Remote controls, wireless and Linux

jwatte's picture

I have a home theater with a reasonably advanced remote control set-up -- the Universal Remote 950 MX. While having a conventional "remote stick" form factor, it is actually an embedded system running some small version of Windows CE. The remote sends RF signals on the 47 MHz "narrow" band to a receiver box in my equipment cabinet, and that box in turn drives flasher LEDs to control the various devices. This system, all in all, cost approximately zillions of dollars to set up, but it's reasonably robust. However, it has some problems.

1) The programming and smarts are in the remote, not the base unit. This means that if I want two remotes, I have to program two remotes, each of which is expensive (on the order of $500 each).

2) The narrow-band RF is somewhat sensitive to interference. I initially had a wide-band version, which would work or not based on the phase of the moon -- going narrowband made it "mostly reliable," but it's not perfect.

3) The display on the remote is black-and-white, not touch sensitive, and the UI is... basic. It's also one-way -- there is no feedback on what's going on, other than what I happen to be noticing (like, the volume gets louder, if there happens to be anything playing).

Some of my gear is smart enough to actually have bi-directional capability -- the receiver has a serial port, and the media PC (a macMini) runs Windows Vista, so it could talk to anything, any time, if it wanted. The Xbox and the Playstation could talk back -- as in, they have the necessary ports and smarts -- but they aren't actually programmed to do so. The Playstation is extra annoying -- it doesn't even have an IR receiver for remote control!

So, there are some things I want to see happening:

a) Some kind of universal remote control standard based on Ethernet, and a Rendez-Vous/mDNS-like service discovery protocol.
b) Ethernet jacks on all consumer electronics. We're actually pretty close -- even Blu-Ray players have Ethernet these days, for firmware upgrades and BD-Live. Receivers are generally computer-like devices on the inside -- some already come with Internet Radio, others don't.
c) WiFi based remote controls. Or, rather -- why not use your iTouch/Android/iPhone/WindowsPhone for remote control? Assuming the right protocols and standards are there, it would Just Work (tm).

While a service-level protocol would be "the embedded way" (commands like "list your commands and settings using some descriptor language" -- "read values" -- "write values"), there's really no reason these devices couldn't just have mini-web-servers that would control the devices. The UI for the remote controls would then just be a web browser. $50 wireless gateways can do it -- so why not $150, or $500, or $2,000 consumer electronics?

There may be a niche here. Perhaps you could take something like a ALIX box (the successor to WRAP) or an Atom motherboard, provide it with WiFi and Ethernet and IR flashers (for backwards compatibility), load some software on it, and make it a "home entertainment control hub." (Such devices often sell to high-end, custom installers for > $1000!) You could also buy the low end of WiFi devices with UI -- say, iTouch, Zune, etc -- and put custom software on them to act as remote controls. You'd have fancy, color, roaming wireless touch-screen remote control devices for < $200 each, and a home center controller for $300. This is assuming a narrow margin for the software -- if you were to turn this into a business, you'd probably want a mark-up of $100 per remote control device, and $200 for the hub. (Let's say there are 5,000 customers a year, on average buying one of each device -- that would give you $1.5M in gross margin, which is enough to sustain a small niche company).

Wouldn't that niche die when "remote control" just turns into web browsers? Well, yes -- but looking at the conservative nature of consumer electronics manufacturers, it's not clear that the market will go there anytime soon!

Creating the software has a pretty steep ramp-up, though -- device compatibility is a never-ending nightmare. You could probably start with something like the Pronto database of IR codes, but for the smarter devices (Denons with Ethernet, Sonys with serial ports, etc) you'd have to do significant research and manufacturer outreach. The first year or two of this niche business would be really tough, before there would even be many customers. But maybe it's worth it.

Let's do this: If you think my ideas above sound interesting, how about you become my first customer? You pay me some amount of money, and I develop the central control hub and an Android or WinPhone7 app for remote control. Your payment would mostly just cover the development hardware and initial outlay for tools -- all the time I spend, you'd get for free. In return, I agree to work on compatibility with the specific consumer electronics devices you want to control, as long as information is available or manufacturers willing to talk. Really! Serious inquiries only ;-)

Some Linux fanatics will of course say that a mark-up on the software would be useless, because "anyone" can put together the same system "with only a week's worth" of work. They'd probably want this solution to be open source. However, a lot of people don't want to put in that effort just to get a working remote control :-) Also, because the expense is really in creating device support, rather than the underlying software, trying to run this as open source would probably end up not capable of sustaining a business. Also, because this would be a high-end, niche product, it would have to be designed to be robust -- USB dongles that are so heavy that they jiggle out over time would be a bad idea.

Yes, there are a number of remote/automation/DVR solutions available already. Anything from the low end Logitech crap, all the way up to AMX style custom systems. I guess what I'm thinking is that with a smidgen of vision, smarts and cooperation among the consumer electronics manufacturers, AMX-style systems would be affordable even by normal human beings.

Anyway, there you have it -- my random thought of the day, triggered by the incongruity of expensive, black-and-white UIs and cheap, color touch devices strewn throughout the house.

(Btw: for $109, you get a color touchscreen ARM Linux box. Or $149, if you want a nice 7" 800x480 screen. Doesn't have WiFi, nor a CompactPCI slot to put one in, though.)