time MS is being clear on the communication side. Credit Major for that. He’s very professional. Or maybe he just looks that way compared to much of the rest of MS.

        Look forward to reading the full context of what IDC had to say. Disappointed that nobody in MS PR or windows marketing is defending their critical product. Sigh.

        Let me indulge in a story. Once upon a time, many years ago, MS was nearing release on a product called W95. A friend of mine was a MS system engineer in a remote sub and giving a sneak peek for a group of local customers and reporters. There were a few demo moments, as there always are, but one reporter decided to use that to skewer the product, the presenter, and MS. By the next morning, despite this being a small story in a remote country, this had reached all the way up the hierarchy. No no less than Jeff Raikes, then #3 overall, was demanding full details from everyone even remotely connected in order to rebut the story asap. A lot has changed, and not for the better.

  • Anonymous

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  • Guest

    Congratulations to Microsoft on this imminent launch! With Xbox 360 as the dominant home console and Bing a rising star in the universe of search engines, this is a real win-win for consumers and marketers combined.

  • Christopher Budd

    I have to say that I find the bright idea to force me to use “Bing” as a verb for this interface amazingly obnoxious. Let me be clear, this isn’t anti-Microsoft (as, full disclosure, I did work there for 10 years). This is me hating any company forcing me to speak in marketing gibberish with no choice. I’d feel the same way if Google made me use “Google” as a verb or Apple did something like this.

    If they had search respond to both “search” and “Bing” it would’ve been kind of clever. But by taking my choice away entirely it’s not clever it’s obnoxious.

    I have an Xbox but not a Kinect. I was thinking the new update sounded promising but I certainly have no plans to pick up a Kinect now.

    This also speaks volumes about the current attitude towards customers there. Clearly, giving the customer what he or she wants isn’t on the priority list.

  • Seattle Homes

    I may be behind the power curve but I don’t understand why Yahoo is migrating it’s webmasters to Bing.  Is the Yahoo search engine being overtaken or merged with Bing’s?  I can see here that Bing is powering the search for Yahoo and that total makes up 30%.

    • Christopher Budd

      It happened two years ago, but basically Microsoft and Yahoo effectively merged their search. Microsoft took technology from Yahoo, incorporated it into Bing and then made Bing the underlying search engine for Yahoo.

      So, there is no “Yahoo search” per se any more. Under the hood it’s Bing (with additions from Yahoo’s technology).

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