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CR Talks To: Michael de Nigris, co-founder and CEO of Autonomic Controls : A Space for Apple

Autonomic Controls makes it easy to work Apple TV into your projects.

June 2010 By CR Staff

We've come to count on Apple to deliver the greatest innovations in electronic entertainment. Apple gave us the iPod, which revolutionized the way we listen to music. It gave us the iPhone, which changed the way we use personal communications. But when it comes to incorporating Apple technology into custom home entertainment systems, things can get complicated. After all, Apple designs products for the mass market, not for integrators.

Case in point: Apple TV. This 7½-inch-square box delivers an extraordinary variety of home entertainment options, from high-definition movies and TV to music, podcasts, Internet radio and YouTube—and it's all as easy to access as a song on an iPod. Simple as it may be to work Apple TV, though, its creators designed it for use with the basic remote included in the box. Try integrating Apple TV with home automation systems, and you'll wish you had a degree in computer science.

"Apple TV runs on a highly complex HTTP protocol that was designed for networking products," said Michael de Nigris, co-founder and CEO of Autonomic Controls, a company that specializes in software for integrating computer-based products with home automation systems. "Its design isn't conducive to working with typical home automation products."

Fortunately for integrators, Autonomic has created a software module that allows AMX, Crestron and Universal Remote Control systems to operate Apple TV. "We have many thousands of hours of programming invested in this project," de Nigris said. "Ninety-nine percent of integration firms wouldn't have the time or resources to get something like this working."

A Miniature Media Server

Most integrators haven't paid Apple TV much attention, which is understandable because the device doesn't seem to fit with a custom audio/video system. Yet when it comes to accessing audio and video sourced from a hard drive or from the Internet, it offers tremendous advantages over computers and iPods.

Apple TV is basically an audio/video storage device with wired and wireless network/Internet connections. It works through Apple's iTunes interface and can access the iTunes website just as a computer. When connected to a home network, Apple TV automatically synchronizes itself with a computer in the same way an iPod does, transferring all of the computer's iTunes-related content—music, videos, podcasts, etc.—onto its own 160-gigabyte internal hard drive. That's more storage capacity than you'll find on any but the very latest and most expensive iPods.

The back panel of the Apple TV box has the same outputs found on a typical DVD player, including HDMI, component video, optical digital audio and stereo audio, so it connects easily to any TV, home theater or audio system. It's much easier, more elegant, and more convenient than attempting to connect a computer to a TV set.

"The most compelling advantage for Apple TV in an integrated home system is that it provides a much more elegant solution than an iPod dock," de Nigris pointed out. Many multiroom and home theater systems now include an iPod dock so their owners can play music from the iPod through the system, but according to de Nigris, that's no graceful solution. "The problem is, the iPod wasn't designed to be part of a permanent installation," he continued. "If you take it jogging or leave it at work, no one else can access the music on it. That's never a problem with Apple TV. Also, Apple TV can output digital audio through HDMI or an optical output, so it can deliver better fidelity than an iPod."

Unlike an iPod, Apple TV offers numerous entertainment options directly through iTunes, even if the host computer is turned off or disconnected. Through Apple TV's on-screen interface, the homeowner can purchase music; rent thousands of Hollywood movies in either standard- or high-definition; watch more than 50,000 TV episodes without commercials; listen to podcasts and Internet radio; view photos; and watch any of the millions of videos available through YouTube. Music and video purchased through Apple TV can be automatically synchronized back to the host computer—and from there to an iPod.

At $229, Apple TV costs so little that an integrator can install a stack of them, one for each entertainment zone or each family member, so there's no chance of conflicts when two people are trying to access iTunes content.

How the Autonomic Interface Works

From a consumer standpoint, the downside of Apple TV is that its control screens can normally be accessed only through a connected video display—which means you have to turn on your TV in order to use Apple TV. There's also no easy way to control it from another room, or from anything other than the tiny remote Apple supplies. According to de Nigris, Autonomic's Apple TV module fixes this problem easily. "You can just snap this module into your Crestron or AMX programming," he said.

The Autonomic module brings complete control of Apple TV—and full access to Apple TV's iTunes library—to home automation touchscreens, in-wall control panels and remote controls. Through any of these, clients can browse all of the material available through Apple TV, and select it for playback in any room equipped with a control interface and a playback system. The song title, album name and artist name for the tune currently playing can appear on a touchscreen or in-wall display. "It works on anything from a handheld controller with a postage-stamp-sized LCD all the way up to the biggest touchscreens," de Nigris said.

"It can also control any computer running iTunes," he added. "We've had integrators use it to control things like a Mac mini."

The Apple TV module consists of two parts: the control code installed on an AMX or Crestron processor, and the graphic interface that appears on the touchscreens.

de Nigris said that integrators can easily adapt their own interface designs to work with Autonomic's module—and can also use the Autonomic interface as a template for the entire home automation system. "They can implement our controls with their interface, or use our interface to control everything in the house. In fact, we've had integrators purchase our modules just to get their hands on the UI design."

Autonomic licenses its Apple TV module per home automation central processor—which in most cases will mean one license per home. "You can have one or 100 Apple TVs and one or 100 controllers in one job, and the price is the same," de Nirgis said. Pricing is comparable to that of other third-party Crestron and AMX modules and graphic templates; a full price list is available through Autonomic Controls.

"The integrator has to do some work to get our software into the system," de Nigris continued. "The basic operation takes only about 30 minutes. However, it can get a lot more involved depending on the number of Apple TVs, the number of control devices, and the level of automation the client wants. Some of these projects have highly customized macros—for example, a customer may request that a specific music playlist begins playing automatically when the alarm system is disabled."

de Nigris said that integrators can be assured of a seamless process because his company has worked closely with home automation manufacturers during its software development. "We've worked directly with AMX to integrate our code with the AMX Home System," he said. "We're right across the Hudson River from Crestron, and have been working with them to make sure our software is compatible with their System Builder rapid programming module."

One particularly compelling benefit of the Internet Protocol (IP) control architecture used by Apple is that it allows Autonomic's Apple TV module to control network audio devices that support AirTunes, the company's audio streaming technology. The Apple TV control module has a screen that allows audio content from any connected Apple TV to be sent to any AirTunes-compatible device on the network, which can be connected to an amp and speakers. While it's possible to use this capability to create an entire multiroom system, de Nigris suggested that it's more likely an integrator would use it to send iTunes content to one or two zones that are hard to reach with wires—such as an outdoor patio or pool house.

Integrators who work mostly with simpler control systems can benefit from Autonomic's technology even if they're not putting in AMX or Crestron systems. The same control module is now included with Universal Remote Control's MX-6000 touchscreen remote at no additional charge. "We're in contact with more than one other manufacturer right now, with the goal being to license our control system to them for use in their products," de Nigris reported.

No matter how integrators choose to implement Autonomic Controls' new Apple TV module, it will open up exciting new possibilities in home entertainment. "This changes the way that integrators will work with iTunes content," de Nigris concluded. CR



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