Technology Showcase: Handheld Device Integration

Remote controls enter a new phase.
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Technology Showcase: Handheld Device Integration

Aug 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Bennett Liles

Remote controls enter a new phase.

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RTI T4 Universal Controller

One need look no further than the nearest living-room coffee table to find one of the most revolutionary devices to impact modern communication: the remote control. Those of us old enough to remember television before the wireless TV remote might vaguely recall how when the TV was set on one of the few channels available, it stayed there — and we pretty much watched what the local station gave us, rather than jumping up and crossing the room to turn the knob and adjust the antenna.

That tiny little box with the buttons heralded a new age — not only in narrowing viewers' activity and expanding their waistlines, but in the way everything on television is marketed. Now we can zap away commercials in an infrared flash and fully indulge our shortest attention span.

Virtually every AV system that is conceived today is built around mobile handheld control to some extent. Spurred by new transmission technologies, more options have come online for increased distance and more automation. Now it has become a huge field with hundreds of companies marketing handheld control devices along a wide spectrum of sophistication and cost. While these are far too numerous to mention individually in this article, we will have a look at some typical examples of handheld AV control devices and examine the various transmission methods used to extend control to the central components of some modern AV systems.

Based on the IEEE 802.15.4 protocol, ZigBee is a widely used and robust transmission scheme that provides a low-power, short-range control solution for personal area networks. Its advantage over wireless USB and Bluetooth is that it can form a mesh network between nodes by daisy-chaining from one device to another, allowing its range to be easily expanded. ZigBee's limited bandwidth of less than 100kbps is not a problem at all for handheld control devices because their traffic load is very light, sending an occasional control command and getting a single-device feedback response. The program material from the controlled device is not using the control link, so any higher-speed conveyance is not necessary. Typically, the data stream is much slower than that used by the average computer keyboard. There are various categories of ZigBee devices. The ZigBee network coordinator is a smart node that automatically initiates the formation of the meshed network. A ZigBee router is a smart node that links groups together and, through association with other routers and end devices, provides multi-hopping for control data streams. ZigBee end devices may be individual sensors, actuators, monitors, switchers, dimmers, and other activation devices.

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AMX Mio Modero R-4

Some of the latest handheld control devices have maintained the general form of the TV remote. After all, for some applications, why abandon the profile that has worked so well for millions of users over the years? But many of these have added display screens, in large part to offer the feedback from controlled devices afforded by two-way communication protocols in wide use. Such is the case with the AMX Mio Modero R-4 remote. The R-4 has a full-color, backlit 2.4in. active matrix TFT with 240×320-pixel resolution, a 60-degree viewing angle in all directions, 16-bit color depth, and a 300:1 contrast ratio. Twenty-nine hard buttons and two LCD buttons operate an unlimited number of devices connected to an AMX control system. The 100ft. RF transmission range is extendable using AMX NetLinx repeaters. The display shows device status feedback, dynamic lists, movie titles, and song selections received using the ZigBee two-way communication. The circular navigation ring provides menu navigation and item selection common on many remotes.

In the realm of handheld AV control, there are two basic technical philosophies. The first makes use of more generic control protocols integrated at some point into the system being controlled, the thrust being that a somewhat higher degree of customization and more universal integration are possible. The trade-off is normally the fact that this requires some training in how to use a specific software application for initial configuration and to accommodate changes in makes and models of AV equipment due to the fact that these will require specific drivers. Many commercial systems that offer handheld control device integration are set up this way as are the more top-end home systems. After all, many of the commercial, more sophisticated, and expensive home AV control systems are made by the same manufacturers and use the same configuration software. The other tack includes systems that are configured to operate around a central server and can include modular hardware additions to suit specific tastes and conditions. The basic approach relies on hardware controls with specific functions to offer simplicity and a faster learning curve.

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Technology Showcase: Handheld Device Integration

Aug 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Bennett Liles

Remote controls enter a new phase.

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ReQuest iQ running on a Nokia N800

Some commercially available handheld control devices take a slightly different approach on the user interface with a larger GUI and fewer hardware buttons. These rely on more sophisticated programming, usually through proprietary software, but they offer a more highly customizable interface. The manufacturers typically offer a set of downloadable templates to make the programming simpler and quicker. A typical example using RF as the transmission medium is the Crestron MT-1000C MiniTouch. The 3.8in. active matrix display is programmable using Crestron's VisionTools Pro-e GUI design software, and the touchscreen is surrounded by several hard buttons including a five-way thumbpad. As was the case with previous Crestron touchscreen models, the MT-1000C can also be programmed with 8-bit and 16-bit audio .wav files to function as personalized voice prompts, button clicks, and other audible feedback. With a 320×240-pixel, 16-bit display, the unit provides one-way communication on an RF frequency of 418MHz — teaming with the CNRFGWA-416 gateway, which is hardwired into a Cresnet network to communicate with the AV system central processor such as Crestron's MP2e. This RF control link typically provides a range of 50ft. to 100ft. The MT-1000C can also be used with the MC2W integrated wireless control system, and for infrared control, it is used with C2N-IRGW-IG IR Gateway or CNXRMIRD IR receiver. A Lithium-ion battery provides power, and it can fully recharge in about 4 hours while the unit is in service. As is also typical with these units, after a period of inactivity, the MT-1000C MiniTouch will enter a sleep mode to save power.

Another twist on the transmission scheme is offered by Denon with its RC7000CI infrared handheld remote. This device can use IR to communicate with the RC-7001RCI base station — which converts the IR signal it receives to RF and sends it on to the AV system, enabling two-way communication and extending the range beyond line-of-sight limitations up to 295ft. The remote is PC-programmable for a higher degree of customization, contains upgradeable firmware, and may use a USB connection to download IR codes when adding new equipment. The RC7001RCI units may also be daisy-chained to extend the infrared reception distance in 98ft. increments.

The Logitech Squeezebox Duet uses the 802.11g Wi-Fi option for transmission as a computer-integrated system consisting of the base unit and the remote. This pair capitalizes on music streaming and allows users to integrate their own digital music collection with online music services wirelessly or on a wired home network. The base unit has analog RCA connections for a stereo amplifier or receiver and an RJ-45 port for the wired home-network hookup. There is a single button on the front of the base unit to manually sync it to the network during setup. Optical and coaxial digital outputs allow connection to pretty much any music system. The Duet is a prime example of computer-audio streaming integration. The remote provides a 2.4in. color display, scroll wheel, and navigation buttons. The remote uses a rechargeable Lithium-ion battery that is charged while the handheld unit is in the charging station. The remote includes a number of interesting interfaces. Among these are an SD slot behind the battery compartment, a 3.5mm headphone jack, the IR transmitter, and a small loudspeaker for audio-control feedback sounds. The controller and receiver are firmware upgradeable. The controller is also backward-compatible with earlier models so it can be integrated with an existing system.

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Technology Showcase: Handheld Device Integration

Aug 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Bennett Liles

Remote controls enter a new phase.

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Xantech XTR39

For the home market, complete integrated systems are the most popular, and the Niles iC2 home-theater automation and control system is a good example of this approach to handheld control through an exclusively hard-button interface. The system consists of the HT-MSU main system unit and the tabletop remote with more than 40 buttons that can be configured to customize AV system, lighting, and other device control through a two-way ZigBee RF link. Up to 16 sources can connect to the main unit at IR, relay control, and video/voltage sensing ports including an RF antenna connection. The controller's flash memory and rechargeable Lithium-ion battery maintain programming and provide mobility. The two-way RF transmission provides button feedback from the main unit for confirmation of accepted commands. The system is configured through the IRCS Infrared Capture Station, an outboard hardware item, and the Niles QuickConfig wizard-based software that is available on the tech-support website.

The ReQuest iQ system provides whole-house audio from a central server that is controlled from a variety of wall-mounted and handheld user interfaces with hardware buttons, along with fairly large programmable displays. The iQ system consists of two primary components: The hard disk-based iQ Intelligent Media Server incorporates four internal hard drives for sending separate playback to different locations simultaneously. Internet streaming sources, local radio, CD and DVD players, and satellite music stations can also be controlled from the same user interfaces. The Freedom handheld touchpanel has a 4in. display screen with hardware controls and connects to the S Series, F Series, or N Series music server via a 802.11g network link for two-way communication. After a user installs an SD card, the music server auto-discovers the controller and configures the controller with metadata including album art, station icons, and streaming-radio logos. When used with the iQ, the touchpanel can also deliver time, weather, and stock tickers. Each ReQuest system can support two Freedom controllers. Custom playlists can be created and a search engine is included to help track down specific song titles with a virtual keyboard. The control application runs on the Nokia N800, so it may still be used for web browsing and email while separated from the network and used elsewhere. When the N800 is returned to the local network and system control is again needed, the Freedom software application is launched and the display returns to the familiar control icon setup. The Nokia N800 also offers Skype support, a local media player and stereo loudspeakers, expandable mass memory, instant messaging, and an integrated web camera. Control selections can be made with a stylus, with a finger touch, or by using the hardware controls in a menu-navigation mode. The possibilities and options are seemingly endless, but the bottom line is that the system affords mobile Internet applications and local network server control in the same interface.

Each of the control and transmission technologies mentioned has its benefits, and the trend among handheld AV device control is toward using every applicable method that can provide a benefit and to produce products that are versatile in this respect while offering the most quick and easy configuration and the highest degree of user-friendliness. A recent example of this technical progression is the T4 Universal Controller from RTI. Angled for desktop placement but small enough to be mobile, the T4 uses 15kHz to 460kHz infrared for standalone, direct AV control similar to that of a common TV remote; 433MHz RF output for through-the-wall linkage to a control processor using an optional receiver; and 802.11 Wi-Fi for IP linked control and Internet access. The infrared control range is about 30ft., and the RF control extends to about 100ft. Programmable through either a USB or Ethernet link, the full 65K color, 640×480-pixel VGA, 6.4in. diagonal TFT LCD display provides enough visual real estate to capitalize on the customization capability of the Integration Designer programming software. It can display text, graphics, animations, and motion-JPEG video fullscreen or in assignable windows.

The unit includes 13 programmable hardware keys adjacent to the display. Multistep command sequences can also be set up to initiate a number of events from one button push, but the programming software is only available to authorized RTI dealers. The processing power required for all these features is provided by an internal 32-bit, 400MHz Xscale processor and 32MB of flash memory. This also enables audio files to be played, for which the unit includes stereo loudspeakers. A tilt switch can be programmed to automatically turn on the screen's backlight when the unit is picked up. The substantial capabilities come with a 2lb. price in weight, so don't gingerly toss it to a friend across the sofa. The unit's 7.2VDC 4000mAh Lithium-ion polymer battery pack is recharged while the controller is placed in its desktop docking station. RTI's T4 Universal Controller truly represents the latest level in the effort to integrate all the transmission techniques and maximize display technology while remaining in what can reasonably be called the handheld category of AV control devices.

Of course, one of the widest variables in the whole science of handheld AV control is personal taste. There are those who just don't want to tackle all of the programming choices or the expense involved in a top-end model with a seemingly endless array of features. In fact, for some applications, smaller and simpler are better — particularly in cases where the remote operator wishes to blend with the crowd and operate very unobtrusively. Some small churches have opted for this capability in units such as the Xantech XTR39. The unit uses the RF advantage to provide low-profile, out-of-sight operation. The Xantech Universal Dragon Drop programming application maintains the programmability and customization of larger models, and the 8MB internal memory is enough to allow for this basic control. The 3.9in. color LCD display combines with a simple layout of hardware buttons to allow any member of a small church congregation to act as the AV technician while sitting in a pew among the other church members. Obviously, this isn't for controlling mixers for live bands or other high-end functions, but for the simple operation of a few microphones, lighting, and an occasional CD playback, such an RF controller can be used while held low and then simply slipped into a suit pocket until the next audio or lighting cue. The internal battery pack is recharged while the unit sits upright in its base station.

With all the customization available through programming and the range of transmission technologies among RF, Wi-Fi, and infrared, the biggest challenge to prospective users of the new handheld AV control devices is the careful thought and dealer communication necessary to select the right model for the job at hand. The basic and most important step in that process is to carefully think through each usage scenario step by step for success.






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