After two years of leaving the Apple TV sitting inches away from being a full fledged gaming system, will Apple finally make a move? Could it come tomorrow?
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Will Apple finally flip the gaming switch on the Apple TV?

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I remember listening intently to Steve Jobs’ 2010 iPhone 4 reveal, waiting to see if the rumors of a “one more thing” announcement of a new Apple TV would become a reality. The leaks leading up to that keynote centered on a completely redesigned set top product that would run iOS, rather than the custom version of OS X that the original Apple TV had. I just remember thinking about one thing: If this new Apple TV is based on iOS, it could instantly become a successful casual gaming console.

 

A Little History Lesson

Unfortunately, the announcement fell short of my high expectations. While the new device was small, inexpensive, and easy to use, it was fairly limited in what it could do. It was basically just a way to stream iTunes content to a TV. It also had AirPlay for streaming video content from your devices, but that’s about it. No fancy channels. No Screen Mirroring. No iTunes Match. I was highly disappointed, and passed on buying one.

apple-digital-av-adapterFast forward to the release of the iPad 2 in the Spring of 2011, and Apple released the first piece of the puzzle that could eventually lead to big screen gaming for iOS. This first step was the Digital AV Adapter for use with the new iPad.

While being tethered to a TV by a cable isn’t exactly ideal, this is where we were first introduced to Apple’s Screen Mirroring for the iPad.

Then, just a couple of months later at the 2011 WWDC Keynote, Steve Jobs laid out the details of iOS 5. One of the new features that immediately caught my eye was AirPlay Mirroring, which allowed any iOS device to project its screen wirelessly to the Apple TV. Now we were getting somewhere. I bought an Apple TV within the week and installed the first beta with AirPlay Mirroring enabled (legitimately, of course). Again, I saw the potential, but the early implementation was rough. Really rough.

By the time iOS 5 was officially released, AirPlay Mirroring was certainly more stable and reliable than the beta versions had been. It was perfect for demonstrations and presentations. It was passable for puzzle and turn-by-turn games, like board and card game apps. But any game that relied on the ability to respond quickly to the action posed problems. Real Racing 2, which had been optimized for Screen Mirroring over an HDMI cable and worked well with it, aptly demonstrates the problems.

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FireMint did a good job setting up Real Racing 2, with a map, heads-up display, and controls available on the tablet, and all of the action projected wirelessly to the screen. Even better, while most apps mirror in their native 4:3 screen ratio with black bars on the sides of the screen, RR2 displayed in 720p (which has since been upgraded to 1080p). However, the in-race performance left a lot to be desired. Stutters and freezes are a difficult thing to deal with when trying to negotiate a hairpin turn in the middle of a race, and they happened far too often. For any game requiring fast reactions, AirPlay Mirroring’s “out of the box” performance is spotty at best.

 

Time for a little DIY

To combat this, I set out to find solutions to the issues and make AirPlay Mirroring a consistent and enjoyable experience. I tried different routers, various router and device settings, and even bought a set of Powerline Ethernet adapters to get a hardwired connection to my Apple TV. I detailed my experiences in an article I wrote 16 months ago. I ended up satisfied with the results, as using a dual band 5Ghz router, Powerline adapters, and being smart about settings did make a noticeable difference in AirPlay Mirroring performance. Unfortunately for Apple, how many users are going to go to such measures to make the Apple TV a better gaming experience? 10%? 5%? 1%? The majority of Apple TV owners aren’t going to do all of this, or even follow a set of instructions off the web.

 

Standing Still

You would think that Apple would eventually come around and finish what they started, right? I certainly did. I’ve had Apple TV gaming enhancements on both my iOS 6 and iOS 7 wish lists. But that hasn’t been the case, so far. Since the release of iOS 5, AirPlay Mirroring has been added to the iPhone, and the Apple TV has seen one hardware update that added 1080p output, but unfortunately, that’s about it. The same problems that hampered big screen iOS gaming in 2011 are still there as we approach the release of iOS 7 in 2013.

I ranted about this lack of action, and my opinion on the reasons why, in an article that I wrote last year after the OUYA took Kickstarter by storm. While the OUYA and other gaming projects such as NVIDIA’s Project Shield certainly aren’t perfect, they did move past the Apple TV’s current capabilities. And this, after Apple had a 2 year jump on everyone, but failed to finish the job. Now, as a result, the door is still open for a competitor to get a foothold in the growing casual big screen gaming market. The Apple TV with AirPlay Mirroring was a great first step, but after you use it for a while, you realize why Apple doesn’t ever tout it for gaming themselves. It isn’t ready for prime time yet.

 

What Now?

There were rumors of a new Apple TV being announced tomorrow floating around the interwebs last week, but they were ultimately shot down by the ultra-credible All Things D. Taking their track record with Apple rumors into account, it seems that a software upgrade to iOS 7 will have to do, for now. If that is the case, then if Apple is going to move forward with any Apple TV gaming enhancements this Fall, it will be with AirPlay Mirroring. The existing Apple TV’s 8 GB of on-board memory is used for caching streaming content and storing the apps built into the OS. There isn’t much room for App Store content in that limited space. No new hardware = no native App Store.

So what can Apple do to make things better? Considering that they are a company that prefers to control their experience, this is a difficult spot. They are at the mercy of customer’s wireless routers, local interference, wall construction, etc, which is a big disadvantage. Combined with the fact that most users aren’t going to play with settings to make this all work, and you have to wonder what can Apple do? One things would be to include automated optimizations in their AirPort Routers. Allow the user to check one settings box and have the router scan the network, set up QOS, find the optimum wireless channel, and make suggestions to the user for further improvements. With what’s currently available, there’s not not much else that can be done to improve wireless performance.

However, wireless performance can be mitigated to a degree, if Apple makes some software modifications to the Apple TV. Right now, AirPlay is set up as a video streaming standard that can also be used for other applications, such as mirroring. Because of its static nature, video content can be cached ahead of the current playing position to get around network fluctuations and issues. This is what AirPlay is set up to do. However, gaming is a much different challenge. Because the conditions of an action game are constantly changing, consistency is key.

Apple could address this by either changing the way that Mirroring works (since it isn’t a video streaming mechanism), or introducing a special gaming mode. Instead of relying on bursts of speed on the network and using that to cache video, the Apple TV needs to hold a consistent network speed, even if quality has to be sacrificed in the process. Going back to the Real Racing 2 example, dropping a frame or two or having the graphic quality downshift slightly, while not ideal, would make the gaming experience more fluid. The result: fewer missed turns and blown races. Fewer dissatisfied users.

 

The Future

If a new Apple TV doesn’t arrive tomorrow, then it would be easy to just write big screen gaming for iOS off for now. However, I still have some hope. Apple adding support for third party controllers into the iOS 7 SDK was a HUGE step in the right direction. This will be of great benefit to iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad owners as soon as iOS 7 is released, but I don’t believe it will stop there. This is a move that seems destined for more than playing games on a 4, 8, or 9.75″ screen. Another thing to bear in mind is that using the previously discussed Digital AV adapter becomes a much more viable option for big screen gaming with controller support, since the user will no longer have to be physically tethered to the TV.

What I am really looking forward to is the next Apple TV hardware release. Whether it comes tomorrow (unlikely), in October at a potential iPad announcement event (possible), or early next year (probably the most realistic), this is when we will know if Apple is getting serious about gaming on the big screen. There are a few potential additions to look out for that would really take things to the next level:

1. More memory- This is make or break for future native app support for the Apple TV.

2. 802.11ac support- This was added to the last AirPort router, so it makes perfect sense to include in the next Apple TV. Your wireless signal and strength can’t be fast enough, especially where AirPlay Mirroring is concerned.

3. WiFi Direct- Just added to iOS to facilitate AirDrop, this is another feature with real potential for improving AirPlay Mirroring. Allowing the Apple TV and iOS device to have a direct connection with each other should really help with lag, especially when your TV and router are not in the same room.

4. Bluetooth 4.0- While this may not be of any help when it comes to Mirroring support, it could be huge for direct controller support if native apps ever arrive. Most controllers will likely adopt Bluetooth 4.0 because of its battery efficiency.

 

Whenever the next Apple TV arrives, I for one will be hoping that Apple FINALLY flips the switch on big screen gaming, and finally takes those last few steps toward having a legitimate competitor for the living room in every respect. As for tomorrow, I would be shocked if anything other than a software upgrade is announced. However, I am holding out a little for October. Come on Apple and give all of us gamers an early Christmas present.

Do you own an Apple TV? Tried AirPlay Mirroring for gaming? What do you think? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below, in the forums, or hit me up on Twitter @jhrogersii, or on Google+. I would love to hear from you.

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