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Apple said to be mulling game controller hardware

Apple effectively brought touch-screen gaming to the mainstream, though there have been some growing pains with controls. Now it's rumored to be working on a hardware fix.

The on-screen controls of Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto 3 on iPad.
The on-screen controls of Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto 3 on iPad.
Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Apple's touch-screen devices and App Store have helped popularize touch gaming, and the company is now said to be working on a hardware solution to provide more tactile controls.

In a review of Apple's latest iPad tablet, Anandtech mentions that Apple has just such a project in development with plans "to bring a physical controller to market."

The outlet added that the project might not result in an actual product.

The news comes as Apple's App Store is ballooning with games, many of them casual titles. In kind, demand for those titles is strong. According to a study on iPad gaming from market research firm Distimo that was released last week, 50 percent of top paid applications during February were games.

Many of these titles, including Rovio's popular Angry Birds series, use simplified control schemes that often only require a single finger, versus two or more that remain in constant contact with on-screen buttons.

A growing number of titles, however, demand significantly more precision to play. These include games ported over from platforms with physical control schemes that have been mapped out -- with varying success -- to touch screens.

That trend has led to the creation of some third-party add-ons from companies hoping to bring more tactile controls to the platform. For the iPhone that includes the iControlpad and Gametel Wireless Controller, and on the iPad there are solutions like the iCade and the Fling analog joystick.

As Anandtech notes, Google has beaten Apple to the punch in adding support for such third-party game controllers. While Apple does, in fact offer APIs for hardware add-ons (which work with some of the solutions mentioned above), Google added support specifically for game controllers via Bluetooth as part of Ice Cream Sandwich, the fourth major version of its Android OS.

The Anandtech report is not the first suggestion that Apple's working on a game controller project. A patent Apple filed in the latter half of 2008 suggested the company was tinkering with a dock that allow iOS owners to add physical controls and other hardware features at the expense of a larger form factor and an additional component.

As Apple offered in the background of that application:

Unfortunately, while playing games can be fun on these portable electronic devices, it can also be somewhat awkward, particularly on a portable electronic device having a touch screen. The same screen used for viewing an avatar's activities is used to control the avatar. This arrangement causes the user's fingers block the action. Thus, while these portable electronic devices include a highly efficient interface, when playing games it is often desirable to have a more specialized user interface.

The proposed solution (pictured below) was hardware that promised to solve all these issues.

The gadget pictured in a 2008 patent application.
The gadget pictured in a 2008 patent application. U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

(via Apple Insider)