A case for the AppleTV Transmitter

On the latest CultCast, the guys on there were talking about a strong AppleTV TV rumour:

Here’s what I heard:

  • The software was developed at the behest of Steve Jobs himself, who persuaded FuzeBox to make the software not just for the Mac, but for an upcoming Apple TV.
  • Steve Jobs gave the company a special dev lab on Apple’s campus.
  • According to FuzeBox’s CEO, the upcoming Apple TV has a 60-inch screen. It has no inputs whatsoever, except an AC power cord. No wires. You can’t plug in a cable box or a game console. Nothing.
  • It does have Gigabit wireless Wi-Fi and gesture controls, equivalent to Microsoft’s Kinect accessory for the Xbox.
  • And finally, the story of how FuzeBox got an ultra rare meeting with Steve Jobs is worth telling — details below.

Now, I’m the first to admit that not all of this adds up.

The general consensus was:

But what about my cable connection? Blu-Ray? XBox?

Which is a good point: while we don't have a TV or a game console here, most people do, and they have some form of set-top box for Cable, Sky, FreeView or some other digital input.

But then I got thinking, as I was walking home: how about turning it all around?

At the moment, there are a number of Airplay target devices. Apple has the Airport Express and the AppleTV. Others have licensed the Airplay protocol to receive audio including companies like Denon, Bowers and Wilkins, JBL and iHome.

If Apple release it, I'd add the new 60" AppleTV TV to that list too. It all works amazingly well.

But at the moment, the only things that can transmit to an Airplay device are iTunes, iOS and OSX Mountain Lion.

What happens if we throw another one in there: The AppleTV Transmitter.

(Yes, that's an awful name…)

Think of a device the size of the black AppleTV puck. It lives with your cable tuner/audio receiver, and talks Gigabit WIFI to your AppleTV, either as part of your existing network, or using it's own standard like Sonos does.

It has 2 HDMI inputs, and when you connect a source to it - your Blu-ray player or a Cable box - it shows up as an "app" on the AppleTV home screen. Hit the icon, and you see the live TV.

It could also use an IR emitter to control the set top box, so you could control the channels without having to use the cable TV remote.

Apple already has the technology to do on the fly H.264 encoding - iOS does it with Airplay Mirroring and the "second screen" function that works with some games - so it's feasible to encode on the fly and send it to the TV from a small iOS device. There might be the issue of delay, but as the audio and video could both be delayed by the same amount, it's not likely to be an issue in most cases.

People buying a new AppleTV TV are sorted - they can plug in their set-top box and watch cable TV like normal. The Cable TV providers don't win, but they also don't lose in this situation, either.

Now go forward in time a little bit: Apple gets the cable providers to build this function into their set top boxes and PVR's. No need for a separate "transmitter", and an app running on the AppleTV TV could communicate back to the set-top box and control the channel and other functions.

Kind of the reverse of what Denon and co are doing with the Airplay receivers. Anyone can license the Airplay protocol to make an Airplay transmitter.

Extend it a little further, and if iOS - the iPad mostly - can receive Airplay, you can then watch your Cable TV on your iPad, anywhere in the house. Apple becomes the TV.

Gaming is the only area which this doesn't cover. I can't see a situation where the h.264 encoding, transmission, decoding and display wouldn't cause a game-ruining delay. A lot of gamers get twitchy if there is a few frames - 15-30ms - of delay. I suspect Apples answer to this might be "whatever" - if you are that into gaming, buy another TV, there are lots on the market, or play games using Airplay Mirroring from your iPad. I think they are covering enough to leave this segment on the table.

This also makes people with an existing AppleTV happier, as it's now their one go-to place for everything video, rather than a secondary device hanging off the receiver. It keeps the cable companies happy as they are not at all cut out, and even have the opportunity to push this as an up-sell to existing customers.

Apple can also sell this world wide - anything which throws out an HDMI signal can go into this. No more messing with various world-wide standards, the local set top box deals with that messy part. And you can hide it all away in a cupboard, which is very "Apple". The content providers are happy too, as Airplay already has DRM, so their content is safe.

This would be an interesting time in the living room.