As rumors swirl and dance about in the blogosphere about Apple's coming HDTV, an Apple patent application pops up just in time to tease us about some of the possible new features that their TV remote may offer. While some of the features may apply to Apple's own HDTV, Apple's planned invasion of this market means attacking the entire market which includes TV's already in the marketplace today. One of Apple's wild new universal remote features works like this: you take a photo of your current TV remote and it sends it to iCloud for analysis. It then sends a "virtual copy" of your remote, functionality and all, to your iPhone. You're now able to control your current TV with Apple's advanced universal remote and enjoy all of Apple's TV remote features and likely tie-in products and services. Is that wild enough for you?
Apple's Patent Background
Apple states that some remote controls may be configurable to control multiple different electronic devices. Such remote controls are commonly referred to as "universal remote controls" as they consolidate the control of electronic devices into a single controller. Advanced universal remote controls may be capable of controlling dozens of devices, including audio and video equipment and home automations systems (e.g., lighting, door locks, and the like).
In order to achieve universal functionality, typically, universal remotes are programmed by a user. The programming may include looking up information either in a manual or online to find codes for infrared signals that will work for controlling the particular brand, model and/or type of electronic device being used by the user. Often multiple codes are given for a particular device and, as such, an iterative process of trial and error is used to find a correct code for a particular device with the user repeatedly looking up a code, entering the code into the remote and trying to control a device after the code has been entered. Thus, the process may be time-intensive and/or frustrating to a user.
Apple's invention relates to a remote control device that is configurable to gather state information from controlled components. In some embodiments, the remote control device may have one or more sensors to facilitate the state determination. For example, the remote control may have one or more cameras, microphones and/or other sensors. The sensors may be configured to operate upon actuation of the remote control device to determine if signals transmitted by the remote control were received and a desired result was achieved.
In some embodiments, the remote control may include a camera that is configured to capture an image of controlled devices. The image is then processed to find a state of the device. For example, in some embodiments, the image may be processed to determine shapes and/or characters on a television screen. The shapes and characters may be used to determine that the television is displaying content from a particular source. If you think of it, that translates in-part to reading logos on screen from sources such as ABC, NBC or HBO for instance. Other shapes may relate to Apple-specific functions that that patent doesn't reveal at this time.
In another instance, a status indicator light may be evaluated to determine a status of the controlled device. For example, the remote control may analyze a captured image and determine the presence of colors associated with the status light indicators of the devices. If the status light is green, for example, the remote control may determine that the device is on, whereas if it is red, the remote control may determine that the device is off.
Additionally, in some embodiments, the remote control may include microphones and be configured to determine a state of a controlled device based on sound from one or more of the controlled devices. For example, the remote control may determine a sound level and/or if the sound level changes. Additionally, in some embodiments, the presence or absence of sound may be used to determine if a controlled device is on or off.
Apple to Advance Apple Remote
It appears that Apple is about to advance their Apple Remote application. In fact, it's likely to be integrated into a future iPhone (or other iOS device) instead of it being an add-on app at the App Store. The advanced features being added to Apple remote could be signaling their preparation for a standalone HDTV as it's to control a television and other related entertainment devices. But it could mean more than that as you'll see.
Apple states that patent FIG. 1 could be an iPhone configured with IR transmission capabilities. Patent FIG. 2 is a block diagram illustrating the iPhone's components that are to include a remote control program and camera that is in tune with the a self-configuring feature highlighted below. In Apple's second patent on the remote, a secondary patent figure 2 notes that in some embodiments, the memory may include a database 116 that may store information related to various electronic devices that may be controlled and/or their dedicated remote controllers.
The Universal Remote's Self-Configuring Feature
Apple's patent FIG. 3 is a flowchart illustrating an example method 130 for operating the control device to self-configure for controlling another device. The method may begin by obtaining an input that may be used to identify the electronic device that is to be controlled, such as by using image processing techniques to compare the captured image against a database of known devices. For example, the control device may capture an image of the electronic device (Block 132) with its built in camera. The control device may then identify the device that is to be controlled. For example, the control device may determine the make and/or model and/or the type of the device to be controlled (Block 134).
When the identity of the controlled device is known or at least some information about the device is known, IR codes for controlling the device may be retrieved from the configurations database 116 from a remotely located database (Block 136) which is illustrated in patent FIG. 5 as being a cloud network, meaning iCloud.
In some embodiments, the buttons may be virtual buttons or physical buttons that are programmed to provide a corresponding command to control the controlled device. In some embodiments, the configuration shape, and appearance of virtual buttons may imitate the configuration, shape and appearance of a dedicated remote control for the controlled device.
Universal Remote in Tune with Entertainment Centre
Apple's patent FIG. 4 shown below illustrates an example entertainment center 150 having a television, a digital video disc (DVD) player, and a digital video recorder (DVR). One or more of the electronic devices of the entertainment center may be a controlled device. As such, the universal remote 100 may be configured to determine the state of one or more of the devices in the entertainment center 150. It should be noted that the entertainment center doesn't include an Apple TV box. Apple's proposed universal remote is working directly with a TV and known TV related devices.
The Remote's Image Recognition
In Apple's other patent, they provide more detail. Apple states that the identity of the controlled device may be achieved through processing of an image to recognize logos, characters, shapes, sizes and/or other characteristics. For example, a television having a particular aspect ratio may be recognized based on it proportions and/or its size relative to other objects. A brand name or logo may be recognized for a particular DVD player, or DVR (e.g., TiVo). Moreover, a shape and/or particular arrangement of a face of a device may be recognized (e.g., a Nintendo Wii video game console). An example of this is noted in patent FIGS. 7 and 8.
Apple's patent FIG. 7 noted above illustrates the iPhone obtaining an image of a remote controller 190 from a different manufacturer. As shown, the remote controller 190 may include a particular arrangement of buttons 192, a track pad 194, as well as uniquely shaped buttons 196. The arrangement, number, type, and so forth of the buttons may provide for a signature appearance of the remote controller that may be used for identification purposes, as previously described.
In patent FIG. 8 we see that the iPhone is displaying an image of the remote controller from another manufacturer on its display. The image may have the same signature appearance as the native TV remote. Additionally, the displayed image may provide the same functionality as the native TV remote controller. That is the iPhone may be configured to create virtual buttons that correspond in both appearance and functionality as the native TV remote.
In some embodiments, the programming of the virtual buttons may occur after it is determined what IR codes are operable with the controlled device. The IR codes may be identified as operable and used to particularly identify the controlled device and the databases may provide information related to further programming of the control device to help enable full functionality and interoperability of the control device 100 with the controlled device
Patent Credits and Some Closing Thoughts
Apple's patent application was originally filed in Q3 2010 and published by the USPTO today. The inventors are noted as being Fletcher Rothkopf and Stephen Lynch.
Closing note: It's interesting that Apple mentioned that advanced universal remote controls may be capable of controlling dozens of devices, including audio and video equipment and home automations systems (e.g., lighting, door locks, and the like) and yet never detailed such interaction. Apple gets around that by stating that "the specific embodiments described herein should be understood as examples and not limiting the scope of the disclosure." So the admission in their patent background that the advanced universal remote will also be able to control lighting and door locks can't be forgotten, especially in light of Apple having other patents covering such applications – specifically controlling door locks.
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