Apple Buys Primesense For Radical Refresh Of Apple TV As Gaming Console
Why did Apple just buy Israeli 3D sensor market leader Primesense for $360 million? “Seems like too much money for Apple not to have something specific in mind,” opines Daring Fireball’s John Gruber. Indeed, the only reason I can think is that Apple is now planning to make gaming on the big screen a major selling point for a next-generation Apple TV.
Primesense is best known as the technology behind Microsoft's MSFT +0.67% incredibly popular Kinect motion sensing devices that has contributed to the success of the Xbox. Could it power the kind of TV interface that Steve Jobs thought he “cracked” before he died? Sure, but in the absence of enough of the right kind of content deals, the Apple TV, or a full-on iTV for that matter, will not be more than a small side business for Apple. And Apple doesn’t really do that.
This is where the idea of the Apple TV becoming a motion-detecting game console—in addition to a media controller—comes in. If Apple can “crack” the game interface challenge, its mathematical advantages in the gaming market could literally put an Apple TV in every living room.
iOS and Mac game developer Kyle Richter describes the current field of play quite well in his recent post on how Apple’s Game Console will Change the Living Room. First, let’s consider that the $99 Apple TV will never be a direct competitor for the $399 Play Station 4 or the $499 Xbox One. Apple’s “puck” lacks the game quality CPU or GPU of the dedicated consoles. But that doesn’t matter, because there are 700 million iOS devices out there, all with adequate CPU/GPU and the latest and greatest of which with mind-blowing processing power. And unlike the dedicated gaming consoles which have a refresh cycle of perhaps 7 years, the iPhone gets massively better each year. So with about 78 million of each last generation Xboxes and Play Stations out there, Apple has a rough order of magnitude scale advantage over Sony and Microsoft, respectively!
And then let’s talk about games. “The average Xbox game sells for $24.60, while the average Playstation 3 game sells for $28.92, once again the almost unbelievable number for average iOS game price is 76¢,” estimates Richter. Most of Apple’s games are casual and non-immersive, but given great hardware and a great interface to a big screen, there’s no reason that iOS games won’t soon rival their Xbox and PS competitors. Richter rounds it all up in a very compelling way, “Apple’s system cost you 1/4th to 1/5th that of the competitors, keeping in mind there are roughly 170x the number of games at about 1/30th the cost.” Ouch!
There is one important barrier to this vision, but Richter believes that Apple is working on a fix. iOS devices can “take over” a big screen TV via Airplay, and currently there is a lag, a latency, in that process. For watching a movie, that doesn’t matter as long as the audio and video are synched up. But for real-time game play, it’s an “experience killer,” according to Richter who has been testing the software as it moves through beta (see video at bottom of this post and his story for details.) “Apple is without a doubt in my mind focusing on improving Airplay and preparing for the Game Controllers to become widely available and distributed.” Richter wrote this story before the Primesense acquisition was announced, so he was thinking about other sorts of tactile gaming controllers for iOS devices that are coming on the market. But the ability to integrate a Kinect-like sensor right into the next generation Apple TV makes this all a no-brainer.
The conceptual leap here is that the world’s best gaming controller has been hiding in plain sight, or at least in your pocket. Richter imagines the headlines for the accompanying TV ads: “The next generation of gaming console is already in your pocket,” “150,000 games whenever you go,” and “The best gaming console has already been here this whole time.” The point is that with motion sensing integrated into the Apple TV for navigation purposes, consumers get a game console for free.
Did Apple have its eyes on Primesense for its other products as well? Yes, the Israeli company has more than camera technology up its sleeve, but a Kinect-style sensor is not well-suited for mobile devices or something like an iWatch. Cameras require a somewhat consistent interaction zone and don’t work well at extreme close up. So for now I would be confident to say that the reason Apple did not refresh the Apple TV in time for the holidays this year is because they have a major game changer in mind for next year.