The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted Apple U.S. Patent No. 8,634,944 for "Auto-station tuning," which can be summarized as an automatic media playlist generator that is able to switch between a variety of sources based on user preferences.
While Apple has patented similar technology in the past, such as an invention that allows users to automatically skip commercials, Tuesday's property is more extensive in scope. For example, the auto-tuning patent covers radio broadcasts, television broadcasts, Internet audio and video streams, satellite radio, on-board media and more.
In practice, the receiving device can be configured by the user to play back a certain type of media as specified by metadata preferences. This traditional playlist creation feature is currently seen in Apple's "Genius Playlist" functionality. The patent goes further, however, by taking other sources like FM or Internet radio into consideration.
As described, the system can analyze data from multiple media streams to determine what is currently playing and, more importantly, what will be played next. Using this information, the device can dynamically switch "stations," or media streams, based on user-defined parameters.
For example, a user may tell the device to tune to a different FM radio station when an advertisement is detected. In other embodiments, a given configuration may change the stream from FM output to on-board content if user specifications are not met.
The process begins with the content procurement engine, which gathers audio or visual media based on predefined selection criteria. Examples include artist, genre, volume level and keyword, among others. According to user preferences for a particular station, the procurement engine may analyze and select content for playback by switching sources.
As for content analysis, metadata can be used to detect what song or show is currently playing and what is coming up next. More advanced techniques would analyze the content itself by applying threshold limits to the media, such as volume, hue, color and more, to determine whether a user's preferences are met.
Carrying on with the advertisement example, if the system detects that a broadcast radio station is playing or about to play an ad, it can switch to another stream. Unique to the patent is the crossover to other sources, like a user's own song or video catalog.
In some embodiments, the user is able to assign a weighting system to playlist generation. For example, they can prefer a particular artist or album, which will then dynamically change the playlist to push content by said artist to the top.
If scheduling conflicts arise between content currently being played and other preferred media, the device may record the song or show and insert it into the playlist at a later time.
In almost all cases, the method of playback is controlled by triggers. More common occurrences maybe a song ending or an alarm, though the invention provides for other scenarios as well. For example, a particular song may be played back when a text message comes in or when a hyperlink is activated for a particular web page.
The entire system is controlled via a graphical user interface that mimics a radio with a tuning dial. Like the frequency spectrum represented by an FM radio tuner, the "navigation stream" displays a list of "stations" that can be previewed through "tuning." Excerpts from a station's media presets may be presented when scanning through the stream, while gestures can be used to select a station.
It is unknown if Apple is looking to roll out a feature similar to the auto-station tuning patent in the near future, though the invention would be a good fit for iTunes Radio and purchased iTunes content.
In addition, with the iPhone's advanced cellular data capabilities, an Internet radio/television solution could be a unique entrant into a field already saturated with music discovery services. For example, a user can listen to a playlist populated with their favorite music while waiting for a particular television program to come on, which would automatically begin playback at the appropriate time.
Apple's auto-station tuning patent was first filed for in 2008 and credits William Bull and Ben Rottler as its inventors.