Peel turns your iPhone into a universal remote -- using a wireless external IR blaster

The idea of using an iPhone or iPod touch as a universal remote has been tossed around for years, but it's always required either a finicky external dongle or an extravagantly expensive home automation rig. Instead, we've been treated to a host of single-device remote apps for everything from FiOS, DirecTV, Comcast, and Dish Network DVRs to the Apple TV to the Boxee Box to... well, you name it. A little company called Peel has a dramatically different idea, though -- it's launching the Peel Universal Control system, which is designed to take your iPhone or iPod touch head-to-head with universal remote heavyweights like Logitech's Harmony system.

The company is made up of a bunch of former Apple engineers, and their solution is extremely novel: instead of attaching a dongle to the iPhone itself, they're controlling your A/V rack using a pear-sized (and Yves Behar-designed) wireless IR blaster that's supposed to live quietly on your coffee table. The blaster (called the Peel Fruit) connects over ZigBee to a tiny network adapter (the Peel Cable, also designed by Behar) that attaches directly to an open Ethernet port on your WiFi router -- a two-part hardware setup that seems fussy, but is designed to obviate the need for software configuration during installation, and allows the IR blaster to run for nine months on a single C battery.

As you're probably aware, we're famously suspicious of any system that requires IR blasters, and what Peel's proposing here seems like the most intense IR blaster of all time -- so what's the upside? Well, the Peel TV guide app has been in the iPhone App Store since October, and it's gotten some great reviews -- in addition to simply displaying and searching what's on, it uses a recommendation engine to show you things you might like based on a variety of criteria that get more refined over time. Once you find something you're interested in, it's now just another tap to change the channel. The idea is to make finding shows the primary function of the remote, not simple control. The lack of hardware buttons for commonly-used controls like volume and channel is addressed with gesture support -- you can just swipe vertically to raise the volume, for example. It's definitely slick, and it looked like it worked well during our quick demo period.

Of course, there are downsides here, most notably being that Peel can't do much more than control your channel and volume right now -- although support for things like Roku, Apple TV, and the Xbox 360 are coming, right now you're pretty much stuck with controlling your cable box. The Peel app also only lists live TV results at the moment, so finding content on Netflix or iTunes or Amazon is currently out, and we're very curious to see how Peel deals with running a DVR -- will it remember what we've recorded? We're also wary of some of the extremely negative reviews for the Peel app's gotten for being crashy -- we haven't had any problems, but a remote that crashes just won't cut it. We'll have to check this out in much closer detail when we review it, we suppose.

So how much will this extremely unique system cost? Well, pricing is equally unique: the first batch will be sold for whatever consumers are willing to pay. Pre-order customers will simply make an offer on the Peel website, and those making the best offer will get the first units. After that, the system will be available in major online and physical retailers -- given the company's focus on Harmony, we'd expect pricing to settle between $100 and $200, but that's just a guess. Oh, and the Peel Fruit is actually two pieces -- the bottom half contains all the working bits, while the top half is just decorative and can be swapped out. That's great, because the Behar-selected hospital-beige top piece that ships by default is super-nasty looking -- we'd like to see something in all-black, or better, nothing at all. Whatever the case, we're definitely interested in trying this whole thing out when it hits in "a matter of weeks" -- stay tuned.

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Peel announces Peel universal control for iPhone®: a user-friendly TV discovery guide and universal remote control for home entertainment systems

New features and hardware for the free Peel app give TV viewers a unique way to control of thousands of home entertainment components, including set top boxes, TVs, home theater receivers, Blu-ray players and more. The price for personalized control? Whatever you want to pay.

SANTA CLARA, CA, Dec. 8, 2010 – Peel announced today that new hardware allowing the free Peel discovery iPhone app to control home entertainment systems. This new system brings a new level of simplicity and personalization to discovery and control of television programming. Peel universal control will be available on retail shelves in a matter of weeks.
"Peel feels that channels have become irrelevant to viewers, and networks and sources have become too complicated. When the audience turns on their TV, they're doing so to see their shows, movies, and sports. That's why the Peel universal control centers around programs, not long, boring grids or tons of buttons. Watching, sharing, and favoriting shows are just one tap away, and you can control your whole entertainment system with easy gestures. Swipe up, and your volume goes up. It's that simple," said Thiru Arunachalam, co-founder and CEO of Peel.

The Peel discovery app
The Peel app was launched in October to enthusiastic reviews, largely centered on the sleek, simple interface. Opening the free app takes a user through a simple setup process that identifies programming sources including cable, satellite, internet, and telephone systems and devices, as well as show, movie, and sports preferences. Once setup is complete, the Top Picks screen welcomes the user to a personalized program guide suggesting shows based on those preferences. Tap a show, and you'll see episode information including the time and channel on which the show appears, lead actors, and a show synopsis. From this screen, easy interaction points, including selecting the show as a favorite and sharing it via Facebook and Twitter, help the app to learn an individual's show preferences, tailoring further the recommendation engine that powers the Top Picks. Swiping side to side allows you to scroll through the show cards of your other recommendations for a great summary of available programs. No matter what you feel like watching, from comedy to drama to all your favorite sports, all the top choices sit at your fingertips.

Peel universal control
The beautifully designed Peel universal control system allows the Peel discovery app to seamlessly connect viewers to their shows and control their entertainment systems, right from an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch. The Peel hardware consists of two pieces: the Peel cable and the Peel fruit. Designed by renowned product designer Yves Behar of fuseproject, the hardware was carefully approached to fit beautifully in any home entertainment configuration.

"Since there is only one piece of the system that is visible in the living room, we wanted it to be beautiful and independent of traditional remote control systems. We approached Yves because of his reputation of taking a different spin in product design, which is apparent in every product he's ever created. Yves was just as thrilled with our notion of putting the audience first, and the results were outstanding. The Peel universal control is just as unique as it is elegant," said Bala Krishnan, a co-founder who now serves as head of product for Peel.

The Peel fruit sits within line-of-sight of a user's entertainment system, and it's the only visible piece of the system. Cluttered piles of remote controls, hundreds of buttons controlling thousands of confusing interfaces, and searching for a lost remote are things of the past as a single, simple, gesture-based interface takes over volume, channels, menu systems and more. There's nothing to plug into the iPhone, and the second piece of the system is designed to plug directly in to a power outlet on one end and the ethernet port of a wireless router on the other.
The careful integration of the Peel discovery app with Peel universal control allows the system to recommend top viewing choices from a user's available sources, then begin a show with one tap. Over time, Peel learns an individual's viewing patterns including time of day, premium channels, sporting events and more, and the suggested shows become better tailored. After a show has been chosen, the interface was designed to be used without having to take one's eyes away from the TV.

"We felt that the interaction points for finding programming, accessing it, and then controlling your system are all different. When you're searching for a program, you want the guide up close, clear, and easy to navigate. However, once you're watching, your attention should be on the TV screen. For that reason, we designed the Peel universal control interface to work intuitively without having to look at the iPhone screen. It's a totally new model for touchscreen interfaces: you never have to point the phone at anything, there are no cables or attachments, and the system responds instantly. It's really cool, and our beta users have been thrilled," said Greg Lindley, Chief Experience Officer for Peel.

What will you pay for Peel?
As part of Peel's commitment to place simple control back in the hands of consumers, Peel is running a social campaign to help determine hardware pricing. Further, a limited quantity of the first units to be manufactured are available directly from Peel – for whatever consumers are willing to pay. Consumers can simply make an offer on the Peel website, and the first units available will be shipped directly to the customers making the best offer. After that quantity is sold, Peel universal control will be available in major online and retail stores. Users of the Peel discovery app will also be able to purchase the control system through the app.

"For too long, audiences have been forced to change the way they watch and find programs around the demands of difficult guides, grids, and multiple remote controls with hundreds of confusing buttons. Peel was created to give control back to people who really just want to watch their favorite TV shows, and our first pricing model echoes our commitment to those users. We know our solution is valuable–comparable remote systems start over $200, but we want our first users to judge its value first-hand. As they experience the 'aha moment' when their entertainment system wraps around their own preferences rather than the other way around, we expect a revolution in show discovery and control. It's still your shows on your TV, but it's much friendlier and much more fun to use," said Alec Marshall, VP of Marketing at Peel.

Peel universal control works with iPhone OS 3 and above, and it controls thousands of models of TVs, DVD and Blu-ray players, cable and satellite boxes, internet-connected streaming devices like Roku, Tivo and Apple TV, and home theater receivers. The Peel discovery app is available to download free from the App Store, and it works without the hardware to provide tailored show suggestions and viewing information. Adding the hardware is a seamless update, and it can be done without losing a user's viewing preferences.

About Peel
Peel operated in near-stealth mode since 2009, breaking silence just long enough to be recognized as a CES Innovations Honoree for their revolutionary discovery system. After early angel financing, Peel entered Series A financing with Redpoint Ventures, known for their successful endeavors in consumer entertainment and interactive media. Peel delivers on their promise of making TV more friendly-for discovery, control, and shared entertainment experiences.