Control Manufacturers Fine Tune the Classic Wand-Style Remote


By Jeremy J. Glowacki April 3,2014


RTI’s next-generation controllers, such as the T2i, T2x (pictured in a dock), and T3x, also include higher capacity lithium-ion batteries and a new docking station design that utilizes a docking connector for reliable battery charging.
The current crop of custom integration-centric wand-style remote controls are much more sophisticated than your average coffee table clicker–a device that has remained relatively unchanged in appearance and functionality over the years. In contrast, premium-style remotes for the integrated home now feature many app-style conveniences, such as swipe and gesture support, and better reliability and response time than previously available.

For URC, the biggest step forward came when the company’s engineers harnessed the power of the home network to control consumer electronics. “By creating whole-house automation systems that are IP based, we’ve opened the doors to virtually any and every new technology that could appear,” URC director of marketing Cat Toomey explained.

URC is also deploying “incremental improvements,” such as the OLED screen on its TRC-780 and RM-1 remotes, for example, which are easier to read and consume less energy than standard LEDs. And, the company’s designs offer live full-motion video on the remote’s screen from cameras connected to its control systems.

To enhance the user experience, the latest wireless interfaces from RTI implement many of the familiar features found in smartphones and tablets. For example, grip sensors keep the units awake during use, while built-in accelerometers provide fast “instant-on” control, and flush-mount, edge-to-edge touchscreens allow for improved gesture support, such as swiping through music libraries. Also, RTI is incorporating haptic feedback in its upcoming T3x, which will give users a subtle vibration when a touchscreen button is pressed.

RTI’s sister brand Pro Control utilizes 2.4-inch TFT LCD touchscreens for its remotes. The brilliant displays automatically wake up when the units are picked up, ready for users to press colorful icons on the screen to start watching TV or listening to music. The screens are also capable of swipe gestures.

Crestron believes that when it comes to creating handheld remote controls for the home, “it’s all about creating a better user experience,” said director of residential marketing, Tom Barnett, “and we feel that comes down to the basics.”

Crestron’s MLX-3 remote, for example, features user-replaceable AA batteries. “This means you’re not stuck unable to turn the television on if the kids forget to put the remote back on the cradle when they’re finished. It also eliminates costly replacement batteries later down the road,” Barnett said. “Thanks to the low power consumption of the MLX-3, the batteries will last for several months.”

Improving Performance

ELAN is now working with low-cost, battery-powered Wi-Fi technology coupled with the ELAN g! IP-based solution. “We have worked hard to make our Wi-Fi remote more responsive and reliable,” said Joe Lautner, director of control for Core Brands. “For instance, ELAN’s HR2 Wi-Fi remote, is equipped with a motion sensor that provides an instantly responsive experience coupled with long battery life. When the user walks up to the remote it starts to wake up, by the time it is your hand and you press channel up it works. The remote, which controls multiple zones and systems, is not limited inside and outside the home, as long as the Wi-Fi connection is accessible. A user can bring their HR2 remote outdoors and control their music with a solid Wi-Fi connection.” 

Crestron utilizes two-way wireless communications on its MLX-3 to provide true feedback from lighting, climate, and shading systems. To overcome RF interference (RFI) and other inconsistencies associated with wireless devices, Crestron’s handheld remotes use the company’s mesh network, infiNET EX.

“Unlike Wi-Fi, in which each device connects to a single central access point, each device in an infiNET EX network acts as a repeater, Barnett explained. “So, if a wand remote doesn’t have a clear path to the control system due to interference, the message can be relayed through other devices like lighting dimmers or shade motors. This means that every device added effectively increases the range, strength, and reliability of the entire network.”

The company’s MLX-3 remote includes recently improved firmware to make it faster and more reliable in noisy RF environments, as well. With dual-RF technology, every RTI remote offers the option of wireless control via 433-MHz RF or 2.4-GHz ZigBee. For integrators, this provides the flexibility to simply change the RF frequency if an environmental issue can’t be overcome by just moving the antenna. Going a step further, RTI’s top-of-the-line handheld controllers also feature built-in Wi-Fi, which allows for more robust two-way feedback and even wireless program updates.

Pro Control also utilizes 433-MHz RF transmission via trigger codes to a control processor, which stores system commands and macros. “This is a significant, and highly unusual, technology at this price point,” said Mike Everett at Pro Control. “For example, say the activity ‘watch TV’ is selected. The RF trigger code is sent to the ProLink processor, which then initiates the macro to turn on the TV, select the input, turn on the receiver, etc. By sending one RF trigger code, Pro Control eliminates the possibility for missed steps. Every time a button is pressed, the same predictable event happens, which makes users very happy.”

Crestron utilizes two-way wireless communications on its MLX-3 to provide true feedback from lighting, climate, and shading systems. Pro Control has introduced its Pro.rfz range extender for the ProLink.z processer, which allows the Pro24.z remote controls to operate over even greater distances.
Pro Control also has introduced its Pro.rfz range extender for the ProLink.z processer, which allows the Pro24.z remote controls to operate over even greater distances. With the Pro.rfz, integrators can hide equipment, yet still provide control from multiple remotes in multiple zones throughout the home.

URC’s Toomey acknowledged that there are technical challenges and potential pitfalls anywhere electronic components are used and that RFI will never completely disappear. But, she says, URC’s IP-based systems, Total Control, and the new ccGEN2 are much more resistant to the maladies that commonly afflict 418MHz and 433MHz remotes.

“In the conventional RF remote and base station world, we successfully licked RFI a few years ago when we moved to narrow band RF,” Toomey explained. “The big virtue here is what we call ‘improved spurious adjacent signal rejection,’ or in other words, narrow band RF does not ‘listen’ to the interference as much as regular old RF technology does. URC offers many models with the 418 and 413MHz to accommodate every install.”

Programming Tools

URC programmers and integrators can now program both Total Control and the company’s new ccGEN2 whole-house automation systems offsite from the comfort and convenience of their office. “This makes a huge difference to them and also their clients in terms of convenience and savings,” Toomey said.

And for installations with multiple rooms and multiple interfaces, URC Accelerator and Generator programming editors can program all remotes (or all keypads), for example, at the same time instead of each separately and laboriously. URC Accelerator also automatically programs macros, so many once-tedious steps are now automated.

URC’s Quick Connect feature, found on its TRC-1080, joins the network almost instantly, so there’s no annoying waiting, and current status appears for the user. And the built-in motion sensor turns the remote on when it’s lifted from the charging cradle, so it’s ready to go at once.
Integration Designer is the software used to program all RTI remote control products. As a CEDIA Hall of Fame 2011 inductee, Integration Designer is considered a pioneering technology in the industry in terms of customization and ease of use, providing integrators with a drag-and-drop environment that allows the interface to be completely customized to each client.

“For advanced two-way programming, pre-built and tested two-way drivers created by RTI allow integrators to easily deliver robust control for their clients, without having to learn advanced software coding,” noted RTI’s Brett Stokke. “However, for those who do have experience in software engineering, our RTI Driver Development program allows them to write their own drivers.”

The Pro Control Studio software was built to program most modern one-room systems–media rooms, home theaters, and bedrooms featuring a receiver, TV, satellite or cable box, DVD, iPod dock, tuner, and internet radio–in a short amount of time. This software is template-based and provides the ability to completely customize the interface to the individual user.

Crestron’s design software includes icon libraries for common channels and sources, which makes programming quicker and easier.

“This makes it a breeze to have clean, professional logos for each ‘favorite’ TV or internet radio station,” Barnett said. “Integrators don’t need a USB cable to load the code, because it can be sent via the wireless mesh network. This also enables remotely uploading updates to a remote control using the home’s internet connection.”

The Touch Test

Of course all of the best behind-the-scenes software and programming can go unappreciated by the end-user if the hardware, or outer shell, of the remote is not thoughtfully addressed by the manufacturer. And this effort goes beyond the final fit and finish of the remote into other technical areas.

For example, Crestron’s MLX-3 has been engineered to “wake” instantly at the press of a button. Button presses are sent immediately, just like an IR remote but with none of IR’s limitations. So spontaneous actions like muting the audio, pausing the video, or changing the channel can be executed on the fly, with just a single button press. Backlit button text also affords improved legibility in a darkened room.

URC’s Quick Connect feature, found on its TRC-1080, joins the network almost instantly, so there’s no annoying waiting, and current status appears for the user. And the built-in motion sensor turns the remote on when it’s lifted from the charging cradle, so it’s ready to go at once.

Toomey pointed out that URC also has spent “an enormous amount of time” on ergonomics. “Pick up our new TRC-1080, and it feels like an extension of your arm–it’s so comfortable to hold– and the buttons are placed precisely where your fingers expect to find them,” she said. “There are three perfectly placed finger grooves on the back for optimal balance for any sized hand. All of these things combined leverage URC’s nearly 25 years of experience in remote controls to deliver the best possible solution for daily use.”

Building on the success of their predecessors, RTI’s latest- generation solutions combine sleek styling with improved ergonomics to further enhance the user experience.

“This is achieved with numerous cutting-edge design elements such as flush-mount, edge-to-edge touchscreens, soft-touch backlit buttons (which incorporate Light-Guide Film technology), grip sensors, and accelerometers,” Stokke said. “Next-generation controllers, such as the T2i, T2x, and T3x, also include higher capacity lithium-ion batteries and a new docking station design that utilizes a docking connector for ultra-reliable battery charging.

Today’s control solutions have to complement the home’s decor, and Pro Control’s remote controls are designed to provide an elegant addition to any room, Everett said.

“By combining brilliant touchscreen displays with gesturing capabilities and iOS integration,” he concluded, “Pro Control delivers exactly what today’s consumer is expecting: an outstanding user experience.”

Jeremy Glowacki is editorial director of Residential Systems.

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