A patent application published by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office earlier today reveals Apple is flirting with the idea of a universal touchscreen controller capable of controlling multiple devices including a “television, a video tape player, a video disk player, a stereo, a home control system, or a computer system.” The patent application is titled “Apparatus and Method to Facilitate Universal Remote Control” and was filed Sept. 30, 2011.

The patent application’s background covers many of the issues with current controllers for televisions and the devices mentioned above. It noted current universal remotes are “complex to operate” and unable to adapt to incorporate every command or control functionality supported by a device or future device. It also mentions the fact that users are often “confronted with multiple” remotes, which is the classic “table full of remotes” scenario described by Steve Jobs when talking about the Apple TV at D8. The patent application explained:

“While all of these buttons and switches are necessary for complete control of the appliance, users typically use only a small subset of the total controls on the remote control. The controls that are not normally used clutter the remote control and can cause confusion to the user when trying to locate a seldom-used feature.…users must spend time learning a new remote control or pair programming an existing universal remote control each time they purchase a new remotely controllable appliance, which detracts from the enjoyment of using the appliance after it is first purchased…What is needed is an apparatus and a method to provide remote control over multiple appliances without the difficulties described above.”

Apple’s solution would feature an automatic “discovery mechanism” allowing the remote to pair with other devices over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. The patent describes being able to customize the UI on the remote’s touchscreen without the universal remote control needing “special knowledge” of the device. In other words, graphical representations for any given device, such as a button layout, could be stored in the device and sent to the remote control wirelessly. The patent application also described using the remote with multiple devices simultaneously through an “active appliances” list.

According to the patent application, the unique UIs sent from a device to the remote could be customizable by the manufacturer of the device, hinting that the remote could control third-party appliances as well. Apple noted the UI “can also display an icon such as the manufacturer’s logo, user instructions, or an advertising message on remote control.”

When a user selects an appliance to control at the remote control, the remote control sends a message to the appliance requesting a menu description. In response, the appliance returns the menu description to the remote control. The remote control then displays the menu. If more appliances respond than can fit on a single page, remote control can provide multiple appliance selection pages including navigation icons on the appliance selection pages for switching between pages. 

With latest reports claiming Apple is already working on a 42-inch+ HDTV, and today’s patent focusing mainly on televisions and video players (opposed to Macs and iOS devices), it is possible that Apple is experimenting with touchscreen remotes with adaptable UIs to interact with a future Apple-branded HDTV. Other reports claimed the yet to be unveiled Apple HDTV will feature voice-control courtesy of Siri-like functionality. However, there is no mention of voice-control functionality or Siri in today’s patent application for the universal remote.

The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office also published a series of other patents today filed by Apple Inc., including one covering “Programmable Magnetic Connectors” that could hint at possible MagSafe-like connections for iOS and other Apple devices. Another patent covers “Automatically Adapting User Interfaces for Hands-Free Interaction” for an “intelligent automated assistant,” also known as Siri.

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