Is This the Year Apple Launches a Video Game Console?

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The Apple video game console: it’s tech’s equivalent of a unicorn sighting under a double rainbow. An improbable, perennial rumor that won’t let go. Well it’s reared its head again, per speculation in an article over at Digital Foundry.

This year, the iPad 2 unveiling took place next door to the annual Game Developers Conference. Following the trend, Apple’s yearly Worldwide Developer Conference takes places the same week as E3–the games industry’s biggest confab. Digital Foundry’s Richard Leadbetter thinks something’s going on. He lays out a convincing argument, one that includes the recent graphical and component upgrades in Apple hardware as building blocks for launching a game machine for the living room.

… on iPad 2 [Epic/Chair's Infinity Blade] is a phenomenally good-looking game with a superb performance level. While it struggles to sustain anything like 30FPS on iPad 1, it easily exceeds it on iPad 2, adding additional effects and even appears to be super-sampling – running at a much higher native resolution before being scaled down, pretty much the best form of anti-aliasing you can get, if you have the power available. If iPad 2 can run games like this without even breaking a sweat, what can be achieved when developers address the new generation of performance directly? Even in its current A5 guise, there’s little doubt that Apple’s mobile architecture is capable of some seriously pretty visuals. But the beauty of the hardware design is that it is eminently scalable. There’s nothing theoretical about this, the tech’s finalised and ready to roll – the PowerVR SGX543 in the iPad 2 scales all the way up to 16 cores, and IMG tells us that its architecture is suitable for “anything demanding performance: console, computing etc.”

With a processor as inexpensive to produce and as powerful as A5, Apple has the chance to bring a home console to market that could offer serious value – and it might not even be marketed as a console at all, certainly not in the way that we know it.

Leadbetter goes on to make the point that this mythical console may in fact be a new iteration of Apple TV with App Store integration. The thing that makes this wishful thinking so attractive is that Apple’s got all the pieces in place, and has for a while. The Cupertino conglomerate controls one of the world’s biggest digital distribution hubs, jammed to the gills with games content. They have the relationships and resources to build hardware and accessories, too. And their experience with network infrastructure might persuade customers that a fiasco like the PSN hack and subsequent outage would never happen.

In fact, Apple might be the only tech company that could launch a disc-free, digital-only game console with breakthrough potential. (Sorry, OnLive…) If that console comes in the form of an AppleTV with an A5 chipset and storage capabilities, then Apple would steal serious thunder from E3 reveals like Nintendo’s Project Café and holiday 2011 launches like Sony’s NGP handheld.

Or it could be just another unicorn chase–we’ll find out in June.

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