Living Room Engagement

I am home from Apple’s New York “Apple TV Tech Talks.” These events are always a joy to attend, because they combine some of the high quality preparation and delivery that we’ve come to expect from WWDC, with the refreshing brevity and focus of a one day event. Oh, and they’re totally free, apart from the transportation and lodging you might need to pay for.

I went to the event with some uncertainty, because I am skeptical about my prospects developing for the Apple TV. The platform inherits many of the pricing and marketing challenges of iOS, with the added constraints of working with a shared-user ownership model, limited user input, and a bias towards entertainment software suitable to somebody reclining on a couch.

Although I didn’t come away from the tech talks with a clear inspiration for a “killer app,” I did think a bit about the high-level classes of app that are likely to be successful on Apple TV. This is somewhat off the cuff, so I might be missing something big, but I think Apple TV apps will fall into these main categories:

  1. Passive entertainment. This is the obvious, classic use case for television. To succeed with this model, you will probably need to have access to your own library of streaming media. Past and present episodes from a network television company are a canonical example for this kind of app. Indie app developers are unlikely to succeed in this realm, except as consulting engineers for media companies.
  2. Games. When the earliest video game consoles came out over 40 years ago, they introduced interactivity to the previously passive experience of using a television. It seems appropriate then that on the Apple TV, interactive entertainment in the form of games will remain a top-tier use case for the device. This is great news for indie developers who happen to be interested in game development, but for those of us who have tended to focus on productivity or creative software, there is little to lure us here, either.
  3. Interactive entertainment. In addition to the passive video programming that we associate most closely with television, there is an opportunity to engage users with the level of interactivity found in games, but with an aim to educate or entertain in a non-goal-oriented sense. For example, an app that makes it easy to kick back on the couch and subject oneself to a never-ending supply of dictionary definitions, or Wikipedia articles, would fit in here. Indie developers may have opportunities here because or the large amount of open sourced or government owned data that could be leveraged to build apps that present this data in novel and engaging ways.
  4. Interactive construction. The default input device for the Apple TV, the Siri remote, is pretty limiting for tasks like text input and other productivity-oriented tasks that we take for granted on a computer or iOS device. But what it lacks in precision it makes up for in crude expressiveness. Imagine apps that leverage the expressiveness of the remote’s touchscreen, or its ability to reckon its ever-shifting position in 3D space. Imagine a family gathered around the dining table, with a large blank piece of butcher paper and a variety of creative tools on hand. What does the family do to the paper? Anything you can imagine that empowers a family to be collaboratively creative on the screen, as they would otherwise be on that paper, is a potential hit for the Apple TV.

What am I missing? I know there must be huge categories of Apple TV app ideas that are going to be obvious in retrospect. Two years from now, we’ll look back at a hopefully robust catalog of Apple TV software and find many examples of classic “if only I had thought of that!” ideas. I’m still fairly skeptical that I’ll be one of the developers who stumbles on groundbreaking ideas for the platform, but I credit the Apple Tech Talk with at least getting my thinking moving in the right direction.