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.”
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.
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.”