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New features could make iPad 2, iOS 5 a contender against game consoles

by Phil Hornshaw

During its keynote on June 6 at its Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco, Apple (AAPL) rattled off a number of new features that would appear in the upcoming revamp to its mobile operating system, iOS 5. Some of those features were big and sweeping – like Twitter integration – and some received less fanfare.

One of the slightly underplayed features was iPad mirroring. It’s similar to the functions already available in iOS under the banner of AirPlay, in which iOS devices stream content to one another. With iPad mirroring, it isn’t that you can stream a video, photos or music over a Wi-Fi network from an iPad to an iPhone or an Apple TV; instead, mirroring actually portrays what’s on the screen of the iPad on the screen of your TV set.

We already had iPad mirroring with the release of iOS 4.3 alongside the iPad 2. That version allowed the iPad 2 to mirror its screen on a TV set using an HDMI cable and a special adapter. Basically, users could plug their iPads into their TV sets with the cable just like they would an Xbox 360 or a DVD player, and the result was seeing what was on the iPad’s screen, like movies or games, on your TV.

In iOS 5, Apple goes one better. They’re allowing users to mirror their iPad 2’s on their TV sets using a Wi-Fi network and an Apple TV adapter. This means that when you watch a movie on your TV that you’re playing on your iPad 2, you don’t need a cable. And better yet, it means there’s vast potential to play iPad 2 games on your TV.

Streaming mirroring has the potential to turn the iPad 2 from a gaming machine into a game console, just like a PlayStation 3, Nintendo Wii or Xbox 360. It’s not exactly cheap – players will need the iPad 2 ($499) and an Apple TV ($99) to get set up. But for avid gamers who are already big fans of playing games on the iPad 2 (and they are many), mirroring could open up an even bigger screen to go along with the iPad’s innovative brand of controls. In fact, in this scenario, the iPad actually becomes to controller for the game.

We’ve already seen what mirroring is capable of creating. Real Racing 2 developer Firemint took advantage of iOS 4.3’s mirroring capabilities to output Real Racing 2 in 1080p through an HDMI cable – essentially doing exactly what we’re talking about and presenting it in high definition. The drawback was that the iPad was tethered to the TV by the cable. Obviously, streaming eliminates that issue.

It’s not all perfect, however...

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, there are a few things to consider. The possibilities for gaming with iPad mirroring are many, but in its current state, it’s likely that many games wouldn’t translate well. For one thing, streaming a game over a Wi-Fi network isn’t anywhere near the ideal way to play it, and one has to expect some latency between the iPad 2 and the Apple TV unit. That could mean that for as cool as mirroring could be in letting you play iPad games on the biggest screen you have available to you, it won’t work well enough for anything but rudimentary or casual games.

Secondly, there’s a matter of control. It’s really hard to imagine trying to look at a TV while using touch controls on an iPad. Sure, iOS problems inherently have an issue with the player’s fingers blocking the screen, but at the same time, the player can see exactly what she or he is manipulating as they’re manipulating it. Imagine trying to play Cut the Rope by staring at a TV set and swiping at an iPad. Without the point of reference of where to put your finger, it’s like playing blind. Fixing that problem has you looking back down at the iPad’s screen again, so what’s the point of bothering with mirroring for games at all?

Obviously, that’s just one example, and certainly there will be games – especially tilt-based ones – that can use this technology very effectively. An even better outcome, however, is giving developers the ability to use mirroring as an avenue for innovation. Games that show up on iOS are already imaginative and fundamentally different experiences than are available through traditional video gaming channels. The idea of being able to project the iPad 2 onto a TV might lead to games that use the device as a controller in different ways.

It’d be great to see games specifically tailored to the interaction between the iPad and Apple TV. It’s early in the process yet, but perhaps Apple has opened up a big door that could let some great new games out onto iOS.