Ready, Set, Tap

I recently hung the new $14.97 60-watt Cree Connected LED Bulb on the wall above my easy chair so that whenever an idea entered my brain, I’d be able to tap my iPad and make a light bulb go on above my head. (For those unaware, the Cree is a Zigbee- and Wink-compliant light; mate it with a compatible smarthome hub, and you can control it from your phone or tablet.)

Cascading ideas from the land of consumer electronics have lately been causing me to flick on the Cree so often that I feel like I’m basking under a strobe. What we traditionally think of as hardware, the shiny things that stack up in a home theater, are relinquishing their starring spotlight these days to a new world of apps—applications that reside on mobile devices and offer up all sorts of opportunity for advanced control or an enhanced viewing or listening experience.

It’s not that flashy equipment like Ultra HDTVs that curve on demand aren’t cool. It’s that the “It” Girl of the moment is spelled “IoT,” as in the Internet of Things, wherein everything and everyone is connected. There’s no shortage of wacky ideas, be it the Wi-Fi-enabled baby bottle or a planter that texts you when it needs water. Still, with so many products out there, an app that runs on your mobile device and makes it easier to operate your home theater equipment or adds new features can influence a buying decision. All else being equal, if a CE manufacturer is offering a free app for its networked AV receiver while a competitor doesn’t know Android from iOS, which one are you going to choose?

Still, there is a right and a wrong way to do this. Some manufacturers’ apps are little more than a touchscreen replacement for the dedicated remote supplied in the box, and possibly a very poor one. As we all know from experience, frustration ensues when a badly designed interface forces you to burrow deep through a hierarchal menu or press the same button repeatedly because an option is chosen serially rather than directly.

With a hard remote, a manufacturer runs the risk of putting in too few buttons (necessitating multiple presses) or too many (resulting in complexity)—both mistakes that can just as easily be made with an app. But the app developer has the advantage of soft (screen) buttons that change with the mode, and a well designed app will make navigating smoother. Buttons that don’t operate from a particular mode will be grayed out or gone. There’s a clear path to back up a step or return to the app’s home screen. And there is efficiency and elegance in putting a receiver’s or source component’s menus and graphics on a second screen in the palm of your hand. Other practical advantages include built-in backlighting and unlimited recharging. Say goodbye to dark remotes and disposable batteries.

What the IR remote was to the last century, the Wi-Fi touchscreen is to this. Touchscreen controllers are not new, but until a smartphone found its way into every pocket, touchscreens were seen as exotic pads serviced by custom installers. And they cost thousands of dollars as part of an integrated home control system. Now, you can either use the same phone you carry by day to command your theater by night, or you can take a recently retired mobile device and repurpose it on the coffee table as a dedicated home theater remote or a smarthome automation controller.

In this new column, aptly dubbed “Apptitude,” we’ll be exploring the big, wide world of apps and their growing impact as seen through the eyes of the Sound & Vision reader. We’ll look at AV-centric apps like the touchscreen remote that might come with a new AV receiver, smarthome apps, or perhaps unusual content-driven apps—the kind that might add a second-screen component to your viewing of a particular TV show, or to your enjoyment of a music album or artist. Some will be product-specific, to be used with a unique piece of hardware; others are just apps that anyone can download from the iTunes App Store or Google Play.

For now, just imagine it’s 2015 and time for a movie. Upon silencing my phone, I use the same device to cue the popcorn in my IoT-certified microwave, regulate the networked thermostat, draw the connected curtain, check the feed from the cam at the front door, turn on the smart TV, start the movie stream, adjust the sound system, and, of course, dim the light.

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