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.

ByNilay Patel