Sky High

A closer look at the Xbox 360 Sky TV deal.

Some days it feels as though Microsoft's been banging on about Xbox 360 being a 360-degree entertainment platform for 360 years. Today is one of those days. "When we launched Xbox 360 four years ago, we called it Xbox 360 for a reason," says UK boss Neil Thompson. "We wanted to deliver an entertainment experience that was 360 degrees, as wide-ranging and broad for consumers as we could possibly create." We know.

Thompson is speaking during a Microsoft press event held in a posh hotel in central London. You can tell it's a posh hotel because they're serving canapés made of organs you never even knew fish had. You can tell it's a Microsoft event by the colour of the trimmings they've used to decorate the room - there are even acid green flowers on the tables. But there are blue blooms tucked in there too, and the Xbox 360 logo isn't the only one displayed on the big plasma tellies hanging on the walls.

Microsoft has invited us here to introduce its new best friend, Sky, and tell us about the beautiful babies they're going to make together. Come autumn, everyone who owns a broadband-connected Xbox 360 will be able to access Sky content through their console. Everyone in the UK and Ireland, anyway; there's no word on when, or indeed whether, the service will be available in the rest of Europe.

"This is a local announcement. Today we're really focused on the partnership between Sky and Xbox 360 here in the UK and Ireland," says Xbox Live Europe boss Jerry Johnson. "We're always evaluating how we continue to grow the business, but today really is about how we're going to build on this relationship here."

Johnson begins a demo of the service by bringing up the content menu. It looks just like all the other menus on the 360's dashboard - the items available are shown as a queue of big square images, and you can flick between them by pressing left and right. The only difference is the background colour is Sky blue.

The content is divided into genres. These include sport (as denoted by a big Arsenal logo), movies (a still from Transformers) and entertainment (the first time Lorraine Kelly's face has appeared on the 360 - officially anyway). Two avatars are standing idly by the Arsenal logo. Johnson explains this means two of his friends are watching the Arsenal match, and he can ask to join their Xbox Live Party.

Microsoft is keen to highlight access to Sky's sports content as one of the biggest attractions of the new service. You'll be able to watch events live, though you'll have to pay for the privilege in some cases. No one will discuss pricing today but we're repeatedly told to refer to the Sky Player, which allows you to watch Sky's content online, for an idea of what will be available and how much it will cost.

Unless you're a Sky subscriber already the content is unlikely to come cheap. A quick look at the price list reveals the basic Sky Player package for PC is GBP 15 per month. That gets you Sky News, Sky Sports News, the Disney Channel, Eurosport, National Geographic, MTV and Nickelodeon. It's an extra 11 quid if you want the single sports pack. Access to all of Sky's sports channels costs a total of GBP 34 per month. It's not yet clear whether you'll have to commit to similar packages and subscription fees to get the same content via Xbox 360 - or whether you'll be able to pay a one-off fee to see a single match, for example.

Back to Johnson's Xbox Live Party, and one of the features you can't get with the PC Sky Player no matter which package you choose. With the 360, you and up to seven friends can watch sporting events in a virtual stadium. Your avatars sit in a VIP viewing box, surveying the surrounding crowd and watching the live action on a big screen. You can chat via headsets and press buttons to make your avatars cheer, laugh, wave and so on.

You can flick back to the full-screen view of the match at any time, and keep talking away to the rest of your party even when the avatars aren't on screen. As with the regular Sky Sports service you'll be able to access special features such as match stats, fixture lists, news updates and so on. But the real highlight, as far as Johnson's concerned, is being able to watch sporting events with your friends without having to be in the same room.

"It's about building richer experiences, like the ability to get a group of eight people together - you can't do that on another platform," he says. "We have 20 million users worldwide playing games and interacting on Xbox. How can we bring content together with that community and those interactive experiences? In a rich way you can only do with the power of Xbox Live and the power of the console itself." Except not all those 20 million users live in the UK and Ireland, of course.

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