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Sonos TV: The scoop on the speaker maker’s streaming device plans

Also: Apple's 3D videos arrive on Meta's Quest

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Welcome to Lowpass! This week: The scoop on the Sonos’ living room plans, and the Quest’s new immersive video feature.

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How Sonos wants to compete with existing streaming devices

Sonos is working on its own TV streaming device, and the company has some interesting ideas for making its streamer stand out from the rest. A previously unreported patent application shows that Sonos TV, as the product is being called in drawings accompanying the application, makes heavy use of mobile phones for setup, control and content discovery. The application also suggests that Sonos may have a secret weapon up its sleeve to convince existing Sonos soundbar owners to buy into its vision for the future of TV.

Asked for comment, a Sonos spokesperson sent me the following statement: “We’re in a perpetual state of invention at Sonos, building on the 3000+ patents we have to date. You will continue to see us deliver new inventions, some in categories we’re in, some in categories we could envision entering in the future. We don’t share details on our patents or future roadmap.”

There have been rumblings about a Sonos-made streaming device for some time: I was first to report two years ago that Sonos was hiring staffers to build a “home theater OS,” and that it had been exploring ways to more directly integrate with TVs for a number of years. Late last year, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman followed up with the revelation that Sonos had plans to launch a streaming box code-named “Pinewood” in late 2024 or early 2025. The box will cost between $150 and $200 and is based on Android, according to Gurman.

Sonos TV is all about second-screen control. Gurman also mentioned in his report that the streamer will be controlled via voice as well as a new Sonos app, and the now-surfaced patent application shows just how big of a role phones and tablets are playing in controlling Sonos TV.

  • Throughout the application, Sonos keeps highlighting how the traditional way of controlling streaming devices – with a remote to navigate through on-screen displays – is cumbersome.

  • “The use of a smartphone (...) is far simpler than navigating a conventional television menu,” the application states, adding that using phones instead of remotes “can offer an improved user experience across a wide range of activities.”

  • But it’s not enough to just replicate the remote on your phone, according to Sonos. “While using a smartphone as a virtual remote provides certain benefits over conventional remotes, the functionality offered via such virtual remotes remains sparse and poorly integrated with the user's experience via the primary display,” the patent application states.

  • Sure, other companies have tried second-screen control before. But according to Sonos, they just didn’t try hard enough. “In general, the secondary display of the user's control device is treated as an afterthought, and the content available via such displays is inadequate to justify the hassle of managing yet another remote.”

  • The $200 question, if you will, is this: Will Sonos even include a physical remote in the box once it starts shipping Sonos TV? The patent application certainly doesn’t make it sound like it.

Setting up Sonos TV.

It all starts with the setup. Drawings included in the application show that the Sonos TV setup process begins within a mobile app, which can be used to scan a barcode displayed on the TV screen.

  • “As users are generally far more adept at using a smartphone than clicking through a television-based interface, this approach can greatly improve the user experience during setup,” the filing states. 

  • “Additionally, because the user's control device may be a smartphone that already includes other applications associated with media services (e.g., Netflix, Apple TV+, etc.), the user account information can be pre-loaded in a manner that expedites setup of the video playback device,” it adds.

Installing apps on Sonos TV.

  • Using a phone to help with the installation of a streaming device isn’t entirely new, but pre-populating the streamer with the apps someone already uses on their mobile device is smart.

  • But Sonos doesn’t want to stop there: “In this arrangement, there is no need for an ‘app store’ for the video playback device itself, nor for the manual updates or removal of apps from the video playback device, because app management can be handled completely through the control device.”

  • You read that right: Sonos TV may not even have an app store that’s browsable on TV, but instead rely entirely on people’s phones to install new apps.

At this point, it’s probably worth taking a quick break. Take some deep breaths, if you will. Not having an app store sounds like a crazy idea, especially in a world in which Google has gone full circle and added both a remote and an app store to its Chromecast streamer. 

It’s worth keeping in mind that companies apply for patents for all kinds of things all the time. Some applications don’t have anything to do with actual future products. Some do, but also mention a bunch of other possible variations of that product that ultimately don’t get built. 

Having read my fair share of patents and patent applications over the years, I have a pretty good gut feeling about this one. I’m not convinced that Sonos TV will ultimately ship without an app store, and I fully expect the final UI to look different than the images included in the filing. However, I do think the application is opinionated and detailed enough to give us a general idea of what the device will be all about.

Connecting to your friends on Sonos TV.

Friends & Family is big for Sonos TV. That includes a heavy emphasis on social features, which are instrumental to content discovery for the device.

  • The patent application suggests that new users will be encouraged to connect to contacts who also use Sonos TV during the setup process.

  • Those contacts can then recommend content to each other, which Sonos will highlight in a “Friends & Family” section of the app.

  • At times, Sonos uses the term friends pretty loosely: “In some instances, the ‘friends’ may be organizations or institutions, such as content sites like IMDb, Vevo, etc., which can curate lists and recommend media content to users who are connected to them via the control application,” the application states.

Recommendations from friends.

  • Sonos has also put some thought into improving family movie night: The second-screen app will include a “Browse Together” mode that can be initiated when multiple people are present, and help them figure out what to watch together.

  • Sonos TV is using personalization throughout, and may for instance display different suggested content based on the time of day. “For example, if the user plays Xbox on Monday and Tuesday evenings, around those same times for those days, the game most recently played may be presented on those days,” the application reads.

The family movie night feature.

  • Sonos TV apparently is going to suggest different types of related content, with some speaking to the company’s core strengths. One illustration shows the second-screen app displaying a suggestion for an 80s station from the company’s Sonos Radio service on a page for the Netflix show “Stranger Things.”

  • Sonos TV will also offer seamless media transfer. “This can permit a user, for example, to begin watching a movie via a television in the basement, then switch to watching the movie on her smartphone while taking out the trash, and finally to finish watching the movie via a second television in her bedroom,” the filing explains.

How Sonos may want to convince you to get Sonos TV. The streaming hardware market is pretty saturated already. Amazon, Roku, Google and Apple all make their own streaming devices, which are increasingly competing with smart TVs from companies like Samsung and LG. So why would anyone buy a Sonos streamer? I’ve thought about this a lot, and I think I may have come up with an answer:

  • Sonos has long relied on repeat customers for growing its business. This means that Sonos TV is primarily a product for people who already own Sonos gear, including the company’s soundbars, and not for someone just looking for a Roku-like dongle.

  • Soundbars have been a great business for Sonos, but consumers do occasionally struggle with audio / video sync issues. 

  • And then there are those pesky cables: Companies like LG, Samsung and even Roku have all begun to sell wireless soundbars that don’t need to be plugged into their TVs anymore. Sonos soundbars on the other hand depend on HDMI or optical cables, which has led some customers to explore workarounds.

  • With a dedicated streaming box, Sonos can control the entire audio and video path, which takes care of those sync issues. The company can potentially also offer wireless audio for its soundbars, doing away with the need for HDMI cables.

  • The problem with this approach is that Sonos still doesn’t control the TV, and anything that connects directly to it. Like a cable box, or an Xbox, for example.

Sonos TV may have HDMI pass-through.

  • However, here’s something intriguing: One of the illustrations included in the patent application shows what amounts to a streaming device with multiple HDMI input ports, with a Blu-Ray player, a game console and a cable box directly plugged into the streaming device.

  • This would allow Sonos TV to keep audio from any of those third-party devices in perfect sync across the entire home theater without the need for an HDMI cable connecting the TV to a soundbar.

Sonos needs to find an angle to set Sonos TV apart from the competition if it’s serious about the TV space. Simply offering a different UI, or a browse together feature, just doesn’t cut it. But being able to promise people who have invested $2000 or more into their Sonos home theater to get rid of all their audio sync issues (and perhaps that ugly HDMI cable to boot) may just be a winning proposition.

Enjoy reading stories like this one? Then please consider upgrading to the $8 a month / $80 a year paid tier to support my reporting, and get access to the full Lowpass newsletter every week.


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Meta’s Quest gets Apple’s 3D videos before Apple’s Vision Pro gets VR videos

It’s only been a week since Apple launched its Vision Pro headset, and Meta is already having a bit of a fast follower moment. Case in point: The social networking giant added support for Apple’s new Spatial Video format to the latest Meta Quest update, and now allows iPhone 15 Pro users to upload spatial videos to the headset.

  • Spatial videos are basically stereoscopic 3D videos, which the iPhone 15 Pro can record thanks to its two camera lenses. (VP Land has some more technical details on the format.)

  • On the Vision Pro, and now the Meta Quest, these videos are being presented as framed, similar to how you would watch 2D videos, albeit with some added 3D depth.

  • And you don’t need to have an iPhone 15 Pro to try it out: Meta added a few example clips to its update, including for some reason a recording of Meta CTO Andrew Bosworth having a cookout at the beach.

Adding spatial video support to the Quest is a nice-to-have update, but it also shows some fundamental differences between Apple’s and Meta’s approach to this space. Meta seems to be happy about the extra attention 3D and VR videos are getting thanks to the Vision Pro launch, and eager to embrace anything and everything that results in people using their headsets more often.

Apple on the other hand appears concerned that people may get the wrong impression if videos aren’t up to the Vision Pro’s high visual fidelity standards. The company told The Verge’s Nilay Patel that it has no plans to add support for existing 180-degree and 360-degree VR videos on YouTube and elsewhere, with a spokesperson saying that “much of this content was created for devices that do not deliver a high-quality spatial experience.”

That not only prevents Apple Vision Pro users from watching many of the VR documentaries and more than have been produced over the past ten or so years. It has also made it more challenging to access adult content, as some Vision Pro owners already found out.

That is, one might add, until VR porn sites inevitably embrace Apple’s new spatial video format …

What else

Disney is investing $1.5 billion in Epic Games. Get ready for the Fortnite cinematic universe ..

Niantic CEO John Hanke’s take on the Vision Pro. “Let’s (…) not get sidetracked by an indoor-centric vision of spatial computing,” Hanke writes. (I disagree, but understand where he comes from.)

Apple services revenue tops $23 billion in Q4. Services revenue grew 11%, thanks to the company’s 2.2 billion active devices.

Roblox releases real-time AI chat translator. Roblox’s AI translator already supports 16 languages, including English, French, Japanese, Thai, Polish, and Vietnamese.

ESPN, Fox and Warner are joining forces to stream sports, and they somehow forgot to tell the sports leagues about this?

iFixit has taken apart a Vision Pro and published a two-part teardown report.

Spotify ends 2023 with 236 million paying subscribers. The music service now has 602 million monthly active users.

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The Disney+ password sharing crackdown is coming. Disney is essentially copying Netflix’s approach to password sharing, complete with an option to add freeloaders friends and family to your account.

That’s it

Here’s a tidbit that will date me: When I began to use the internet, people would get upset if your email signature consisted of more than three lines. Those extra letters would waste precious bandwidth, or so the argument went.

A few decades later, no one loses any sleep anymore about a few extra bytes. Still, I may have internalized some of that early frugality, which is why I’ve been avoiding adding images to the email version of this newsletter.

I broke with that today as it made sense to add some illustrations to the Sonos story, but I am wondering: Do images in newsletters bother you? Or are they actually make reading this newsletter more fun? Would you like to see more illustrations? Product photos? Selfies? Let me know by responding to this email! And while you’re at it, feel free to waste as many bytes as you want 🙂

Thanks for reading, have a great weekend!

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