Is Apple TV the next great gaming console?

Time was, you could mention Apple and gaming in the same sentence and count on derisive laughter before you got to the period. Through the decades, the company has repeatedly proclaimed its commitment to the games market and repeatedly failed to deliver. Yet today’s Apple is not remotely the company that launched the ill-fated Pippin game console in the ’90s. The iOS is already a massively successful platform for handheld gaming, and if Wednesday brings an iOS-based Apple TV, Apple is poised to make some serious noise in the console gaming market as well.

As Dan Frakes pointed out, for a company that keeps cranking out hit products, Apple’s set-top “hobby” sticks out. It’s outdated and lacks many features offered by competitors. But if the product gets a rethink, starting with basing it on the iOS rather than Mac OS X, watch out. Sure, such a device would presumably be a great media player for TV, movies, and music. But as an iOS device, it also opens up the possibility that all your favorite iPhone and iPad games may be shortly playing on your flatscreen HDTV.

This presents a challenge and an opportunity for Apple. With this putative Apple TV, users would have access to a giant screen on which to play games. But what about the controls? Your TV isn’t a touchscreen, and unless you're a James Bond villain, it’s unlikely to be fitted with an accelerometer or gyroscope. But what if you could use your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad as a controller for your Apple TV?

Not only would using your iPhone or iPad solve the touchscreen issue, but it also opens up the possibility of Apple truly entering the gaming console market. Picture it: you’ve downloaded an application to your iPhone that lets you play Angry Birds on your huge flatscreen in your living room. You flick your finger on your iPhone’s touchscreen, and on your television screen you see your bird go flying. Or imagine multiplayer games where gameplay occurs on the handheld screens and the big screen simultaneously; that concept potentially works well for both pub-trivia contests and high-speed racing games.

One question I have is, what will the graphics capabilities of this AppleTV device be? At 720p, an HDTV contains more pixels than either an iPhone 4 or an iPad. Another one is onboard storage: many home-media devices and game consoles come with large amounts of storage for games and media files; if this rumored AppleTV has only flash-based storage in a relatively small amount, will it be enough?

If Apple answers those two questions in the affirmative—namely, if the Apple TV’s graphics controller has the oomph to play 720p games and enough storage space to hold media files and game files comfortably, then the company will have essentially designed its own video-game console, and one with an existing group of developers who know how to write games for its base operating system. There’s great promise in that.

If Apple goes down this path, it’s going about it in exactly the opposite way as most entertainment-hardware companies usually do it. Instead of creating a gaming device that also plays DVDs, Apple is poised to create the opposite: a device designed for watching television and movies that also plays games. While this may seem like a weird way to get into games, Apple wouldn’t be the first media-focused hardware company that also threw its hat into the gaming ring. The Philips CD-I, however, would not be something Apple would want to emulate.

Granted, if Apple were to make an announcement about Apple TV on Wednesday, it is unlikely you’ll see Steve Jobs up there playing a first person shooter on a TV screen, the video streaming from his Apple TV and his hands deftly using an iPhone as a controller. But don’t be surprised if developers see the potential for gaming, and other media applications, if Apple TV runs on iOS. The pieces are all in place. Let’s see what Apple does with them.

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