Xbox Gets Cortana and Alexa Skills, But You Still Need a Smart Speaker
It was just a few weeks ago that the Alexa-Cortana integration debuted on smart speakers and PCs. On Thursday, Microsoft announced the capability to access Xbox games and services through Amazon Alexa and Microsoft Cortana skills for “select Xbox U.S. Insiders.” Xbox Insiders is a program that allows some users to preview upcoming console features or games ahead of the general public. Anyone can become an Insider, but not everyone receives access to all previews. So, this appears to be a limited rollout. So, don’t bother trying to enable it from the public Alexa skill store. It’s not there. You need to follow some set-up steps online (N.B. link for this below).
What is not limited is the access points once you get your device registered. Echo, Sonos One and Harman Kardon smart speakers are listed as supported along with Windows 10 PCs and the Cortana and Alexa apps on both iOS and Android. Everyone should have at least one of those devices at their disposal.
Outside In, Not Inside Out
Xbox skills are designed to use external voice devices such as smart speakers and PCs to execute commands on the console. You cannot access this with an Xbox One alone. You must have another device that initiate the voice interaction. The announcement on Xbox Wire stated:
“With the Xbox Skill, you can use voice commands to power your Xbox One console, adjust volume, launch games and apps, start and stop broadcasts on Mixer, capture screenshots, and more…For example, if you have the skill enabled on your Echo and you’re a part of the Insider preview, just say “Alexa, start Rocket League.” and this command will automatically turn on your console, sign you in, and launch your game.
To be clear, this is not a user addressing the Xbox One console as if it is an Alexa or Cortana-enabled device. The use case is addressing your smart speaker or PC-based voice assistant and asking it to perform tasks on your Xbox One. This is what we call an Alexa-compatible integration where the skill is capturing commands from a user and then passing them to the console to execute. A media console like Nvidia Shield or Amazon Fire TV Cube are voice access devices and can receive voice commands without a nearby smart speaker to facilitate the process.
This is not a Kinect replacement. Microsoft deprecated this peripheral in April 2016 and it went most voice controls on the Xbox. There are a few Cortana voice commands that can be executed through a headset, but not turning the device on or the full range of Kinect commands. The new Alexa and Cortana integrations will begin to fill some of the gaps left by Kinect’s demise.
Xbox Users Want Google Assistant Integration Too
Voicebot reported in June that a leaked settings screen shot showed a permission screen that mentioned Cortana, Alexa and Google Assistant support. The availability of Cortana and Alexa are not surprising given the collaboration between the companies. Google Assistant is a different matter. However, since the approach is compatibility integration through a voice app, it should simply be a matter of the Xbox One team building a Google Assistant Action that understands the intents and then can pass those commands from a Google Home to the Xbox to execute. Google Assistant compatibility appears to be high on the priority list for some Xbox users. Six of the first ten comments on the Xbox Insider Subreddit requested Google Home / Assistant compatibility. Three other requests were for support outside the U.S. which is understandable.
Don’t be surprised if Google Assistant compatibility in the U.S. arrives before the holiday season concludes. You might even see a few new countries and languages supported, but Canada may not be soon. An Xbox staff member mentioned the French language requirement as a barrier for more immediate support in Canada. Instructions for setting up Alexa or Cortana device access can be found here.