Commentary

AirPlay Gets Interesting

“Your TV is broken.” The glee in my wife’s voice is palpable when things go wrong with the gadgetry.

It’s not broken,” I insist. “There is just something wrong with the AirPlay running on the 4S.” The AirPlay mirroring from the iPhone 4S is producing pauses in video playback and badly pixelated rendering in some of the games optimized for the snazzy two-screen feature.

“Yeah, as I said, your TV is broken.”

“It’s not broken. I think the phone or the Apple TV doesn’t like having to use the 2.8GHz band on the router so they can both see each other run what is on the phone on the TV. It all depends on the home network.”

“Honey, your TV is broke,” my wife persists as I run into a retaining wall in the racing game because of the pauses. “And please don’t consider race driving as a second career. You really suck at this, don’t you?”

So far as my family is concerned, half the cool tech I bring into the house doesn’t work, and the other half just clutters the living room and my office with more remotes, chargers and wires than they can understand. I have become the gadget era version of the goofy mad scientist -- Dr. Brown with a mad look of obsessive enthusiasm in his eyes. I hand them a new smartphone to try or drag them into the living room to see some other piece of wizardry, only for it to sputter and die.

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Get the cable TV apps to control the digital TV box? Took a few tries. “Give it a break, Dad. It isn’t going to happen if you just keep hitting the same button,” my daughter says.

Try to get the Logitech Harmony iOS app to control all of the devices in the dizzying complexity that is now the home theater, and the TV suddenly goes off randomly in the middle of “Dancing With the Stars.”

“I didn’t touch anything,” I yell at the iPhone.

“Looks like you got a problem with the flux capacitor there, Doc,” my wife is quick to quip.

And my big reveal of the wonders of AirPlay mirroring took the same predictable path.

“Uh, huh. Guess what, Poindexter? Your TV is broken.”

It’s not broken. Well, the new iteration of AirPlay for iOS 5 is still being finicky. The new wireless “mirroring” capabilities in iOS 5 gets special power on the iPad 2 and iPhone 4S. In standard mirroring, the devices now work with an Apple TV to project whatever is on the device onto the TV. This trick used to require an HDMI connection from the tablet. One imagines this could be a boon to presentations. In its earlier version, AirPlay on most iOS devices just threw select media like video or slideshows onto the TV and was an effective media-sharing tool. You could use the phone as a controller and image previewer to show your own stored media to others.

The new mirroring capabilities are much more promising. Now it is possible with compatible apps to use the device as a second screen. In Real Racing 2, one of the best examples of mirroring available, the iPhone or iPad 2 serves as the driving controller and race course map, showing only the brake pedal when tapped and an overview of your progress on the course. This same sort of secondary screen behavior is being built into the next generation of Nintendo Wii game console and its oversized touch screen controller.

In theory, this opens up a tremendous new range of programming possibilities for developers. Previously, TV networks and most notably Disney in its Bambi Blu-ray release, developed apps that worked synchronously with over-air TV programming. With the new AirPlay, developers can not only put an app on the TV but leverage the two screens in a whole new way that makes mobile device real and direct players on the main screen of the home. For gaming, of course, this puts the iPhone and iPad in much more direct competition with the game consoles.

When it works. So far, the performance of the AirPlay apps I have been trying are sketchy. HBO Go, the premium channel’s on-demand app, refuses to use AirPlay mirroring. I am guessing or hoping that they will resolve any licensing issues restricting device-bound on-demand programming from being tossed back onto the TV whence it came. Netflix actually works quite well via AirPlay mirroring, but its apps are already present on pretty much every connected TV and Web video box anyway. Still, one can see a great opportunity here for the device to become a preview or catalog screen, perhaps even where we get  closed captioning or subtitles.

An animated interactive children’s book on the iPhone and iPad, “Bartleby’s Book of Buttons,” puts onto the device screen a special set of prompts and controls for interacting with the storybook on the TV. I can imagine great extensions of this idea so that multiple family members can use an iPad to interact with the same story or perhaps collaborate on a single TV screen from one or multiple devices. Extend this idea to other forms of adult programming and the device becomes the Interactive TV that the TV industry has been trying to engineer for a couple decades now. The device display can become the interactive controller for polling, chatting, shared media experiences or both on demand and live programming. The developers at CNN have got to be daft if they aren’t already working on a way to AirPlay the CNN Live feature on their app and let the device work as a voting or commenting device.

Mobile devices working as second screen to the living room TV have almost mind-blowing potential – for everything from creative new modes of interactivity to being able to personalize in some way the shared viewing on the large screen with individual feeds on a phone or tablet. One of the problems with the traditional models of ITV was always who controls the remote in an interactive experience? Web interactivity generally is solitary, one person deciding what and where to click. Put that level of choice on the main TV and you are asking for trouble. Will families really fight over whether to click on that ad? If devices become the personalizing and interactive element in an ITV world then becomes manageable but also even more powerful than we ever imagined. One of the cool things about AirPlay is that it puts the dual-screen model into the hands of a much broader array of developers, not just the broadcasters. Now anyone can re-imagine TV experiences.

Of course it would all work better if it, well, worked better. I am having the roughest time getting AirPlay to perform acceptably over the iPhone 4S. It can’t use the 5.6GHz 802.11n band that the iPad and Apple TV can use for cleaner and more robust bandwidth. Or at least I think that is the problem. Real Racer 2 on the iPhone 4S over AirPlay is a poor experience in my network. The action seizes up and the images are rendering at ultra-low resolution. But even on the iPad 2 running the “HD” version of the game the bandwidth gets taxed.

“Your TV is broke,” she reiterates as if I will get it this time.

“It’s not broke. Watch. It isn’t perfect yet but this is interesting.”

“’Interesting.’ Is that what we are calling broke technology now, Sparky? ‘Interesting?’ Did I tell you that the air conditioning in my car is getting very interesting? The ice maker in the refrigerator – downright captivating."

1 comment about "AirPlay Gets Interesting".
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  1. Steven Groves from Social Marketing Conversations, LLC, October 27, 2011 at 6:14 p.m.

    "So far as my family is concerned, half the cool tech I bring into the house doesn’t work, and the other half just clutters the living room and my office with more remotes, chargers and wires than they can understand. I have become the gadget era version of the goofy mad scientist"

    I feel ya' bro....

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