Technology Futures

Commentaries on Directions That Will Impact the Future of Technology

Archive for the month “February, 2012”

Phone and Tablet Remote Control Update: Was I Wrong?

Vizio 8" Tablet

A few months ago I posted a blog entry about using phones and/or tablets as remote controls for home entertainment systems.  I was bullish on the trend, but some recent experience suggests that maybe it isn’t going to happen as quickly as I thought.  Although the technology is there, it doesn’t seem to be ready for Joe Couch Potato.

A few days ago, I purchased a Vizio 8″ tablet, Model VTAB1008-B.  This tablet includes a built-in IR blaster and an application called “Remote Control.”  First of all, the screen is gorgeous, providing 1024 x 768 resolution, the same as an iPad, but in an 8″ instead of the iPad‘s 10″ form factor, providing denser pixels and sharper images than the iPad.  The screen is prettier than any of the high-end purpose-built touch-screen remote controls from companies like Crestron and URC which are typically 640 x 480 and cost a couple of thousand dollars.  The IR radiator works well, although I haven’t tested it in “stressful” conditions.  Certainly good enough for most in-home situations.

The Remote Control program, however, is all but useless.  You are supposed to set it up by selecting an equipment category from a list (DVD Player, TV, Amplifier, etc.), then selecting a manufacturer from another list, and, if you know it, typing in the model number.  If  the model number is found, a screen for the device is set up automatically.  If the model number is not found, there is a trial-and-error process for finding the device.  I was amazed at the completeness of the model database.  (I assume Vizio gets that list from UEI or another company that maintains a database of equipment IR codes.)  It even listed an X10 ir543 receiver!  Go to this link and click on “How to Set Up the Remote Control App” to see a video of how it works.

The first problem is that the database model entries do not reliably associate the correct IR codes with the buttons that appear on the screen!  The second problem is that the buttons on the screen do not represent the controls that are needed to operate the device with the device.  For example, I have a Sony CD jukebox that holds 300 CDs.  You operate it by inputting the number of the disc you wish to play using a numeric keypad and then pressing the Play button.  The screen that comes up for this device has no keypad on it, thereby rendering the control of that device useless.  The X10 ir543 screen does not contain any controls that related to the device at all.  The DVD screen contains mostly controls useful for operating a TV.  On top of everything else, the program crashed repeatedly and could only be recovered by powering down the tablet.

I called Vizio tech support, was told that a “significant upgrade” was coming soon, and that I might consider waiting for that.  In fairness, they also generously offered to send me a new tablet, but couldn’t guarantee that the same problems wouldn’t exist.  I am certain it is a software problem, so I declined the offer.

The way most of the phone/tablet-based remote control systems operate today is by sending the signals via a Wifi connection.  This requires that the user purchase a box that converts the Wifi signal to IR.  These boxes cost around $100 for 1-way transmission and $150 for 2-way (for RS-232 capable equipment).  Putting an IR blaster in a tablet is a great idea that eliminates the expense of the Wifi-IR converter box.  It obviously would add very little to the cost of a tablet or phone.

I paid $190 for the tablet, shipping included.  (MSRP is $329.)  If the remote control application worked as it should, the tablet could easily be justified on the basis of that app alone.  If I were Vizio’s CEO, I’d hire a couple of guys laid off from Philips now-defunct Pronto Division and have them write a Windows/iOS-based editor that would allow customers to create customized remote control screens.  As it is, all I can do is wait for the upgrade and hope it fixes the problems I confronted.

I contacted a couple of companies (e.g., iRule) that have systems for using phones and tablets as remote controls, but neither of them could take advantage of a built-in IR blaster.  I suspect this might change in the future, but probably not until some big-name tablet/phone manufacturers begin to put IR blasters in their devices.



Tablets: Is the Enterprise a New Frontier?

Windows 8 Libraires Concept

Windows 8 (Photo credit: louisvolant)

Everybody knows that Tablets are becoming more or less ubiquitous.  The great majority of them, however, are being bought for playing games, web browsing, mapping, watching movies and TV shows, video telephony and other personal pursuits.  The buzz now is for the tablet to become an important device for businesses, known in the trade as “enterprises.”

Not long ago, I was on an airplane, seated next to a youngish man who had an iPad with him.  We struck up a conversation, and I learned that he was an electronics engineer who worked for a leading Silicon Valley company.  He was effusive about his iPad, but, when I asked him what he used it for, he said “mostly I play Scrabble!”  I think most tablet owners would have a similar response.

That said, the time has come for the tablet to become an important tool for businesses.  There are some new driving forces that will make that happen.  One of them will be the appearance of Windows 8, scheduled for release later this year.  Why is that important given the tremendous lead of iOS and Android?  Because you will be able to run existing Windows applications.  Since Windows-based apps are at the core of most business IT operations, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out the benefits.

Coming from a different direction, wireless carrier Verizon announced a new enterprise initiative it calls Blank Slate.  The plan is to deliver a tablet without the usual pre-installed settings and apps.  Instead, the tablet will be set up with customized software and/or hardware that are optimized for specific industry applications.  In addition, there will be a private app storefront which will enable an employee to access company proprietary applications.  Although the program will start with Android, one can presume Windows 8 will follow.

Recently, Meg Whitman, HP’s new CEO, indicated that HP will be back in the mobile platform business, but, instead of trying to complete with Apple and Google for consumers, the focus would be on the enterprise where HP is strong.  Up until the other day, she was talking up Open WebOS, HP’s open sourced mobile operating system, but, now is talking Windows as the most likely candidate.

I conclude that the enterprise tablet business will be a really big deal in a couple of years, given the muscle of companies like Microsoft, HP and Verizon.  If you watch the various CSI TV shows, you would know that law enforcement couldn’t operate without them. (Chuckle)


5G Wifi: Will You Use It?

11ac Coverage

WiFi at home, Wifi on your phone, Wifi on your tablet, Wifi at Starbucks, here a wi, there a wi, everywhere a wifi – or so the song goes.  This year, the next generation of Wifi, known as 11ac or 5G WiFi (5G = Fifth Generation), is going to hit the market.  Never mind that the relevant standards body (i.e., the Wifi Alliance) is two years away from actually defining a standard, companies like Broadcom that make chips for Wifi , are already in 11ac production.

The current and latest real Wifi standard is 802.11n.  11ac (full name is 802.11ac) will offer much wider bandwidth, longer range, more reliability and better battery life.  The icing on the cake is that 11ac won’t cost much more than 11n!  Maybe even the same price.

Broadcom, the first big company to announce 11ac product, is making 11ac chips in at least three bandwidths:  433 Mbps, 867 Mbps and 1.3 Gbps.  The chart above, from, shows what the average user can expect performance-wise from 11ac.  Even, the low-end implementation is three times faster than 11n.

One of the more interesting 11ac efforts comes from a small company you probably don’t know, called Redpine Signals of San Jose, CA.  It’s implementation focuses on low-power devices, and so is suitable for smartphones and tablets.  While it isn’t clear that phones really benefit from 11ac, tablets certainly will, especially if used for viewing HD movies.  Redpine calls its technology Quali-Fi.

11ac will likely have it’s biggest impact in the home.  Wifi deadspots will be a thing of the past and families will be able to stream multiple movies over the same network.  Pretty cool!  The caveat here is that the broadband Internet connection may limit the technology’s usability.  If the Internet connection  provides only a few megabits per second, 11ac won’t offer much, if any advantage.

If you are an early adopter, you will be able to buy an 11ac router this year.  In fact, In-Stat forecasts that 1 million ac routers will be sold this year, growing to 350 million by 2015.  Eventually, all home routers will support 11ac.  However, it’s not clear which products will be the first  to incorporate 11ac WiFi since none of the consumer electronics and phone companies have announced product yet.

Nevertheless, if you have a fast Internet connection, you can look forward to much enhanced Wifi in your home, your office and even Starbucks!

Inductive Charging: Bad News for Cable Makers

Charging the Tesla

Charging the Tesla (Photo credit: sbisson)

If you live in California or a few other states that have traffic signals that are switched by vehicles, you already know about induction.  You also know about it if you use an electric toothbrush.  Transmitting electricity by induction has been around a long time and the phenomena is well understood by electrical engineers.  If you want to read about how it works, click here.  Basically, there parts consist of a transmitting coil and a receiving coil.  In the presence of a magnetic field, current travels between the coils wirelessly.

Today, there are two major efforts afoot with regard to  inductive charging.  One primarily concerned with cellphones and the other for electric cars.  The technology for cellphone charging is based an established standard called Qi (pronounced “chee”) adopted by the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC), and industry standards group.  Although there are some inductive charging systems available for cars, there is no industry standard.  However, the Society of Automotive engineers (SAE) expects to have one by 2014.

The differences between charging a cellphone and charging a car are vast.  All you need for a practical cellphone system is a couple of watts transmitted over a very short distance – inches.  A practical system for a car requires kilowatts transmitted over as much as several feet.

The systems available for phones now consist of a pad (transmitting coil) that is wired to a power source and a “case” that encircles the phone (the receiving coil).  Placing the phone in the case on the pad charges the phone.  In the future, phones will be manufactured with the receiving coil built-in, so the case won’t be needed.  If the phone supports Qi, then  one Qi pad that will suffice for any Qi-enabled device.  The charger from battery company, Energizer, is a good example of the current state of the art.

Personally, I find it difficult to get excited about inductive charging of cell phones.  With the current state-of-the-art, it takes 2-4 times longer to charge a phone than with a car or wall charger.  That time differential will surely improve, but still it’s not very compelling.  The most interesting system I’ve seen is one from Oregon Scientific that puts the pad into a clock.  If you need a clock, and many people do, then why not have an inductive pad too?

The car charger is much more interesting to me.  It will be possible (and technically feasible) to put transmission pads under roadways, say at stoplit intersections.  While you are waiting for the light to change, your car’s batteries could be charging, and your credit card could automatically be debited for the cost!  In addition, there is some significant economic muscle behind inductive charging.  The Korean, Japanese, and German auto companies are pushing the technology, not to mention Chrysler, Ford, GM and even Tesla!.  It is going to happen.  Pick a car manufacturers name, couple it with “inductive charging” and Google or Bing the words.  You’ll be flooded with hits.

In summary, inductive charging technology, something that has been around for decades is going to be a very big deal!~

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