I’ve been thinking about this more recently, following my musings last year on the subject, and have been wondering how Apple can improve the Apple TV beyond simply offering more content, adding an app store and enabling TV gaming. Here are some thoughts.
To my eyes one of the biggest obstacles is input.
TV remotes aren’t equipped to handle what we do with TV in the 21st century and the chewing gum remote included with the Apple TV is a relic disguised in sleek aluminium, easily lost body. A directional pad is slow and frustrating, and using the Apple remote app is even worse providing over-sensitive touchpad directional control which is near impossible to use with any accuracy. Touch screens are smooth and expansive, remotes have bumpy buttons of varying shapes and sizes utilising physical feedback and muscle memory to learn it’s functions. A touch-screen experience only works when the thing you are manipulating is visible directly under your finger looking at the screen you are touching, when it is a disconnected experience controlling an interface the other side of the room it is much harder to connect the two in your mind. The Apple remote app is only currently useful for keyboard entry when searching effectively, for which a d-pad is appalling.
What does work well is forgoing using the Apple TV UI altogether and just finding what you want in an app (like Netflix), then AirPlaying the content to the big screen. The main disadvantages of AirPlaying everything to your TV are up-streams can get laggy depending upon your home network and will require a fully charged device – airplaying an entire HD movie will take about 70% of a full iPhone charge. It also locks your device out from any other functions – get a text message and your movie pauses, want to email, look something up online, use social media? Tough. Movie pauses.
Therefore I believe the next sensible enhancement to make is to have a separate touch-screen device to direct control your Apple TV rather than remote control. Takeover or mirror the TV screen UI on device and allow direct manipulation, browsing, searching in a native app experience designed for a touch device, when the selected media is playing it’s doing so direct through the Apple TV and not streaming over AirPlay. This approach benefits from all the advantages the iPhone/iPod/iPad gives you, whilst utilising all the strengths of the Apple TV device.
All great, but what about users who want an Apple TV without owning an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad? That’s where the A5 processor might come back into play. I believe Apple is keeping this chipset alive and continuing to reduce it’s production cost as we’ve seen in the recent iPod touch price drop, to bring us a new remote. Imagine an iPod touch that is thinner and lighter, perhaps with an iPhone-S style plastic case, acting as a portal to your Apple TV device. It appears to have all the apps on your TV has installed, with an app store to add more TV apps (and possibly games). A 16:9 ratio screen might make sense to match the TV you’re using.
This remote would require bluetooth & wifi, with a few GB of hard drive for caching files or basic app features/UI, and a much smaller battery – helping to keep costs down. All apps installed are hosted on the Apple TV, but appear as if they are on the device in a manner all users will be familiar with. Extensions could be used to have a child app on the device which controls the parent app on the Apple TV. You could use a ‘handoff’ like feature to continue watching a program on the remote screen while you exit the room, as you stay on the same network (AirPlaying from the Apple TV to the remote). You could also use this device as a controller for games, although this would be terrible beyond simple tapping actions without the tactile feedback you receive from physical controls. Third-party iPhone game controllers might finally have a purpose, or it could spawn a whole generation of compatible wireless controllers? I imagine demanding games will require an A7 powered Apple TV to achieve respectable performance.
This remote device (the iRemote?) could come bundled with Apple TV for a reasonable price (I’m thinking around £199 or less), or be an optional extra that can be purchased (£99 or less). If we’re luckily this could all be achieved with a software update and run on existing Apple TV 3 or even 2 units (with the demanding gaming exceptions mentioned above). Of course if you have an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad then all you would need is an app and a software update.
Imagine combining this with an Xbox like feed-through from your TV/Sky/Cable service into this the Apple TV to augment your regular watching experience and you have a powerful living room addition.
Whatever Apple decide to do here, the Apple TV software is long overdue for an upgrade. The disconnect between ‘my stuff’ I keep on my Mac on the same network, my iCloud account, and the iTunes store where I can buy and rent media is broken. The service provider apps like Netflix could all benefit from a better UI, and the iRemote device would allow for this and more. I use Apple TV almost daily and look forward to how the platform evolves. I guess only time will tell.
Update 1st July 2014
To follow up on some feedback I’ve gotten so far in person, voice control could be the answer, but it’s not perfect, and there are a lot of hard to pronounce/recognise titles and actors names that would cause problems. But it has potential.
Also in reaction to Google I/O and the Google TV announcements; it’s a software platform, not hardware, designed for manufacturers to integrate into their products – an extension of Android. This may make the suite of terrible and confusing TV and TV-device UIs better and more consistent if widely adopted (and assuming there is no bloatware this time), but hardware will win the war. If left to a bunch of Android-running third party TV manufacturers, we’ll be stuck with the D-pad forever.