iOS7 and the tantalizing potential of Apple TV for gaming

Will Apple TV become a gaming device for your TV?

With Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference one month away, it's a good time to turn our attention to what the company has planned in terms of software and services. 

With sales of iPads potentially flattening out, analysts have been itching for the company to do more to leverage the ecosystem of users it has built. And one of the most tantalizing prospects for doing that is the increasingly popular Apple TV

This stealth hit has brought in $1 billion in hardware and software sales in the last year. Now it seems like there is enormous opportunity for Apple to expand Apple TV by turning it into a gaming hub as well as a media streaming device.

Count Bruce Hawver, chief executive of SteelSeries, among those who are eager to see Apple expand Apple TV into gaming. SteelSeries launched the first wireless gaming controller for iOS 7 devices earlier this year.

"There's just a massive opportunity there," Hawver said in a recent interview. "There's no question there's consumer demand for something like that. Apple is one of the players that's in a position to capitalize."

At the moment, the latest reports indicate that Apple is unlikely to introduce new Apple TV hardware, or any wearables for that matter, at WWDC.

Still, there have been rumors that Apple is planning big changes to Apple TV. Back in February, Mark Gurman of reported that the upgraded box included:

"...references to iOS 7′s new Game Controller framework. However, it is unclear if those frameworks are just left over from the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch or if they indicate confirmation of Game Controllers being able to connect to the next-generation Apple TV product."

More on why that's important in a second. 

First, though, Apple is not the only company possibly exploring the potential for delivering gaming to TVs in ways that don't include consoles like Sony's Playstation or Microsoft's Xbox One.

In the last few weeks, Amazon trotted out Fire TV. And Google leaked word of its Android TV plans. And now comes news that Comcast is working on a deal with Electronic Arts to let customers stream video games to their TVs.

Amazon boasts that the Fire includes more than 100 games with "thousands more coming." And according to the Verge, which broke the news of Google's Android TV plans, the service will include "movies, shows, apps, and games."

Great, but it still seems like Apple has the potential to push far ahead here. And to get a better understanding of what that might look like, I reached out to Hawver. 

Back in January, SteelSeeries released the first wireless gaming controller for iOS 7 that gave a console-like experience. The Stratus Wireless Gaming Controller costs $79 and looks like a smaller version of the controller used with a console like the Xbox. 

Hawver said the controller was built to take advantage of one of the most interesting nuggets tucked deep inside Apple's radically redesigned iOS 7 that launched last year for iPads and iPhones.

In addition to a new look and feel, iOS 7 also contained built-in support for gaming controllers for the first time since the App Store launched in 2008. Under a developer's program called "MFi" or "Made for iPhone/iPod/iPad," developers could create controllers certified by Apple to work with its iOS 7 gadgets.

And it wasn't just that iOS 7 would recognize and interact with these controllers. The new iOS allowed developers to create games that let players use four controllers at once.

Just as important, Hawver explained, was that iOS 7 was sophisticated enough to detect pressure sensitivity. It wasn't just that iOS 7 can know you're pressing a button. It can read how hard you're pressing it. That allows the Stratus to offer a pretty sophisticated controller and gaming experience.

Steelseries sent me a controller to try. I and my kids spent a few weeks playing controller games like "Real Steel" and "Sonics and All-Stars Racing."

We played the games by setting an iPad Mini on the table in front of us. But if we wanted, we could have mirrored the games onto the TV using Apple TV. Or, we could have plugged the iPad into the TV using an adapter.

However, both those options involved a bit too much work, and Hawver notes the image may not be as crisp.

In other words, it's a less-than-perfect experience, and something Apple wouldn't necessarily endorse. The solution, Hawver said, would be to open Apple TV up to developers to place the games directly on the device that's already connected to the TV.

Of course, we'll see if, and how quickly, Apple moves on this. Serious gamers who were initially excited about the new controller options in iOS 7 have been skeptical of Apple's efforts to promote the games that leverage the new controllers. 

Peter Cohen at iMore wrote that he's worried that the universe of MFi games hasn't grown as fast as it could because Apple isn't putting its full weight behind the new MFi controllers and games. 

"Apple has to shoulder a lot of the blame here," Cohen wrote. "The company has done a horrendous job of promoting games that have MFi controller support. There's no way to differentiate them in the App Store outside of checking the release notes for individual games."

Others have started sites that list the games that use the controllers here and here.

But Hawver is optimistic. And he notes that Apple likes to take its time to make sure the technology is developing in a way that pleases users and leads to high-quality experiences. He's hoping the company has learned enough, and likes what it's seen of controllers using iOS 7 to make that leap to putting games on the next version of Apple TV.  

"It's not a question of if that's going to happen," Hawver said. "It's question of how that’s going to happen."

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