Technology Showcase: Handheld Device Integration
Aug 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Bennett Liles
Remote controls enter a new phase.
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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