Adam Sandler using a remote control

Remote control

E&T looks at the latest consumer technology in remote control devices that are self learning and use new wireless protocols such as Bluetooth, wireless USB and Zigbee.

Nothing beats the feeling of coming home after a hard day's work, slumping on the sofa, picking up the remote and turning on your TV, set-top box, music system, DVR, DVD player, Blu-ray player the choice is yours.

The remote control seems to epitomise how we relax at home in the modern environment so much so that we take the humble little box of electronics for granted.

Virtually all of the audio and video devices in the home can be controlled by remote. However, despite many efforts by home-automation enthusiasts, extending the remote realm beyond these entertainment devices has been less successful.

One classic example was the Clapper 'Clap on! Clap off!' a sound-activated electrical switch marketed by Joseph Enterprises in the US in the early 1980s.

The extension of remote control functionality throughout the average dwelling requires the engagement of a custom installation company, which will for a price enable all your white goods, brown goods, lights, curtains and garage doors to be controlled by a single box of tricks.

The modern reality of course is that we all have a handful of remotes jostling for position on our chair arms. The one drawback when we do finally slump down after a hard day's work, is the inevitable fumble down the side of the sofa for the right remote. Not only this, but they all look the same, don't they? And when you finally chance upon the right one, the complexity of modern electrical hardware means the buttons are numerous, tiny and covered in unfathomable iconography.

A history of the remote control

So how have we arrived at this situation? The remote control is supposed to simplify our home life and not make it more complicated.

Remote controls first started to appear in the 1950s. Several wired (yes, wired) and wireless protocols were experimented with, such as ultra-sound and radio waves. Both these proved problematic: if your neighbour happened to have the same model of TV as you, you were likely to become embroiled in a primetime remotes control shootout, controlling one another's TVs through the wall. Additionally, ultra sound was still audible to pets and younger people.

Eventually, infrared remote controls became the most common device for television sets. Their simple line-of-sight and relative low-power operation solved most problems.

However, by the late 1970s, TVs started to get more complicated particularly with the popularity of the BBC's teletext services, which was soon adopted in other countries. We began to ask our remote controls to take on a hefty burden, which now, with the explosion of channels, interactivity, and other functionality, has rendered the average a remote control as virtually indistinguishable from an expensive smartphone.

The amount of gadgetry that is connected to or near to our television sets has multiplied in recent years. The 1980s saw the arrival of the video cassette recorder. Although these are now all but replaced by disc players, the average living room is now likely to also have a set-top box and in the future a media streaming device as well. Additionally, media players have also bought into the remote control game.

Universal Remote

So we see simplicity has created complexity of a completely new level. Enter the universal remote control, with the airy promise of simplifying everything again by allowing one controller to emulate the functions of all of other controllers at once.

When these first started to appear, what they had to do was fairly simple. All the device had to have is the remote control codes of all the television sets, VCRs, set top boxes, and DVD players manufactured embedded in the device.

By simply tapping in the code of the device in your possession, it would emulate the activity of that particular remote. Several devices could now be controlled by one clicker, but the growth of the consumer technology industry and amount of manufacturers now means that it is impossible now to future-proof these types of devices.

The solution was first proposed by Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple. When Wozniak first parted company with Apple, his first pet project was to develop a remote control device that had the capacity to learn from other remotes. Moreover, code could also be downloaded from a computer with an attached modem revolutionary for the mid 1980s.

Despite gaining a following among home automation enthusiasts, it never managed to break into the mainstream. But many of Wozniak's innovations have been adopted by other manufacturers.

Canadian company Harmony, now part of Logitech, developed a device based on a similar principle. With the ubiquity of the Internet, many of Wozniak's innovations could now work much better than before.

To make things simple for users, when one person used their existing remote to teach the Harmony remote, this information could then be uploaded to the Harmony website for other users to download. Thus the vast complexity of remote controlled devices could be crowd-sourced: once a device had been learned once by any user, it would never have to be learned again.

Line of sight and zigbee

But there is another problem that remote control devices now have to solve. Whereas infrared solved initial problems of compatibility low-power use, it has created the problem that the device being controlled has to be in the line of sight of the device in question.

This is a problem for those functional devices that consumers would prefer to stow away such as set-top boxes.

A quick look around at the typical electrical department of an out-of-town DIY store reveals not a single product containing a ZigBee controller. However, Bob Heile, chairman of the ZigBee alliance believes that ZigBee will be the future of remote control.

ZigBee is a wireless control protocol developed for use in both industrial and consumer settings. It can solve the problem of compatibility by using a pairing process (similar to pairing your Bluetooth headset with your mobile phone).

According to Heile, there has been progress on the home front, but it has been slow. There are products in the US, but the rest of the world has still to catch up.

Among the main developments, claims Heile, is the inclusion of ZigBee controllers in Sony's and Panasonic's higher-end flat-screen TVs. Uptake by the A/V industry is crucial if ZigBee is really to take off in the home.

'I, like many consumers have more than one box underneath my TV and the flashing LEDs are bothersome. I would rather hide them in a cabinet, but infrared remote control means that I cannot,' claims Heile.

But the ZigBee Alliance needs to start educating consumers about ZigBee. Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and USB had big backers from the computer industry. If companies like Sony, Panasonic, Philips, LG and Samsung can agree to support it with an interoperable operating platform above the radio transmission stack and market it together than this would certainly help to popularise the standard.

This is a tall order for the consumer tech industry that historically has had a Darwinian attitude to new industry standards. A recent example has been HD-DVD versus Blu-ray.

In the meantime, anyone with a big enough wallet will have to root out those custom installation specialists.

But let us not dismiss other standards just yet. In recent years, the USB Consortium has been talking up the possibility of wireless USB being a viable control protocol in the home. However, wireless USB products have still to reach stores in significant numbers.

Another protocol in the mix could be Bluetooth. At first glance, it seems like an obvious extension. The protocol already has the pairing process built in; and it's ubiquitous on mobile devices and computers. But detractors point out that it works in the crowded 2.4 GHz band and its range does not extend room-to-room.

But as stated, the success of any successor to IR will depend on industry acceptance and consumerunderstanding of the technology.

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