What will the Apple TV Controller look like?


So after I watched the Apple keynote today (getting a little more verklempt about the absence of Steve than I'd care to admit), I saw a tweet where someone said that the new Apple TV will run Apps. After frantically searching for more information, I discovered they were mistaken (or I misread) and that the current upgrade is just in the UI and resolution and some nicer chips. Too bad! It's a no-brainer on Apple's part to do this (aren't the jailbroken Apple TVs already running apps?), they either must not care since they're already swimming in cash, or they're waiting for something else.

I'm a huge fan of Apple's AirPlay mirroring between the iPad and the Apple TV. Sharing YouTube and other videos is incredibly useful. But the Real Racing-type gaming functionality is sort of gimmicky and really too laggy to be anything more than just an experiment. If Apple were to really decide to embrace the concept though, you can really see the possibilities. Look at what Nintendo is already planning with the next gen Wii U tablet - they're already heading down that road (though in a wonky, very limited way). I'm sure Nintendo would have a collective heart attack for sure if suddenly Apple launched a more powerful Apple TV complete with controllers dedicated for gaming as it would make Wii U look pretty bland in comparison. Hell, Microsoft's 360 and Sony's PlayStation divisions might lose quite a bit of sleep as well.

I have no doubt that Apple would be a serious player in the home video game console market if they decided to embrace Apps on Apple TV. A few years ago I would never had thought this way, but the numbers are seriously stacked against the traditional video game makers now. Look at how the iPhone and iPod Touch has changed portable gaming: Nintendo just celebrated 4.5 million 3DS units sold in its first year. If there are, say, 10 games eventually sold per unit that'd be 45 million games. In contrast, Apple just celebrated 25 billion app downloads, with no signs of slowing down. It's not a straight comparison by any means, but even if you take out all the free stuff and the non-games, it's still an order of magnitude difference in terms of total numbers.

So the question is, what is Apple waiting for? Well, again, maybe they just don't care. But if they did, what's the holdup?

I'm thinking it's the controller. They either haven't figured out how to make the perfect home media/game controller - or - they haven't figured out how to make it cheap enough yet to make it viable. I mean, the iPad or iPod Touch both make pretty great TV controllers - but they're pretty expensive gadgets to be lost under the cushions of your couch with the loose change and Cheetos, or to buy four of them just for your whole family to play some game on Christmas morning.

So taking the cost into account, here's how I imagine the next gen Apple TV working: The controllers would be sort of dumb touch screens, with only the most basic functionality possible. The brains will be in the Apple TV, which would be packing a specialized Apple-designed ARM CPU with tons of cores dedicated to providing the logic and display for each controller. Think of it as "reverse AirPlay mirroring". The controllers would have all the axis sensors it needs, haptics, (maybe a few buttons? Naaah...) and use low-power chips and Bluetooth 4 to connect to the main unit to conserve as much power as possible. I can imagine the whole package in my head - a slick black box a little bigger than today's model, with several simple, insanely thin touch-screen controllers, made out of carved aluminum with rubberized black grips surrounding the sides and back.

After that? Well, the current home console generation has already embraced fully downloadable games - I know that XBox Live already has a ton of games online, all the size of a DVD. This would mean the Apple could skip the optical disc, but would need some sort of hard drive. Oh-oh, all this is starting to drive the cost of the whole unit up quite a bit, right? Suddenly we're looking at an Apple TV that costs $499 instead of $99... But isn't that just the price of a low-end iPad? Maybe this could be a whole new category - rather than Apple TV, it could be the Apple Home, or Apple Entertainer or something...

Again, Apple would need to care about all this, and maybe they just don't. But did you notice in the keynote today the prominence of games among the iPad demos? Not only do games showcase the new iPad display pretty well, but I think Apple has more respect for the importance of gaming to the iOS platform now. I don't think Steve gave much of a rat's ass about video games (despite, or maybe because of, having started his career at Atari), but the new guys at Apple probably are more aware of its impact. Which makes me think that they realize the opportunity, and want to get it right. I doubt it'll be this year, as the lead time til next Christmas is too short, but this time next year, I bet there'll be something big announced.

Anyways, I haven't sat down for a full-on Apple prediction post for a while, so I thought I'd write up my thoughts. Oh! I also had another one, which was this crazed analysis of how Apple could sucker-punch Microsoft by making iTunes into an iOS virtual machine enabling iOS Apps to run on upcoming Windows tablets, but it was too nuts to bother writing more than this sentence. (Still thought I'd share though).



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