Apple Patent Describes Smart Remote Technology

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office yesterday published a patent application Apple made way back in 2008 for “Pushing a User Interface to a Remote Device.” So, then…Smart Remotes. Cool!

MacRumor’s Eric Slivka reports that the patent’s lead inventor is William Bull, now Yahoo’s Senior Director of Mobile User Experience, but once upon a time Apple’s iPod User Interface Manager. The so-called “father of the iPod,” Tony Fadell, is also credited.

The idea is simple; portable media devices — such as iPods and iPhones, for example — have their own on-board Graphical User Interface (GUI) and, usually, a built-in screen. Thing is, we don’t always want to take our iPhone out of our pocket when we’re listening to music (or, if you’re me, catching up on podcasts while washing the dishes).

Enter remote controls (referred to in this patent as “accessories”). Often they’re dumb little inline sticks with a few fiddly (not to mention tiny) buttons. They’re useful, but basic, offering perhaps only a half dozen simple controls. Some of the more elaborate remotes have their own little displays, which is all very well and good, except that they also employ their own little GUIs which not only fail to resemble the one on the device you’re trying to control, but often don’t provide full access to all the device’s functions. From the patent application:

…existing remote GUIs are defined and controlled by the remote control device, and consequently, they may bear little resemblance to a GUI supplied by the portable media device itself Certain functions available on the portable media device (such as browsing or searching a database, adjusting playback settings, etc.) may be unavailable or difficult to find.

Apple’s solution is to “push” the device’s GUI to a remote an accessory with a built-in display. Here’s the description from the patent application (I’ve shortened it to just the main points);

The portable media device can provide the accessory with an image to be displayed on the video screen… [and] include various user interface elements that can resemble or replicate a “native” GUI provided directly on the portable media device. The accessory can send information to the portable media device indicative of a user action […] for example, that a particular button was pressed or that a particular portion of a touch-sensitive display screen was touched by the user. The portable media device can process this input to identify the action requested by the user and take the appropriate action. The action may include providing to the accessory an updated GUI image to be displayed, where the updated GUI image reflects the user action.

Essentially this describes a touch-enabled screen, small enough (and dumb enough) to still be called an accessory, which effectively acts as a small auxiliary display/input panel for the device.

I can’t see this making its way into an inline remote (it’s just not Apple’s style to make a wearable remote that’s big) but I can see a future revision of Apple’s current Remote that entirely does away with the buttons, replacing them with a capacitive touch screen.

Future software updates would enable one to connect the remote to a nearby Mac mini, Apple TV, even an iPod touch, and switch between those devices the same way the iPhone Remote app does today. The GUI would change, depending on the selected device.

The only drawback I can see to such a device (and remember, I’m just extrapolating here and imagining a potential future gadget — Apple’s patent application only describes a possible method and not an actual product) is that a remote with a capacitive touch screen will chew through its battery in next to no time. Is it conceivable we’ll be buying a charging dock for a future Apple MultiRemote?

More compelling is the notion that Apple could build this technology into an entire ecosystem, licensing third-party developers to create compatible hardware; imagine a house where a smart display on the door of your refrigerator not only tells you when the milk needs replacing but also allows you to skip tracks on the album you’re playing over AirTunes…

But am I thinking too small? Is this yet another patent application that will, ultimately, come to nothing, or could this be an early clue to a new Apple-tastic revolution?