Peanut butter and jelly. Shaq and Kobe. Master Chief and Cortana. If there’s anything we’ve learned during our short time on this planet, it’s that collaboration is the driving force of creation (and tasty sandwiches).
We recently heard from Bryan Sparks, Senior Designer, Microsoft Device Design Team, and Leonardo Del Castillo, GM of Xbox Devices Console Development to learn about their creative collaboration process behind the world’s most powerful gaming console: Xbox One X.
To hear them tell it, the story is a fascinating one. In that, the engineering and design teams executed on the development of Xbox One X with a clear and specific goal from the outset — deliver True 4K Gaming in a small form factor design — and endeavored to work together to make that dream possible without compromising on their vision. And the end result is tremendous.
Kickstarting the Process
As you might imagine when one sits down to create the world’s most powerful gaming console, the engineering and design teams would face a lot of questions: How do you make the systems work with each other? How can we make it compact? What’s the expression of Xbox One X? How does it tell a story just by the way it looks?
While these were all great questions the team looked to tackle early on, the most critical that they all agreed to land on was that this was going to be “True 4K Gaming” at its heart, and this is what was going to drive the architecture of the system.
The Scorpio Engine is designed, at its core, to be the most powerful system-on-a-chip for game consoles that has ever been created. Everything about it was designed to be compatible with Xbox One (and Xbox One S). And to make that happen, it was clear that nearly every component that was to be housed in the system was going to have to be custom built. That left the team with a lot of freedom of how it could design the system around things like optical drives, hard drives, and memory components.
“If you start with a bag of parts, how does that turn into a product?” explains Del Castillo. “We needed a direction, and floor planning directions, to lead the architecture around what the motherboard will look like, what will the chassis look like. And for that you lean on the design team.”
The Design of a System
“Whenever you start a new design project, it’s this blank canvas and you start feeding ideas and constraints,” explains Sparks. “Eventually, you see this thing start to form as you work through the process.”
When creating the design of the system, the team knew all those parts had to come together in one cohesive unit. They knew it was going to be part of the growing Xbox One family of devices, and wanted to take all the feedback received on the design of Xbox One S that the community loved.
“The other part of our vision is what would embody this product,” Sparks continued. “We envisioned this monolith (“2001: A Space Odyssey”). Whenever you see it in the film, it was a signal to the audience that it was the next phase of advancement. So, we kept that as a design goal: Xbox One X is the next point of advancement.”
“We did not want Xbox One X to be any larger than Xbox One S, which was a huge ask as we were putting 40% more power into it (than any other console). And this is where we knew we had to work with Leo and the engineers to make that happen.”
Fitting into Place
As the engineering team continued to look at the overall intent of the design, for which there was a lot of collaboration between the two teams, they begun to lay out the components like the motherboard, and determined how memory would route to the system and be arranged. The iteration continued to the point where they found it would make the most sense to have the motherboard fit on the “ceiling” of the console, and placing the optical drive and hard drive on top of one other to create the optimum stacking height of the system.
The other benefit of having the motherboard on the ceiling is that there would not need to be any venting on the top space of the console, keeping the clean, monolithic form the design team was looking to achieve.
The other intent was to ensure the power supply would live internally, just like Xbox One S — it’s not much larger, but it will be 40% more powerful than any other console. To continue with the efficient design (getting these parts into a small form factor) they placed the power right behind the optical drive. In turn, this allowed them to keep all the ports on the back of the system in nearly same place as Xbox One S so that when you’re upgrading to Xbox One X, set up would be as simple, yet familiar, as possible.
With so many components, and with a system more powerful than Xbox One S, there’s sure to be a lot of heat moving through the chassis that needs to be exhausted. This was initially tackled where a heat sink would work as a base with a radiator, and then with a stacked fan on top of it. The problem with that approach is it created a lot of added height to the system.
“When you’re trying to scale that amount of power into the Scorpio engine, it wasn’t going to be a feasible approach to achieve the size we wanted to do,” says Leo. “We got innovative and looked at other tech we could use and created a vapor chamber heat sink, like what you’d find in high-end PCs and graphic cards, and we believe this is the first time it’s being used in a consumer electronic.”
The vaper chamber heat sink is fascinating. It’s hollow, filled with water, and there’s a vacuum that draws upon that water to help move the heat to the radiator fins and thus into the air. Leo’s team looked like they solved how to keep temperatures lower than normal, but there still needs way for that air to move through and out of the system.
The result is a custom centrifugal fan assembly with ducts and propellers that are custom built just for Xbox One X. This helps move air out of the system and keep all the components cool, including the power supply. In fact, the team built the fan assembly in a virtual space and ran empirical models to continue refining the design, helping to pinpoint any “hot spots” in the console’s components before laying down the silicone needed to create the fan housing.
The team had found a solution to move air out of the system — but how would the design bring air in to Xbox One X?
“This is where concurrent engineering comes into play,” explains Sparks. “We’re working back and forth between the functional realities of the engineering process and the design intent. And this is where we get to play off each other.”
Part of this play was figuring out which components were prioritized to get access to the air flow first, and that came back to the Xbox One S design, with its short-side venting detail to allow air into the console box. But the design team wanted to figure out how to upgrade that expression from the bold hole pattern from Xbox One S.
“Where we landed was grabbing the vent pattern from Xbox One S and miniaturizing it as much as we could to where it was just barely manufacturable. Which was no easy ask. It was another thing we had to innovate,” says Sparks.
And to do just that, the engineering team realized they would have to create a new tool to answer the growing number of asks from the design team: 5-sided unibody with a top-housing, zero draft, thousands of tiny pins to make the perforation pattern, and super thin walls.
“But we were able to do it! Probably making the most innovative and complex injection molding tool we have ever made,” proclaims Sparks. “We did all of this to give the outside appearance of this console the same level of precision of the work we’ve been putting into the inside.”
Putting it All Together
The guts for Xbox One X are all placed on the table, making it hard to imagine how these will snap into the small form factor of Xbox One X. Leo picks up each piece one at a time and easily starts to put it all together, like some sort of awesome jigsaw puzzle, continuing to talk through and explain the logic behind the layout of the components in such a snug form-fitting design. Even when placing the hard drive into the system, Leo takes the time to explain how such a basic component has also received some special attention.
“As for the hard drive, the mechanical components are pretty much standard,” explains Leo. “We do work with our manufactures to optimize firmware performance specifically for our product. To preserve that performance, we have to take a great deal of care when it’s mounted.”
To solve for this the team created a custom mount for the drive to dampen the vibrations that would be carried through the chassis, as too much vibration would compromise the performance of the drive itself. Especially since the optical drive and hard drive will be living on top of each other inside the system.
Leo then grabs the fan assembly and fits it snug over the vaper chamber heat sink, the power supply drops in above the motherboard, and the ducts from the assembly all naturally snap right into place.
“Every single component and where it’s placed is critical,” explains Leo. “Start moving holes around or components, even a millimeter, it can cause interference to other products. So, it’s necessary for the engineers to be working on the design concurrently. There’s no staging like, ‘First we design a motherboard, then we’ll design a chassis around the motherboard…’ If we did that we’d wind up with a sub-optimal product.”
The Finishing Touch
“For Xbox One S we developed a brand-new color called Robot White and that did a great job of embodying what Xbox One S was, which was a bold, approachable console,” explains Sparks. “For Xbox One X, we had a different goal in mind. We wanted a color that would embody the power that was encased inside this console.”
Interestingly, after all the combinations of color to design, Sparks and his team landed back on black, specifically Infinite Black, finding that a deep, rich, neutral black was a color that worked well with the simple design of Xbox One X.
However, since the design of Xbox One X is between two separate housings, and not wanting to lose the slight shift or overhang, Sparks and his team felt the housing design could get lost being all the same color.
“What we did was, create a fine top housing texture that almost looks like it’s painted, and on the bottom housing we pushed on a heavy texture, so the final part looks really, really, matte,” says Sparks.
The effect is very noticeable as you look at the console in different shades of light and how it seems to move elegantly around the system, refracting differently to help draw attention to the top and bottom housings of the system. There’s also a bit of an inspiration from the Xbox Elite Wireless Controller as well, bringing some of the textured grip from those controllers to the base of the unit.
And if there was a one more thing moment to be had, it was showcasing Xbox One X in its vertical form, harkening back to that original design intent goal of a monolith, calling to this as the next moment in the story of Xbox.
“All these details, and this work, and all this refinement lead us down the track of creating, in my opinion, the best console we have ever made,” says Sparks. “We didn’t build this for us; we built this for the gamer. The gamer wins in this scenario. They get the best console we could possibly create.”
Editor’s Note: We’ve updated the article to help clarify the comments made about the power of Xbox One X. Specifically, that it’s 40% more powerful than any other console. Click here to learn more about Xbox One X.