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More Than a Clicker

Luxury Status of Handheld Remotes Is Gaining on Touchpanels

AMX’s Mio Modero R-4 The touchpanel has long been a status symbol at the center of high-end home theaters and whole-house integration projects. Meanwhile, old-fashioned, handheld remote controls have typically been relegated to a basket under the coffee table or left to those poor DIY schlubs.

How times have changed, as wand-style remotes, with radio frequency technology, integrated touchscreens, and nearly limitless customization options, are finally offering an alternative to bulky, though admittedly very customizable, touchpanels.

No longer satisfied with a black plastic, hard-button maze designed for a rocket scientist with tiny fingers, manufacturers are now turning to industrial designers and market research firms to improve functionality and provide sleek and intuitive controllers, at a price that even average consumers can afford.

The age of gargantuan, button-intensive, and complicated remote is over, suggested Savant Systems director of product management, Victor Saverino. Instead, Saverino contends, end-users are more intrigued by stylish,

Savant’s Rosie remote controls ergonomic, and easy-to-use (and navigate) remotes, which enhance their experience, and complement the dcor of their household.

Jon Sienkiewicz, Universal Remote Controls (URC) director of marketing and technical support, noted that even as the technology behind the remote control grows more complex, his companys three design goals keep them focused. Overall, consumers want remote controls that look good on their coffee tables, feel good in their hands, and do what they expect when a particular button is pressed, he explained.

Easier Than Ever
Gone are the days when consumers were willing to tough it out with the coffee table full of remotes, argued Remote Technologies Inc. (RTI) director of marketing, Pete Baker. Instead, he said, consumers are anxious to find an integrated solution to help them navigate through all of their fun new consumer electronics purchases.

There are so many exciting technologies on the market today that consumers are eager to integrate into their lives, but it needs to be easy, Baker explained. By adding cool new devices into their entertainment systems, and possibly the ability to access information technology (IT) for instant weather, sports scores, stock quotes, and stored media, the integrated remote control has moved from a consideration to a necessity.

URC’s KP-900

And the remote control, much like its touchpanel predecessor, can now do more than ever. It can also serve as a two-way dynamic interface for identifying sources and searching music files.

Todays end-users are very clear about wanting full system control with metadata feedback in their hands, as well as the ability to browse media and choose what they want to enjoy, said Russound director of product development, Andy Lewis. The goal is to make the process as simple as possible without sacrificing a degree of control.

There is no question that the advanced functionality of modern CE devices, such as cell phones accessing e-mail and MP3 players serving as mini computers, has greatly influenced new remote control designs. Remotes are starting to offer similar capabilities, agreed Universal Electronics Inc. (UEI) VP of product development, Ramzi Ammari. Manufacturers are combining different technologies into remotes, such as two-way control, because its the natural evolution of what consumers want to see and use in the future, he said.

The Influence of ID
Its perhaps not surprising that industrial designers were rarely involved in the remote control design process of the past. Typically, a remote was created for a specific device, and its engineers tried to squeeze as many function buttons on to it as possible. In those days, the needs or concerns of the end user were rarely given a second thought. Nowadays, the consumers comfort is a top priority for manufacturers who often go to great lengths, and spare no expense, to work with ID firms and ergonomics experts to the greater satisfaction of the consumer.

When designing a new remote, we identify both how we expect consumers to use it, as well as what we think their goals will be for their environment, said AMX product manager, Scott Carpenter.

Apple is often cited as proof that industrial design matters, even it costs the manufacturer and consumer a little bit more out of their wallet. Its an idea that seems to drive many of the custom installation channels manufacturers who recognize the value of a sexy product. Consumers are willing to pay a premium for great industrial design, said Control4 CTO, Eric Smith.

UEIs Ammari agreed, adding that ergonomics and industrial design are major differentiators for remote controls. No matter how expensive or inexpensive an AV system is, if its not easy to control then it wont get much use, and the user experience has been ruined.

RTI’s T3-V RTIs Baker recalled that, in the past, industrial design took a backseat to straight functionality. However, his company has come to realize that the ID is now equally important to functionality. In many cases, its actually more important, he said. Please understand that we have always been very meticulous and methodical about the ergonomics and button placement of our products. But now, more than ever, we are investing heavily into the ID to create products that are very sexy and have exceptional ergonomics.

As a design project, a handheld remote control is the quintessential litmus test for ergonomics. Button location and button size are the essential ingredients that determine usability and functionality for URC and other remote control manufacturers. We have spent an incredible amount of time learning where buttons should be located so that fingers can find them effortlessly, URCs Sienkiewicz said. If youre able to forget youre using our remote while youre using it, weve done our job.

Savant, a relatively new player in the market, partnered with a renowned ID team to ensure that its remote controls meet the current and future needs of the market. Our intention was to make the remote control simpler to use with fewer buttons, Savants Saverino noted. One of the results is the companys ROSIE Contemporary Remote, which has only seven buttons and an iPod-like integrated scroll wheel.

Design Goals
It has developed a list of truisms regarding hard-button remote designs. We have learned that there are essentially two form factors that are preferred, explained president, Frank Sterns. The first is a two-handed or table-top (or leg rest) design that offers more real estate on which to place larger buttons. The second is a one-handed wand-type handheld design. In either case, the minimum number of buttons that can reliably operate a system is desired. Most end users find that an abundance of small buttons is both intimidating and difficult to use.

Niles Audio’s IC2

Niles also sizes, shapes, and places buttons based on their function (i.e. volume and channel buttons or cursor controls are relatively large and in easy reach of the thumb on two-handed designs.) Sterns noted that the company is a big proponent of one touch to entertainment, whereby reliable sequencing can enable intuitive and ergonomic system control from a single button press.

For UEI, two critical ergonomic differentiators are key selection and natural fit. According Ammari, key selection (whats on the remote) ensures that the main functions needed are easy to access and thus the entire system is easy to use; natural fit ensures one-handed remotes have a logical button layout that feels natural for consumers to cradle in their hands.

 When we launched NevoSL in 2003, we set out to design a remote control with a touchscreen rather than focus our efforts on adding buttons to a display device, Ammari said. This design broke the mold from the traditional two-handed, large display remote control products that were standard offerings at the time.

Touchpanels vs. Handheld Remotes
Traditional one-hand style remotes often win out over two-handed touchpanels as the interface of choice for average consumers. There are, however, pros and cons to both solutions.

UEI’s NevoS S70 Crestrons Fred Bargetzi said that he has watched handhelds become more complex as the devices that they control add functionality. Unfortunately, this creates a poor user experience for the customer, he said. Crestron has some new handheld remotes in development that will create a new standard in expectations for handheld remote controls.

Unlike in years past when handheld remotes couldnt come close to touchpanels in terms of functionality, the chasm has gotten much smaller, said AMXs Carpenter. It really comes down to personal preference and usage needs, he said. For example, many homeowners prefer to use touchpanels because the icons are large and easy to see, while others prefer the ergonomics and small, discrete size of a remote.

In the age of the Media Center PCs and DVRs, on-screen control of AV systems has become commonplace, making the touchpanel overkill, when a solid handheld could do the job. Control4s Smith agreed that while touchpanels are great for home automation, security, and whole-home music, they are not necessarily the best way to control TVs and projectors, when on-screen menus will suffice. Using a touchscreen to push up/down/left/right/enter stinks, Smith said. In this scenario, you really want tactile buttons so you dont have to look at them. Some touchpanels have fixed buttons for these functions, but today when people watch TV with a DVR, they are constantly hitting pause, and skip forward (to avoid commercials), etc. Holding a large touchpanel in your lap for an entire NFL game is very undesirable.

The remaining difference, at least between a button-only remote and touchpanel, RTIs Baker said, is the intuitiveness of a touchscreen interface. With a touchscreen remote the GUI can be customized for each clients needs to make the device very intuitive, he explained. Also, with a touchscreen, instructions or feedback can be provided so the user knows what the state of the system is and has confirmation that the commands have executed properly.

URCs Sienkiewicz concurred, adding that within one home, multiple-user preferences are possible from a touchpanel, not from most handhelds. Touchpanels have multiple personality potential. Whenever a system is going to be operated by many different people independently, touchpanel remotes can be programmed to provide efficient, dedicated user interfaces specifically matched to the situation at hand.

The Perfect Blend
The best solution, said UEIs Ammari, is a mix of both hard-buttons and a touchpanel, like his companys Nevo line of remotes. Ideally there are a limited number of hard keys to control the most common itemsvolume, channel, and DVR navigation for instance, he explained. Consumers dont have to look at the remote when using these keys providing an instinctively tactile way to interact with the remote. Having a partial touchpanel hides the less-used keys (inputs or activity keys) and offer customization opportunities for activities and favorites that would not be possible on a non-display product. This presents a clean, less intimidating appearance on the remote, making it easy to use and an enjoyable experience for the consumer.

Niles Audios Sterns argued that hard buttons are less intimidating to most older customers, but agreed that a mix of the two options is perfect. It can offer tactile feedback and one-touch operation, he said. It can have lots of customizing choices plus it can enable end users who desire more control to access it through menus. Moreover, the touchscreen can display metadata from iPods or other menu driven sources where pure fixed-button remotes cant.

Jeremy J. Glowacki ([email protected]) serves as editorial director of New York City-based Residential Systems, out of his satellite office in Carmel, Indiana.