TV remote

We’ve all read the articles and seen the demos about the future of the home — a future that sees your own fridge ordering milk online because you’ve run out. This is the Internet of Things (IoT), a simplified example, but it is paving the way to smart cities, homes, cars and more.

What the concept of IoT has brought into sharp focus (amongst other things) is the idea of control. With so many devices in your smart home on your network, sensors, lights, boilers, heating units, TVs, set-top boxes, how are we going to control all of them?

Consider the living room, a microcosm of the home — an entertainment ecosystem that needs to be managed and controlled; from the content coming into your house via the internet, satellite, or cable, to the components that accompany the TV, be it set top box, DVD player or games console.

Although we probably do it intuitively, finding something to watch generally involves an amount of navigation and a sequence of commands on different controllers. One of the benefits of the IoT, we are told, is that we will be able to remotely control other devices around the home. But does this mean more controllers, or at least a succession of apps on a phone?

After all, with so much hardware in the living room ecosystem, how do you control what you’re watching? Listening to? Or playing? The simple answer is that you are no doubt using a remote control. Or seven. With the amount of options we have when it comes to the content (and indeed data in general) coming into our homes, there’s also been a rise in the complexity of controlling it.

With each device having its own remote control, manufacturers and content providers are vying for a place at the top of the control pyramid. From a user perspective, they would like to watch what they want to, when they want to, and select content in the easiest way possible. The user experience is based on ease of use, particularly of the remote control and user interface and often, too many choices results in complexity.

As a result, manufacturers are balancing this need for the best user experience with the desire to be the controlling device when it comes to content in the home. This drive is especially important considering that the amount of content being delivered into the living room is only increasing.

The logical goal then is a single controller which manages everything. Using traditional technology that would mean a very large box with an extremely large number of buttons. Which brings us back to voice control: the ideal way of controlling a broad swathe around the home is by telling the device what to do.

If this meant learning a specific set of instructions for each piece of functionality then it would be as ineffective as the big box of buttons in terms of user experience. We have to implement natural language instructions, letting the device implement the details.

So rather than turning on the television, then the set-top box, then remembering that BBC1 HD is channel 115, we should simply tell the remote control “I want to watch BBC1”.

More likely, though, we will be less specific. We might come home and say “I want to watch a Daniel Craig movie”. The controller will do the heavy lifting of seeing what is available on movie channels, on your PVR and on Netflix, and will present the results on screen for you to tell the controller which you choose.

The next phase would be to say “play the movie”, which as well as starting the content would also close the curtains, turn off the main lights and turn on the standard lamp. At the end, you might say “good night”, which will be the cue for the system to shut down the various entertainment boxes, but also switch the thermostat to the night setting and turn off the lights, giving you time to move to the bedroom.

It is important to understand that this is a two-part system. The remote control itself has to remain small, compact and practical, even if the intention is that most users will do little other than talk to it. The remote talks to a device which interprets the instructions and routes them to the device or IoT service which will implement them.

Voice control is nothing new — we’ve been using in some form for years. The difference when it comes to voice-controlled remote controls is the sheer functionality, specificity and accuracy that we can expect and that is in controlling our bespoke environments, meeting our needs. The smart home might be a vision of the future, but it is closer than we think.


By Menno Koopmans, senior VP subscription broadcasting, Universal Electronics