Patents suggest Apple TV wand full of Cupertino magic

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"Applus TViticus!" Photo: Warner Bros.

The high-tech “magic wand”-style controller rumored to ship with the refreshed Apple TV this summer may be the culmination of close to a decade’s R&D on the part of Apple.

Is this the “simplest user interface you could imagine” that Steve Jobs told Walter Isaacson about when he claimed he had “finally cracked” the way to build a perfect TV?

If so, we’ve combed through the patents to reveal how it might work.

Apple Photo: USPTO
Next Apple TV could feature an OS X-type Dock. Photo: USPTO

Apple has been investigating a Nintendo Wii-style Apple TV remote as far back as 2007: the year the iPhone was first unveiled.

In an email sent by Jobs prior to 2010’s Top 100 — a secret annual meeting at which Apple executives discuss company plans each year — he asked “Where do we go from here?” before listing bullet-points including “apps, browser” and “magic wand.”

As described in various patents over the last few years, Apple’s wireless “remote wand” would essentially act as a three-dimensional mouse for users. As such, it would go way beyond the current point-and-click functionality of TV remotes, and follow Apple’s minimalist philosophy to getting rid of unnecessary buttons and other components.

The magic wand TV remote would be used to control a number of Apple TV functions such as zooming, accessing a keyboard, carrying out photo editing, and possibly gaming.

In one example of how users might navigate, it is described how pressing the “menu” button would cause an OS X-style dock to rise up at the bottom of the screen. Users could then negotiate this by moving the remote either left or right.

In another possible interface element, the wand remote could be used to fast-forward or rewind, rotate images, or zoom in and out of images by bringing the remote closer to and further away from the screen.

Your TV could be used for a spot of photo editing. Photo: USPTO
Your TV could be used for a spot of photo editing. Photo: USPTO

Apple describes how this could be accomplished by using incredibly fine-grain motion detection, possibly by way of an accelerometer and magnetic compass floating in liquid, or by orienting itself using infrared.

“The wand may include an optical component for capturing images of the infrared modules, and may calculate its orientation and distance from the modules based on the captured images,” the company writes in one patent. “In some embodiments, the electronic device may direct the infrared modules to identify the position of an infrared emitter incorporated on the wand, and may calculate the absolute position of the wand relative to the infrared modules.”

While motion detection would certainly be neat, however, a report from yesterday’s New York Times suggests that Apple may instead go for a slightly more practical touchpad for scrolling, along with two physical buttons. Apple could then add Wii-style motion detection for some of the other interface elements.

In all, it sounds fantastic: A perfect Apple-style interface which would act like multitouch in iOS, but without you needing to leave your couch to put your greasy fingers all over the TV to work it.

Suddenly summer can’t come quickly enough!