August 26, 2010

Rethinking the remote

Next week, it’s anticipated that Apple will announce a successor to the Apple TV based on iOS. While this predictably inspires more speculation than a Rod Blagojevich verdict, the most interesting question it poses is how the onscreen user interface will be controlled.

While some sort of optional iPhone integration is a given, Apple’s multimedia standby, the traditionally-bundled Apple Remote, starts to look a little inelegant in light of the usability strides made on Apple’s mobile devices. Directional pads are older than Apple itself, and their usefulness falls off quickly with the number of elements they are used to navigate through. Click gestures such as long presses and double-taps can help, but they remain stop-gaps for a limited interaction technology.

Dan Provost’s suggestion of a Click Wheel remote is a very intuitive one. A logical progression of decoupled input for Apple, it works very well for navigating hierarchical lists, and to be sure, it even has plenty of creative potential for use in an iTV App Store. But the question of how to build a better remote is one that has intrigued me for some time, and I think it’s possible to go much further.

You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling

The one-to-one motion and gestural speed control of the Click Wheel make navigating in one dimension much nicer. But a trackpad takes out both dimensions at once. And with Apple’s mastery of intertial scrolling on mobile devices, it’s a perfect match for two-dimensional menuing on a new iTV.

It’s not hard to imagine an onscreen UI built around swipe gestures, inertial scrolling, and the snap-to-rest behavior of something like the iOS spinner input, across a two-dimensional menu system like Sony’s XMB. Add the Magic Trackpad surface-click to navigate, and you have a lot of potential in a very simple remote control.

With the addition of an iOS-standard home screen button and perhaps a play / pause button, this hypothetical remote could not only make 10-foot navigation as pleasant as using an iPhone, but extend a lot of its interaction vocabulary. Such a system might just be the closest one could get to mirroring the iPhone’s direct interaction in a decoupled context.

As the above might suggest, I had something in my head which begged to be mocked up.

Trackpad on top, surface click on both top and bottom, home key in the middle. Slight resemblance to sushi.

Playback or play

Dan Provost suggested the very slim possibility of a game controller for the new iTV. While it’s unlikely that Apple will make gaming a central pillar of iTV, Apple is nonetheless making serious inroads in the market. So how might they make this part of the out-of-the-box experience?

With something like the concept envisioned above, there’s already a game controller: Just turn the remote sideways.

Even without any other features, a trackpad and two primary buttons allow for plenty of latitude in designing gameplay. Add an accelerometer or another button or so, and you have something that can easily rival the twitch-friendly controls on major consoles.

Will Apple take the adventurous route, or will they play it safe with iTV? We’ll find out soon enough.