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Satisfying a Certain Curiosity on Game and Player
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Satisfying a Certain Curiosity

Michael Ubaldi  //  August 13, 2008


Pandora Radio, a value-added feature for Xbox Live? I can't be nuts.

I

bought my Xbox 360 in August 2006, a few weeks after playing the one owned by editor Ed Kirchgessner. Any question of whether my first, three-day experience with the console was heightened by impeccable surround sound and a television screen as wide as a man is tall was answered when I plugged my own 360 into a lone, modest 27-inch. Just two titles ushered in the next-gen, doing so as they kept me busy for months: Oblivion and Chromehounds.

My first use of the Xbox wasn't to play a game: it was to load music onto the console's hard drive and arrange a carefully selected playlist. Why? Because I tried Oblivion and Chromehounds at Ed's. Chromehounds' gameplay was exceptional. Its accompanying music was indelibly terrible; amateurish and insipid, as if part of some clever plan to destroy music by dissuading anyone from listening to it ever again, lest they hear that.

My 360 has never been justified as a media player, but it could be.I still play Chromehounds and the playlist it begat today. Songs are mostly electronic, several ambient: Brian Eno, U2 playing with Eno as Passengers, Eno and Robert Fripp, a little Enigma, a touch of Vangelis. They make a fine, adopted soundtrack. The mood along the hour of music is consistent, the style unified — around Brian Eno. I mean, few are as profuse a composer as that Briton, but beyond his first three solo albums, Eno is Eno is Eno. Repetition of a long enough string doesn't bore me, nor do things that I like. So for two years I have been able to blithely listen to the playlist, maybe five to ten evenings a month, in order.

Could I have added songs to the playlist as I came across them? Yes, but not without filling the drive's balance of free space. And why would I take the time to store music, already on my PC, in a second place? The utility of my Xbox 360 as a media player has never been justified.

But it could be. Ed, no coincidence, introduces me to electronic delights — a few months ago, he described Pandora Radio to me. For the uninitiated: geneticists of sound and rhythm and timbre, The Music Genome Project made Pandora to play, like a radio on its eponymous website, a taxonomy of "the essence of music at the fundamental level." Eerily realizing science fiction, Pandora automates a playlist conforming to a single, model song that it's fed. The service has won a conceptual bet over whether people enjoy programs of music that is within and closely related to a particular genre. People do enjoy them, because the shuffles include what they a) know and like, b) like but didn't know about, and c) would never have considered but for the harmonic tangent leading to an odd selection.

Pandora's entertaining variety is a powerful reason to orbit more closely to my console than my PC.Since April, whenever I have sat at my desktop computer to work, a browser's been pointing to Pandora. Or else I just leave the thing to play. My first theme was — Brian Eno. The resulting lineage (continuing as I type) has introduced me to a dozen artists and dozens of pieces, at the same time I have been able to expect otherworldly ambient. Pandora's fidelity to the popular reception of Brian Eno is strong — there were, who knows why, a couple of early darts to reggae and Iggy and the Stooges, but algorithmic disc-jockeying is a baby science. Other paths taken on Pandora began with the music of Steve Reich, Maggie Sansone and Duke Ellington. My library is all of a sudden staid by comparison.

Ten days ago, while reviewing Spectral Force 3, I sought an alternative for not only the game's jejune J-pop but my two-year-old playlist, too. Connecting my laptop to an ethernet hub, I played Spectral Force to a tinny but preferred stream flowing from Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)." Not at all profoundly, I saw the disjuncture there: if the Xbox 360 streamed Pandora, musical needs of the moment would have been met, the service's entertaining variety a powerful reason to orbit more closely to my console than my PC.

What about Pandora as a value-added feature for Xbox Live? I can't be nuts. In the month since Apple's iPhone incorporated Pandora, the mobile application has leapt to top standing. TechCrunch's Jason Kincaid reported that after only a few days, usage "hit an all-time high for the service, with 3.3 million tracks streamed to iPhone listeners alone," while "the retention rate of listeners" averaged "over an hour of listening per day." Still possessing the gadget press, Pandora shows longevity as plain as its mainstream market potential.

Demand for playing music independently on a console can be met by the most personalized service on the market.Stop right there? — Microsoft made The Music Genome Project's acquaintance a while ago. MSN Radio incorporated Pandora in December of 2006. Eighteen months later, in June, the software Brobdingnagian "discontinued" use of Pandora. Business arrangements ended on declaredly "mutual" terms, though a public statement from Pandora's Tim Westergren blended ambition with impatience. "As we contemplate partnerships," Westergren eulogized, "they really have to be substantial." MSN, terrific resources of Microsoft beneath? "[I]t was no longer contributing that level."

Well, the observed demographic of iPhone users (male, young, trending affluent) is not that of MSN's (female, motherly, technologically incurious, etcetera), while it's closer to perceptions of the average gamer with a well-used Xbox 360. Corporate enmity aside, rumors suggest Pandora's future addition to Windows Mobile; another audience low on dear, old aunties. And if we want to adduce internet exchanges, PlayStation 3 owners responded to Firmware v2.40's circumstantial, developer-dependent support of in-game music as if bereaved. Finally, the avatars coming to Xbox Live show that Redmond's already invested in user customization. Front and center, demand for playing music independently on a console is there, and can be met by the most highly personalized service on the market.

Have anything to say, Microsoft? Do cultural and competitive edges add up to a return that's worth another risk?





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