As of May 7, Xbox Live users will be able to use Microsoft's Live Messenger service while they play games, listen to music and watch movies through their consoles.
"IMing on the TV set becomes a device convenience," said Mike Vorhaus, senior VP-managing director of new media and strategy, Frank N. Magid Associates. "If my Xbox is on I might as well let my IM list pop up -- screens are big enough today."
The move reflects Microsoft's desire to use the Xbox to extend its reach across the whole living room, a space that looks increasingly lucrative to companies once better known for making personal-computer software and hardware. Just a few weeks ago Apple launched its iTV, connecting broadband programming to the TV, and garnered rave reviews.
For its part, Microsoft fancies itself the leader in social and interactive TV, thanks to the XBox; the press release announcing that chat was coming to the Xbox said Microsoft was "expanding the largest social network on television." The company already lets users watch digital downloads of TV shows and movies through its Xbox Marketplace.
Not anti-social behavior
Adding chat to gaming also makes sense. While children and teens are spending more and more time attached to their computers, everyone knows they're not being anti-social. (For evidence, recall the valuations of companies such as MySpace, Facebook and YouTube.) In fact, it's an offline axiom that TV and movie viewing is a social experience.
Google has studied the subject of interactive TV, even suggesting that laptops could use audio detection technology to match up TV viewers watching the same programs.
But Mr. Vorhaus said that in his company's extensive study of youth and how they multitask with media, he's found they're rarely chatting about the TV show.
"What you tend to find that whatever the communication multitask is [in this case, instant messaging] has nothing to do with the principal media stream," he said. "It's not about the TV show. They might say 'I'm watching "Lost,"' but they're more likely to be chatting and saying 'Did you see that ridiculous shirt that Regina was wearing today?'"
Chat will be available to all Xbox 360 users with a Live Messenger subscription, meaning their console is connected to the internet, other Xbox users and services such as Xbox Marketplace. Users will be able to have up to six conversations going at once, chatting through a virtual keyboard that shows up on the screen or through a USB keyboard plugged into the console.