Apple Home and TV Automation Concepts: Thinking Outside the Puck

Tomes have been written about Tim Cook's interest in TV and what Apple might be doing with a next generation TV system. So far, the discussion has been around a next generation Apple TV black puck or maybe even a full UHDTV. However, when cast in the light of a home automation system, many doors seem to open right and left.


The source of our speculation comes from "Apple May Move into Home Automation at WWDC." And so, I (JM) am tempted to wonder how a home automation system might actually be a precursor and a companion to a next generation home theater system.  Our pondering starts there.

Part I. Home Theater

One of the major problems with a modern A/V receiver with multiple HDMI inputs and the ability to drive a Dolby 5.1 or 7.1 system is that they are hardware-centric. Because the home theater industry is so segmented, no one player has been able to deliver a widely used, compelling, affordable and commercially visible operating system — one brain, so to speak, to manage all the home theater devices.

There are home automation and home theater control systems, but they tend to be part of a custom installation and they're not based on a popular OS like iOS. These are the kinds of thing you see at CEDIA, and they're not mainstream.

On the other hand, the average home TV viewer is rather more constrained in funds. A good deal on a 1080p LED TV at Costco or Sam's Club is always welcome, but when it comes to the sound that part is often neglected.

That's because the added expense of an A/V receiver and extra speakers is considerable, and so the solution my local Costco home theater advisor often ends up suggesting is a sound bar. It's a poor substitute, but it's economical. It doesn't come near to solving the major integration and sound issues.

The average home theater customer, as a result, ends up with a bunch of boxes: a DVD or Blu-ray player, a DVR, and maybe a few small black boxes like an Apple TV and/or a Roku box. It can be a fair mess. If one is not fond of the way the Logitech Harmony works, other users remain shackled with a confounding plethora of remotes.

And, as we already know, the need to use a remote to select the right source is a constant source of frustration for many.

Google tried to solve the problem, at first, with Google TV, a complicated device requires the customer to take an existing system apart and insert a new box between the DVR and the TV. It was a non starter. In round two, the Chromecast HDMI stick ended up being just another me-too device that doesn't solve any real human interface problem.

What If...

Some speculation is in order. What if Apple were to reinvent the Apple TV and turn it into a genuine home automation device plus A/V receiver that could be both the brains of the home theater and the brains of home automation? Running iOS, it could seamlessly integrate with all the other iOS devices in the house as well as perform some other functions that my colleague, Kelly Guimont, will delve into in Part II below.

Next generation Apple TV concept via Martin Hajek

As for the home theater function, this hypersmart A/V receiver, call it Apple TV Next Generation, could turn down the Wi-Fi lights, direct all control through an iPad or iPhone app, eliminating every other remote control, and maybe even — if preferred — suppress/defer notifications on other iOS devices while one is watching a movie. Perhaps queue them up for when the movie is over.

Because it's a member of the Apple family of products and does so much, the customer would presumably see the benefit of installing such a device. It wouldn't try to be a DVR or replace other content players. It would just replace a home receiver that's not very smart plus do everything the Apple TV does now. Or, in the case of the customer who never bought one, it would usher in so many new capabilities that the customer might start to seriously think about adding a few extra speakers down the road. No doubt, Apple's legacy partnership with speaker manufacturer's could be leveraged.

Of course, when designed by Jonathan Ive, it would be swoopy cool and easy to use. Apple's focus on hardware simplicity would eliminate most of the mind-numbing connectors on current A/V receivers designed for purists. It would also put a permanent end to the little black box wars, making Apple's the top dog control device. Accordingly, because it would do so much, it would be larger and more expensive than the current Apple TV. But then, that's expected for a device that solves so many problems.

We think there might be many more uses for such a device, connected to the Internet and leveraging Apple's robust security capabilities. And that brings us to Part II.

Next:  Home Automation Done Right

Part II: Home Automation Done Right


Here’s the thing about “home automation” in its current state: It exists, but it’s for engineers, not for people. It’s fragmented and kludgy and the opposite of the Apple experience in virtually every imaginable way. Sort of like the MP3 player market in 2000, or the mobile phone market in 2006.

Here’s the current status of home automation at my house: A set of Philips Hue bulbs controlled by an app, some WeMo outlets controlled by a different app, and a variety of Z-Wave bits and pieces hooked up to a Vera controller.

This controller stopped functioning and my house spent a good portion of the holiday weekend trying to sort it out. I had to upgrade firmware which required creating a brand new user account. After the upgrade, the web page used to configure the Vera was totally different. At the bottom of the page was “Advanced Settings.” Clicking on advanced loads the old version of the page. Which naturally demands I log in using the previous username and password. EVERY SINGLE THING is like this.

After I spent some time configuring the new interface, the Vera started flashing a light and not a single piece of documentation told me what that meant or how to resolve it. Luckily I’m an old hand at troubleshooting so I unplugged it, counted to ten, and plugged it back in. Then it worked, for reasons unbeknownst to me.

Given how well this went for a reasonably technical person, I shudder to think how well this would go for someone who doesn’t have quite as close a relationship with technology. I also think about how easily Apple could reign supreme in this space without trying very hard at all. Apple already sorted out adding new devices, with the current Apple TV and a recent iPhone, just tap the Apple TV with the iPhone and boom! Connected. Adding other devices could be just easy. I like to think Apple engineers have struggled with this at home themselves and may have finally come up with a solution.

Adding the A/V component to my automation system would be great! Hit a button and the room lights turn down, the receiver powers up and switches inputs, TV powers up, maybe my popcorn machine warms up so I can start popcorn while a decision is made on what to watch. (Siri, remind me to buy a popcorn machine.)

When I discussed this with my husband, he said as long the new Apple thing is compatible with the outlets and switches we have, we’re totally getting one.

The Verdict

All of this has been speculation and some wishful thinking about what Apple might be up to. However, as soon as one ponders the possibilities, it's clear that multiple doors are open, basic problems remain to be solved, and there's no company better positioned to do all that than Apple. After all, Apple is supremely capable when it comes to integrating software and hardware into a delightful user interface that solves basic problems.  We can't wait to see what Apple has in mind.


Teaser graphic via Shutterstock.