Apple today tipped its hand on a number of likely features for its long-awaited television product. The new details suggest that Apple is actually working on an all-in-one television set, in addition to new features for its existing Apple TV set-top box. They also suggest that Apple will justify selling such a device by creating an integrated user experience not seen in other televisions.
The first reveal came from Apple reportedly offering $280 million for the Israeli company PrimeSense, which created the motion sensing technology first used in Microsoft’s Kinect sensor. PrimeSense’s technology, which “sees” everything in front of its sensor in three dimensions, can be used for everything from 3D scanning the insides of buildings to giving sight to industrial robots. But that’s not why Apple wants PrimeSense.
Apple wants PrimeSense because, as Aviad Maizeis, president of PrimeSense, is fond of demonstrating, by far the most mature application of PrimeSense is as a gesture-control system for television. (Granted, the Xbox One can already do this, but as the success of Roku and the proliferation of smart TVs and next-generation cable boxes demonstrate, not everyone wants a gaming platform as part of their media center.)
I’ve seen Maizeis demo PrimeSense’s technology, and it felt, very obviously, like the future. It allows you to use gestures reminiscent of existing touch-based interfaces, such as swipe and touch, to swiftly navigate through a carousel of content on your television. The difference is that, instead of touching a piece of glass, you’re simply waving your hands in the air. The real magic is that you can sit down at a PrimeSense-enabled television and, because of its similarity to existing interfaces, grasp it immediately—a level of intuitiveness and simplicity that surely appeals to Apple. PrimeSense is apparently also able to do face and body recognition, so that a television equipped with it could present custom profiles to viewers who sit down in front of it.
Apple is pitching cable companies on a premium service that would allow people to skip television advertisements for a price, with the revenue shared with said cable companies, reports Jessica Lessin. Apple has been in talks with cable companies for a while, but given conflicting rumors, the substance of those talks is unclear. Ad-skipping technology may seem like a fairly irrational move for cable operators, given that advertising is the backbone of their revenue.
But people are using their digital video recorders to skip more ads than ever, and pretty much everyone, including Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, Google and Yahoo is paying for their own original content, which is squeezing cable companies. Technology companies are wresting the means of distribution away from them (the stick) so at some point it makes more sense for the Comcasts of the world to strike a revenue-sharing deal with companies like Apple rather than risk total annihilation (the carrot).
Ever since the debut of the iPhone app store, Apple’s specialty has been giving users a seamless experience by pulling together three things: Excellent hardware, dead simple software and a marketplace of content that keeps users glued to Apple’s hardware and software. An Apple TV with exclusive ad-skipping technology would be differentiator enough, but why not simply dump that technology into a set-top box rather than a television?
Apple could probably put its ad-skipping tech into both a TV and a set-top box, but gesture control is another beast entirely. Selling an AppleTV-like box with a fiddly, detachable sensor that has to be tacked onto an existing television doesn’t seem like the Apple way. It’s more likely that, if the company unveils a gesture-control system, it would be integrated into an existing, Apple-branded television. Putting all of these pieces together—deals with streaming services, cable companies, gesture control and, who knows, support for apps and games people have already bought for their iPhone and iPad— is a plausible way for Apple to sell a television that would justify the usual Apple markup.