Pain In The App: Controlling Your Home Theater with Multiple Apps

What would an app like this be worth?


Who doesn’t love apps, especially free ones? The home theater business has been permanently changed by apps that let us control our devices remotely, drag far away content into our homes and destroy corrupt legions of pigs by hurling animated birds at their compounds.

App downloads are now outpacing music downloads from iTunes. Android devices, lacking as dedicated a music store, have always been app-happy.

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But I’ve come to conclude that we are in need of a master app, one app to rule them all, to borrow from Tolkien. Here’s a typical evening in my living room:

• Launch the TV app to turn on the TV.
• Launch the receiver app to turn on the receiver and switch to the correct input.
• Lunch the Verizon app to view the program guide or
• Launch the Netflix app to browse and add a movie to my Que.
• Go back to the TV app to launch the smart TV interface with Netflix and find my movie.
• Go back to the receiver app to adjust the volume.
• Launch the lighting app to turn down the lights.
• Go back to the TV app to pause the movie because I forgot my drink.

When I get back to the sofa with my drink I can’t watch anything because one of my kids is using my tablet to torment rogue pigs or research a homework assignment.

“What we got here is a failure to communicate,” as Paul Newman said in Cool Hand Luke.*

I’m thrilled with all these apps to run my AV gear, but they’d be much cooler and more efficient if they could all work together. The Samsung Galaxy tablet I use is decent at multi-tasking so I can switch between apps quickly without having to exit out of them (unlike my two-generation old iPhone) but the world needs even better communication than that.

Audio and video manufactures have put a lot of effort into making robust apps to let us do neat things with our gear, but they forget the very important part that no piece of gear exists in a vacuum. A home theater or media room is a system made up of various parts, but apps are all separate.

On the remote side, there are many universal remotes pre-loaded with codes for ten zillion devices, and there are some products that will allow you to control your devices through yet another app (and these all require some other device to translate the commands into IR), but there’s no system to let the apps you already have (and know how to use) work together.

Consider HDMI:CEC. That’s a system built into HDMI which allows the remote of one HDMI component to control another HDMI-connected component. For example, a Panasonic Blu-ray player can also easily control a Panasonic TV and home theater system without any programming required. Unfortunately, the ease of use pretty much ends there. If your products are all different brands (as they are in my system) then HDMI:CEC is essentially useless.

What I’m dreaming off are apps written and designed in such a way as to allow them to communicate back and forth to each other. I want to see some app handshaking going on in which they realize that all the devices on the same network must play together nicely or go stand out in the rain (yes, I had a tough upbringing). I want one app that is able to coordinate all the other AV apps without requiring an external device or forcing me to teach it commands. I want to just tell it what apps to wrangle up, and then launch. That’s an app I’d even pay for.

The Harmony Link is probably the closest, but it still requires an external IR transmitter. All my current apps control my devices via IP.

What would an app like that be worth? $20, $50, $100 …

Another solution is to bring in a pro. An integrator would gladly replace my four or five apps with a system (and another app) from Control4 or URC or Savant to calm my agitation and make my living room a little less chaotic at TV time.

Yet it strikes me that an easy missing link can’t be that far away. Otherwise, I’ll be calling an integrator soon to get my tablet back from my teenager.


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