Apple TV and Xbox 720 to usher in new era of A/V-control interfaces

As a computer guy I’ve always hated the control interfaces that the Consumer Audio/Video (A/V) Equipment companies have put on their components.  They just can’t seem to get it right.  The Zenith-invented ultrasonic remote control interface dominated the field for over 20 years until it was replaced by Infrared (IR) around 1980.  IR remains the primary way our remote controls talk to  A/V equipment and pieces of A/V equipment talk to each other (e.g., how a standalone DVR changes the channel on your cable set-top box).

I’ve long wondered why the Consumer Electronics industry hasn’t updated to more modern control technologies than IR.  It isn’t that they haven’t made (fairly minor) stabs at it.  Occasionally you’ll see a piece of equipment from the 1990s sporting an RS-232 interface.  Though usually it is more for programming purposes than actual control.  More recently they’ve been sporting Ethernet and Wi-Fi connectivity, though in most cases that is for data (e.g., stream a movie from the Internet) and not control.  Radio Frequency (RF) remotes have also had a niche status, although one might have expected RF to replace IR long ago it hasn’t made much of a dent.

If you don’t understand the problems with IR let me give a brief summary.  It requires line-of-site to use wirelessly and expensive repeaters, extenders, blasters and other paraphernalia for interconnecting equipment.  It is horribly unreliable, with devices interfering with one another as well as cabinet design and room lighting causing problems.  It is slow, requiring you to hold a remote pointed at the same place for several seconds as it spits out a sequence of commands to operate multiple devices.  This last point caused my Mother so many problems (she’d end up with the TV on and the DVR off, or vice versa and be unable to get them back in sync) that we took away her DVR.  It really is time for this ancient and insufficient technology to die.

Of course the Consumer Electronics industry evolves very slowly, unless given a kick in the rear by the Computer Industry.  And once again it looks like Apple will be the one to apply boot to backside.  My sources are telling me that Apple intends to introduce a new proprietary control technology along with its forthcoming Apple TV called FireIR.

Apple’s FireIR will reportedly continue to use IR technology, but use a new proprietary high-speed protocol to replace RC-5 and the other protocols currently used in Consumer Electronics.  The FireIR protocol will be protected by Apple patents and Apple will require all connected equipment to use it.  For example. Apple will not license FireIR for use in Universal Remotes that support multiple protocols.  So in addition to your remote your CD player, DVD player, Stereo receiver, etc. would all need to be replaced by units that support FireIR.  The iPhone 6 as well as future iPod and iPads would of course support FireIR, completing the perfect Apple Consumer Electronics ecosystem.

I’m sure that most of you are worried about if Microsoft’s next-generation Xbox 720 will support FireIR, and friends on the Xbox team are telling me no.  That’s not a surprise as it seems unlikely that Apple will license FireIR to competitors.  Microsoft is working on its own alternative using technology developed by Microsoft Research.  WiNCE  (Wireless Next – Consumer Electronics) is a wireless version of RS-232 that supports very high-speed data transfers in addition to a remote control protocol.  Whereas Apple will combine FireIR control with 802.11AC for data transfer Microsoft is hoping to supplant both with WiNCE.  Microsoft will license a subset of WiNCE to the Consumer Electronics industry, and submit that subset to the IEEE for standardization.  Of course the Xbox 720, Windows 9, Windows Phone 9, and other Microsoft products will support a richer super-set of WiNCE that Microsoft hopes will lead to deployment of completely Windows-centric homes.

Personally I think that both Apple and Microsoft are crazy and that these developments are simply the ultimate example of the “greater fool” theory at work.  My understanding is that the Consumer Electronics industry doesn’t want either of them having this much power and is looking to establish its own replacement for traditional IR.  My bet is on Samsung’s proposed NG-TCOAS.  NG-TCOAS, or Next Generation – Two Cans On A String, is a universal technology that can be implemented easily and cheaply by all types of Consumer Electronics equipment.  Samsung will, of course, bake support into its own variant of Android as part of a strategy to wrestle control of that operating system from Google.  But that is a story for a future blog post.



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7 Responses to Apple TV and Xbox 720 to usher in new era of A/V-control interfaces

  1. Bob - former DECie says:

    AT&T has an RF-based remote for its U-verse equipment that it claims works through walls and can control the whole house DVR from anywhere in the house. It also has the ability to work as some sort of universal remote. The standard remote is a typical IR-based model.

    • halberenson says:

      The post came about (and you do realize what day it is) because of my struggles this weekend with a broken Niles MSU 140 IR unit. When my house was wired about 10 years ago we went with IR because RF support in devices was so limited. Over time RF support has increased, very slightly. So my original DirecTV Tivo DVRs have been replaced by DirecTV HD-DVRs which support RF, but switching to RF made no sense because the DVD players still require IR.

      This weekend’s problem was that the TV is mounted on the bedroom wall but all the electronics in a closet on the opposite side of the room (with cables running through a conduit in the ceiling). A sensor stuck on the front of the TV picks up IR signals and sends them to the Niles MSU which then repeats them to the DVR and DVD (as well as to a rack in the basement, but that is no longer used in the original way). With the MSU broken there was no way to get the IR signal to the DVR or DVD player.

      Although the DVR supports RF the remotes that come with them do not. However I was looking at our remotes and noticed the model number for one indicated it was RF capable. We also realized we hadn’t watched a DVD in the bedroom in years. So I tossed the DVD player, the Niles MSU, and the IR wiring and we now use RF in the bedroom. I also ordered another RF-capable remote and will switch the family room to RF as well. The Xbox doesn’t use IR, so no problem there. You’ll just have to open a cabinet door to watch a DVD since that still needs IR, but we do that rarely these days.

      A decade ago I told our A/V installer (and very active member of CEDIA) how insane his industry was for continuing to rely on IR. And they haven’t improved much. The disruptive forces are coming from outside the traditional players, as is often the case. Sonos, NAS, Xbox 360, and a few other developments obsoleted several thousand dollars of custom work done when we built the house. In a few more years I doubt there will be a single piece of equipment in my house that has the name of a pre-2000 consumer electronics company on it.

      • Bob - former DECie says:

        I had forgotten today’s date when I read this post.
        Unfortunately, I would not be surprised at all if Apple did just what you wrote. Microsoft? I’m not so sure they would try something like that.

        • halberenson says:

          Well, I hope Apple wouldn’t use IR (though the rest of the thinking might indeed hold true). And if Microsoft did do something it sure wouldn’t be RS-232 based 🙂

  2. pandafs2@twitter says:

    You almost got me, FireIR was almost believable, but WiNCE tipped me look the date of the post.

    • halberenson says:

      I figured that most people would be tipped off by WiNCE. And anyone who got to NG-TCOAS and didn’t realize it was an April Fool’s joke should really re-evaluate their gullibility index 🙂

  3. Brian says:

    TCOAS would be a great acronym though.

    I was off at the beginning of the week and I didn’t realize the date you posted this. I was a bit surprised by RS-232. There’s a standard that I really don’t ever expect to see resurrected and repurposed. I don’t expect to need to reach into that tupperware container I have of various RS-232 plugs/converters/etc ever again. If you had used RS-422, it might have been more believable.

    And, of course, WiNCE is pretty much the same as WinCE, and that acronym is already used.

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