The Apple Games Console

Posted: August 12, 2009 in Apple
Tags: , ,

Speculation has risen that Apple could try and get their share of the gaming market by releasing a gaming or media console.

It’s well known that games are a big seller in Apple’s app store, and you can see why. The question is whether Apple is going to be satisfied with getting a tiny slice of the gaming market. Some evidence is suggesting that there are larger ambitions out in Cupertino. But is it limited to games on the iPhone? Recent hiring and some recent patent applications suggest that Apple is working on a combination gaming console and media player — not simply additional capabilities in an iPhone or iPod, but an integrated approach never before seen.Let’s start with the easy evidence (via Slashdot): Apple hired Richard Teversham from the entertainment division of Microsoft. The 15-year Microsoft vet most recently headed strategy for the Xbox group in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.

That’s on the heels of hiring Bob Dreblin, the creator of Nintendo’s Game Cube CPU, from AMD, as well as former top IBM chip design manager Mark Papermaster, and former AMD graphics chip CTO Raja Koduri.

This is incredibly out of step for Apple, which has generally looked to getting chips from traditional suppliers. In fact, some years ago I wrote a piece about the iPod design chain, because most of the hardware design was done by others, with Apple using their reference design and adding the industrial engineering and interface. But to hire people at the top of the chip designing game is hardly business as usual. There is something big brewing at Apple.

I agree with Brian Caulfield at Forbes that this is evidence of a pretty serious interest in the handheld gaming market:

Apple is also putting some of its huge pile of cash into semiconductor technology. In December, Apple purchased 3.6% of U.K.-based ImagInation, licensing its PowerVR graphics technology. And last year Apple purchased processor designer PA Semi for $378 million (See “Apple Buys Chip Designer”).

All that is well and good. But what’s missing? How about some of the new Apple patent applications in the gaming area, suggesting that the company’s interests extend beyond simply doing more “gaming as usual” on its devices? Surprise.

First up, application 20080076495, titled “Allowing Media and Gaming Environments to Effectively Interact and/or Affect Each Other.” It’s about having gaming and media environments really interacting:

In one embodiment, a gaming environment can be determined and/or affected based on one or more aspects of a media environment. By way of example, gaming content and/or the gaming experience provided and/or suggested to an individual can be tailored based on his/her musical profile effectively obtained from the media environment associated with the individual (e.g., based on favorite songs, songs recently played, songs purchased). Similarly, a media environment can be determined and/or or affected by a gaming environment. By way of example, musical content provided and/or suggested to an individual can be based on his/her gaming profile (games played, games purchased, manner in which a game is played).

Consider that for a mind-blowing conceptual second. Your specific and particular tastes in music, as encapsulated on an iPod or iPhone, could change the way the game works. Your music could get integrated into the game environment. And because you’ve already paid for a license, it completely lets Apple off of having to get additional rights, because it isn’t incorporating the songs.

But it goes farther. As the application notes, the gaming experience and actions within the game and gaming profile could change the music provided or music suggested to the user. You’d hear what you virtually are. And media doesn’t just mean music. Why not take a picture of yourself with an included camera and have your features actually appear on a game character? Or maybe some of your favorite downloaded video can get incorporated into a display within the game. Or you record lines for the game and they get used with a character. It’s all just media, after all.

Look at another Apple patent application, 20080075296, from March 2008, titled, “Intelligent Audio Mixing Among Media Playback And At Least One Other Non-Playback Application.” The game audio processing could control the integration of game sound effects and media playback, certainly a necessity if you want to incorporate someone’s music into the game operations.

Then there is the February 2008 patent application 20080052704, “Media Management System for Management of Games Acquired from a Media Server.” This is all about incorporating downloadable games into a super iTunes system:

However, on-line media stores do not conventionally also support purchase and download of games for player devices (e.g., portable media devices). Games can be independently purchased and downloaded from various game related websites. Unfortunately, however, even if games can be purchased and downloaded, management of the games is conventionally not available. Additionally, installation of games on a player device can be cumbersome. Accordingly, there is a need to facilitate purchase, download, installation and management of games acquired electronically from an on-line media source for use on a player device.

In January 2008, Apple also submitted patent application 20080018616, “Techniques for Interactive Input to Portable Electronic Devices” – a little dry sounding unless you start reading the contents:

The input area can additionally resemble or approximate the shape of a scene (e.g., game scene) to allow a person to provide input in a more intuitive way. Accordingly, input can be provided in a simple and more intuitive manner by effectively allowing the user to interact with the input area in a way that mimics or approximates a desired action (e.g., moving a ball or bat around by inputting a rotational movement). Examples of such interaction include positional, directional (e.g., rotational), press or pressure input (or movement) which can easily be provided by a thumb or a finger, for example, on a touch screen.

In December 2007, there was also application 20070279394, “Techniques for Interactive Input to Portable Electronic Devices,” which also discussed more intuitive ways of interactive with a game using a touchscreen.

So let’s review some of the potential features of a new Apple device:

  • The device will be portable and handle media playback as well as gaming.
  • There will be interaction between the gaming content and any media, each potentially affecting the other.
  • Users could find their own media content, particularly but not limited to music, integrated into a game.
  • The same type of exciting and natural gestures in Apple’s multitouch interface will be extended to game playing.
  • Games and media will all be available from a single site.

The need for new chips now starts to become clear. No matter how good the current iPod/iTouch/iPhone displays may be, they are no match for what you’d want in a real gaming console. So let’s add a level of processing power and graphics speed and quality that you might find in an Xbox 360 or PS3. That could be quite the compelling market offering.

[UPDATE: Some comments on Slashdot noted that the Xbox 360 already lets gamers use their own music to replace a game’s track. The Apple patent talks about something far more complex. For example, your selection of music, most frequently played songs, and other things about your collection could affect the way the game plays – and your gaming profile, level in a game, and so on could affect the media collection. That hints at a level of integration that goes far beyond what an Xbox console does.

Also, ther’es a rumor out that Apple has been considering buying gaming company EA. While that might seem to be a fit, I can’t see Apple getting involved in anything that effectively required them to focus much of their work on PC users.]

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