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Apple patent application reinvents remote control for the smartphone age

The tech giant considers shrinking down the user interface on your TV and putting it on your phone as a way to navigate Apple TV.

A drawing used in Apple's patent application to describe a new kind of digital remote control. US Patent and Trademark Office

Apple says today's remote control is outdated.

The numbered buttons on the remote were great when channels had numbers, but now many streaming services instead use graphic interfaces to show off channels, movies and TV shows. Also, searching for something to watch by repeatedly typing in 1s and 2s can be cumbersome.

With that in mind, Apple laid out in a patent application published Thursday a new kind of digital remote control for its Apple TV set-top box that uses icons and pictures, similar to those graphic interfaces on TV, but shrunken down and customized for a smartphone or tablet computer. Apple filed the application with the US Patent and Trademark Office last March.

Apple already recreated the physical remote control, offering up a slim remote for the Apple TV with only a few buttons to navigate videos and music. The new patent application shows the company could one day remake the physical controller again by doing away with it completely. Such an idea would be similar to Google's Chromecast, a dongle with no physical remote that's controlled using a mobile devices.

The concepts in the patent application go a step further than the current Remote app from Apple, which lets people navigate Apple TV with a program that's similar to the mobile iTunes library interface. Instead, the new interface appears to be much more complex, with more graphics and features, and can be used on a smartphone, tablet or laptop.

The Apple TV and remote. CNET

An Apple representative didn't respond to a request for comment.

The $99 Apple TV , which connects to televisions to stream video over the Internet, has been less of a focus for the tech giant than its primary moneymakers, the iPhone smartphone and iPad tablet. More than two years have passed without a hardware update to Apple TV. Apple has also been slow to add channels to the device, especially when compared with competitors such as Roku, which has hundreds more channels. A software update, such as the new interface mentioned in the patent application, could increase interest in Apple TV, though the device still remains well behind in content partners.

Correction, 10:51 a.m. PT: This story incorrectly stated the type of document published Thursday. It is a patent application.