The only real problem with Apple TV’s photo screensaver is that my own photos aren’t up to scratch, and the limited ones Apple includes get old pretty quickly. What I really wanted was a way to get Flickr’s daily Explore section onto my Apple TV.


I picked up the tiny new Apple TV over the weekend and have really been enjoying it so far. Aside from all its other awesome features, it’s just nice to have some music streaming on the home theater system while nice big photos cycle through on the HDTV. Choose some ambient music, and it’s the ideal audio/video white noise for getting some work done.

The only real problem is a dearth of quality photos for the screensaver. My own photos aren’t up to scratch, and the limited ones Apple includes get old pretty quickly. What I really wanted was a screensaver with a large and constantly renewing set of high-quality photos.

Flickr Integration

The first thing I did was to have a look at the included Flickr integration to see if that provided a solution. You can use saved searches, and pull photos from Flickr contacts, but neither of those options really solved the problem. A saved search limits the scope and reduces the overall quality of the set, while contacts, no matter how good or prolific, just can’t provide enough material to keep things interesting. Eventually, I realized that the photos showing up on Flickr’s Explore page were the ones that I wanted.

Things Get Interesting

If you’re not familiar with how photos get picked to be featured on the explore page, it all has to do with a mysterious algorithm cooked up in the Flickr labs that calculates a photo’s interestingness. No one’s really sure exactly how a photo’s interestingness score is calculated, but it’s thought to involve some alchemical mixture of a photo’s tags, groups, comments, views, traffic, favorites, and other sundry properties. Whatever the exact ingredients may be, the top 500 interesting photos that end up on the explore page every day seem to be exactly what I’m looking for.

The problem is that there’s no real way to tell the Apple TV to use just those “interesting” photos for the screensaver. So, inspired by a couple of old and now defunct attempts to overcome this very same roadblock, I decided to write a quick PHP script and take advantage of the nice Flickr API to make it all work. I created a dummy flickr account named TABScreensaver which, thanks to my script, now marks each of the day’s most interesting photos as a favorite.

A Solution

Now, anyone who wants a large and constantly renewing collection of interesting photos for their Apple TV screensaver can simply add TABScreensaver as a Flickr contact and choose it’s favorite photos for the screensaver. Every evening, the set will be automatically updated with those photos picked to be featured on the Flickr explore page.

In the long run, I’d really like to see Apple improve the photo sharing features on the Apple TV so this kind of workaround isn’t necessary. It would be great if we could subscribe to RSS feeds with image enclosures, or add Flickr groups, or pull images from a Twitter stream, or combine sources, or lots of other cool stuff I’m too dim to think up. Who knows? Maybe if we get an App Store for it, our biggest problem will be sifting through a glut of Apple TV photo sharing apps trying to find the right one. It’ll be a nice problem to have.

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  1. I got my Apple TV on Friday and I was very surprised at the limited Flickr capabilities.

  2. I love it when people write of these features as if they are new or awesome. We’ve been able to do this on the current ATV for years now. Its not new, its not special. Its neat, but you are way late to the party…

  3. Thank you for taking the time to put this little hack for all of us to enjoy!!!

  4. Chris Johnson Monday, October 4, 2010

    Another way to add photos from a feed is to add the feed to iPhoto as a photo feed (for example: feed://www.boston.com/bigpicture/index.xml) and add the feed to the photo screen saver on the Apple TV. I think this also has to be set within iTunes. But it works.

  5. Bryan, thanks for this. Appreciate you going to the effort of setting up the Flickr account and PHP script.
    This is now running as the screen saver on my original AppleTV and will probably also feature on the AppleTV being delivered tomorrow!

  6. @Chris: I never thought about the Big Picture, but you’re right that would be a really great source to use as well, they always have amazing photos.

    @Richard: I’m glad you’re getting some use out of it. I was surprised they didn’t offer this as an option by default. Maybe in future versions.

    @B.Moore: Just “scratching my own itch” so to speak

  7. Thank you very much

  8. Thank you very much for this!

  9. Bryan Schuetz Monday, October 11, 2010

    I guess Flickr didn’t like me doing this because they seem to have suspended my account. I put a request into them this morning to find out what’s going on, I’m just using the API normally so I don’t know why there would be a problem. Hopefully they will turn it back on.

    1. It seems to be back. Good job!

      1. Nope, it’s gone. I heard from Flickr yesterday and they deleted the account for what they said were violations of the terms of service. I couldn’t get them to be specific and, as my script was just using regularly available functions of the API, I don’t see where any violations occured. Apparently Flickr has a history of fairly arbitrary decisions like this and tends to “delete first, and not as questions later”.

        The TABScreensaver name is now reserved, so I can’t recreate the account and start again. I suppose I could make a brand new account, but I have a feeling it would just be deleted by Flickr like the last one. Instead, I think I’ll try to find a way to aggregate all the BigPicture photos to the ATV instead.

  10. Thanks for this; just added the account and the favorites feed has over 500 images! Looks great 10ft. across! ;)

    Not sure if the feed is being updated or is static given you’ve said they suspended your account, but we’ll see in a few days (after seeing how many repeats there are).

    Thanks again!

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