Microsoft impressed me when it unveiled the Xbox One earlier this week. I can’t imagine a future where we won’t be talking and gesturing to our TVs while visiting with grandma on a video call and playing a game at the same time. Throughout the presentation, I was thinking, I wish Apple made something like this. The battle for your living room is heating up, and the Xbox One has positioned itself as the “all-in-One” solution, providing all your entertainment in one device. It doesn’t entirely succeed at that, but it does a better job than what Apple is offering currently with the Apple TV, and consumers will notice that.
Below, I’ll examine how I think Apple can bring the Apple TV up to par with the One as a true living room device.
Voice and gestures
The Xbox One’s Kinect peripheral lets you control the console with your voice or gestures. For instance, you can turn the console on by saying “Xbox, on” or flip to a new tab in the interface with a wave of your hand. These features might sound gimmicky to some, but at least you won’t need to hunt for a controller or remote just to do something simple. My parents aren’t great with controllers, so I can see them using their voices and gestures more heavily. Plus, the features are impressive when demonstrated, even if most people only end up using them occasionally.
Siri on an Apple TV would have to interpret and respond to user input instantaneously like voice control does on the Xbox. The wait-for-the-tone approach Siri uses on iOS would get annoying too quickly. The Xbox One’s voice control lets you navigate around the interface, but it can’t answer factual questions or manage tasks like Siri can. When you ask Siri something that requires a reply, it could pop up a window with the results.
Gestures could work similarly to how they work on Apple’s other devices. You could pinch in with one hand to go home, or swipe right or left to switch tasks. If you hover your hand, you could get a cursor like you do on the Xbox. We should keep in mind that the Kinect is a complex device with many sensors, which is why it’s so bulky. If Apple were to use the same technology, they would have to make the Apple TV’s form factor bigger, either by enlarging the current Apple TV design or by hiding the technology in a new TV-like design.
There are pros and cons to both approaches, though. For instance, a bigger version of the current form factor loses its predecessor’s elegance and leads to more clutter, while an actual Apple television wouldn’t be able to compete with the Xbox One on cost.
Live TV and the App Store
The Xbox One uses the same technology Google’s failing TV platform does to hook into your cable or satellite box: HDMI and IR blasters. The problem with this is that you can only watch live TV. You can’t access shows on your DVR or record new ones, so you have to switch back and forth. Due to those caveats and the added bulk the equipment brings, I doubt we’ll ever see the phrase “IR blaster” on the Apple TV’s spec page.
What’s more likely to happen is what’s already been happening on iOS for a few years now: channels becoming apps. Bringing the App Store to the Apple TV (along with a native SDK) would allow the many companies that already have video streaming apps on iOS, like ABC and HBO, to port them over. Microsoft hasn’t yet announced firm plans for an app store on the Xbox One, but it’s likely we’ll hear more about it at the Build 2013 conference.
Few remember that Apple actually made its own gaming console in the ’90s called the Pippin. It was a dismal failure, selling a mere 42,000 units. Fast forward to today and iOS devices are the most popular handheld consoles in existence, but you can’t play any games for them on your TV without lag-prone AirPlay mirroring. Meanwhile, the Xbox is getting better at doing the Apple TV’s job (entertainment) faster than the Apple TV is getting better at doing the Xbox’s job (games). If the Apple TV doesn’t embrace gaming, it risks a poor comparison next to Microsoft’s more capable console. Consumers, I think, would rather have one device that does everything, and the Apple TV doesn’t do gaming. And that missing feature is only going to become more apparent as Apple continues its success in mobile gaming.
Making the Apple TV a great gaming machine isn’t an easy task, though. The single-core A5 processor in the current version may work for casual games with decent graphics, but graphics-intense titles like Call of Duty: Ghosts will require much more power. Targeting casual gamers worked out well for Nintendo’s Wii, so it’s arguable that Apple could do just that by beefing up the processor, and cede the hardcore gaming audience to Microsoft and Sony. There’s a more interesting possibility, though: streaming the games as they’re rendered from a server to the Apple TV. The grunt work would be done in the cloud, and the Apple TV would simply be displaying it. Sony’s PS4 will be able to stream earlier PlayStation titles when it’s released later this year, so it’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility for Apple to do something similar.
Controllers are another aspect of console gaming that Apple can’t ignore. Most speculation on what Apple would do here revolves around simply using iOS devices as touchscreen controllers. Touchscreens work well for casual mobile games, but I think that’s the wrong solution for games on Apple TV. Not being able to feel the buttons you’re pressing is a huge disadvantage, and I can imagine people getting frustrated looking back and forth from their TV to their iOS device to make sure their fingers are in the right place. And unless the entire house has iPhones, you’ll be paying at least $300 for each iOS device you want to use as a controller. To provide an experience that can rival Microsoft’s, Apple needs to make its own controller, or at least provide an accessory that turns iOS devices into hardware controllers.
AirPlay is a huge part of what makes Apple TV useful. Rather than endlessly passing your phone around to show off photos of your kids, you can just AirPlay it to the TV so everyone can see. However, AirPlay could be even more useful by enabling more of a second-screen experience, like Microsoft’s SmartGlass. SmartGlass is a standalone app that shows you ambient information about whatever’s happening on your Xbox. If you’re playing a game, SmartGlass might show you a map, or your stats. Watch a movie, and SmartGlass’ll give you the cast and synopsis. Back on iOS, all the information you’ll glean from the AirPlay dialog is “This video is playing on your Apple TV”. Apple can do better, especially given that they have one of the biggest media databases in the world in iTunes.
What else would you like to see in a new Apple TV? Tell us in the comments.