Remote controls get pointless as radio frequency gains popularity

RF remotes will enable voice and gesture control for next-gen devices -- and eliminate the need to point at the TV

The use of radio frequency tech in remote controls for everything from smart TVs and BluRay players to gaming devices will see a huge uptick compared with infrared-based controls.

Fewer people will have to point their remote controls at televisions as nearly one-fifth of all remotes will feature wireless radio frequency (RF) technology by 2018, according to a new report.

The report, from IMS Research, says that about 450 million RF remote controls will ship between 2013 and 2018, with the percentage of RF remotes reaching up to 18% of all such in five years.

IMS's report also points out that RF technology will enable many advanced technologies not available with current infrared-enabled remotes, including voice and gesture control.

"One of benefits is out-of-line and sight communication and control. So you don't need to point your remote at the TV anymore," said Philip Maddocks, connectivity analyst for IHS. "People are used to doing that with infrared but with an RF remote that's not the case."

Smart and web-connected televisions, with their more sophisticated user interfaces, will also be much easier to navigate with RF, Maddocks said.

"You have the enhanced bandwidth with RF technologies as opposed to infrared. So you can incorporate things like gesture-based controls where you can twist the remote clockwise to turn the volume up and turn it counterclockwise to turn it down," Maddocks said. "You can also incorporate voice based controls as well". RF-based remote controls will also feature technologies like Bluetooth Smart (a.k.a., Bluetooth low energy/Bluetooth v4.0), ZigBee RF4CE, or low-power Wi-Fi, he said.

Low-power wireless technologies have already demonstrated uptake in a variety of "host" devices, such as smart televisions, DVD/Blu-ray players and set-top boxes.

There is a big difference between the current Bluetooth 2.1 specification found in most products and the upcoming Bluetooth 4.0 spec, which is expected out in June, Maddocks said. Bluetooth 2.1 drains so much power from a remote that the battery typically must be changed every couple of months. Bluetooth's low energy usage would extend the battery lifespan by a couple of years, Maddocks said.

On the other hand, low-power WiFi (a.k.a. WiFi Direct), being offered in Roku set-top boxes today, offers throughput of up to 21Mbps compared with Bluetooth's 2Mbps, but it uses a great deal more power than BlueTooth v4.0, Maddocks said. So there are tradeoffs.

Device manufacturers also want to use RF specifications extend control functionality in remotes, and in some instances, smartphone and portable computing devices to control entertainment systems are driving the latter specifications.

While RF technologies can provide a wealth of additional benefits for control functionality, an overwhelming majority of remote controls will still use IR in 2018, projections show. The IR technology is familiar to consumers, which tend to choose the technology they're comfortable with, and IR-based remote controls are also less expensive to manufacture.

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at  @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

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