CES 2011 – Advanced Remote Control Technologies

Michael Convente January 19, 2011 0

As both home theater systems and media content get more and more extensive, remote control technolgy must advance in order to provide the user with the most enjoyable and seemless experience possible.  The current trend for remote controls is to cram as many buttoms as possible onto the device, as is seen with the Logitech Harmony 650 Remote. While this remote certainly can control numerous devices, I'm not sure anyone would want to use it.  Two companies on site at CES 2011 – Mashed Pixel and Philips – aim to save us from button overload with their latest advanced remote control technologies.  Both promise a unique and enjoyable user experience – but do they deliver?


Mashed Pixel is like the new kid in school: buzzworthy, intriguing, and fresh.  And if the popular kids let their guard down, she might jump right to the top of the food chain.  At least that's what President and CEO Daphna Kalman is hoping for.  Daphna and her father Michail founded Mashed Pixel in 2009 originally as a smartphone application firm.  The company's mission, as Daphna puts it, is "all about enabling consumers to simplify and enrich their daily mobile lifestyle."  The Mashed Pixel team has a few apps coming down the pipeline, but recently the company has focused the next leading trend for smartphone applications – pairing them with accessory products to broaden the smartphone's usability.  Mix in some innovation, a lot of hard work, and a potentially huge market, and outs pops Surc, "a Universal learning remote app in a super snazzy case."

The Surc remote case is available is several colors and provides solid protection for your iPhone.  You can see the InfraRed sensor at the top of the case.

Surc aims to solve the problem of remote control overload by combining everything onto your smartphone.  Snap on the InfraRed sensor case, download the free app, set up remotes for your plethora of devices, and voila!, you have an all-in-one remote control for your home.  Surc's power is in its portability.  Not only can you add multiple devices per room, you can also create a remote control for any room in your dwelling that has supported electronic devices.  And there's no need to worry about having some no-name TV or DVD player.  When Daphna showed me the list of devices menu in the "Add Device" region of the app, it included all of the familiar brands plus dozens of brands I had never even heard of.  Bottom line: your device is likely covered.

The layout of the app is clean, and no detail is left spared.  For example, if you want to edit the layout of a particular remote, you will be greeted with gridlines to help you align the buttons as you move them around.  These are the little things that add so much to the user experience for a product.  It's no surprise to find out that Daphna has a background in graphic design.

With Surc, your options are limitless.  Add as many (or as few) buttons as you desire.  Not only can you create remotes for all devices in a single room, you can make a set of remotes for each room!  And all are easily accessed by toggling back and forth at the top of the app screen.

You'll also be happy to hear of Surc's sharing and backup feature.  For a lot of households, multiple people use the same TV or DVD player.  Instead of having each person create a remote for their own smartphone, you can create a single remote layout for each device and then share it with your family members or friends.  And for those of you who annoy us with the never-ending "I lost my phone, need your number" FaceBook group invites, you're covered as well.  Each time you're satisfied with a remote layout, you can back it up on Surc's own servers.  This way if you lose your phone, you can get back all your remote layouts (provided you replace your smartphone, of course).  You can even save multiple remote versions for the same device.  Want to try something new, but don't want to forever erase your traditional but trusted layout?  Just backup each new layout and you can toggle between remote layouts whenever you desire!

Finally, to complete the user experience, Mashed Pixel has compiled a comprehensive set of How-To videos on the getSurc YouTube account.  Daphna stars herself as your troubleshooting guru, guiding you through the basics (opening the app for the first time) to some of the more advanced features (adding gestures).  Almost all of the features Daphna demonstrated for me were easy to learn, though it probably will take a decent amount of time to set up remote layouts for all of your devices.  But at least once you've done this, you won't have to edit the layouts ever again, that is unless you want to get creative.  And that, to me, is the innovation that really could make Surc a breakthrough remote control technology.  No longer will users be stuck with a static remote control.  With Surc, users will finally be able to customize remote layouts from super complex to super minimalist, and everywhere in between.  Maybe Mashed Pixel could even sponsor "Surc Wars!", a competition to create the most functional remote layouts using the fewest buttons (I'd like some credit for this idea!).

Surc clearly has many positive features, but throughout my discussions with Daphna and the other Surc staff, I did manage to think of a few potential problems that could make consumers pause before purchasing the product; I gave the Surc staff a chance to respond.  First off, I thought of the family demographic.  I'm not sure how many families would let their little ones use mommy or daddy's cell phone to control the TV.  This won't be as much of a problem as I imagine, a company spokesperson responded, since many children are receiving iPod Touches instead of exclusive portable gaming units like Nintendo DS.  Finally, perhaps most concerning to potential buyers is this – what happens if I want to actually use my cell phone for talking and as a remote at the same time?  Again, the company states, my concern is nothing to be worried about.  The guys and gals over at Surc say that they multitask all the time, using the power of the iOS 4 software.  And though the device is is currently only available for iPhone versions 4, 3GS, and 3, they are quickly moving to get the app and case available on more non-phone platforms, most notably the iPod Touch and iPad.  And don't fret Android users, they are fast at work designing a compatible version for you as well!

All in all, Surc is a very innovative, user-friendly, and comprehensive advanced remote control technology.  I definitely see it more useful for young professionals, though the company has no qualms about targeting it for all demographics.  At a cost of $69.95, it is very competitve to current advanced remote controls, especially for individual users.  I'm just not sure I see a large market for families considering everyone would need their own InfraRed case, which could increase the total cost pretty quickly.  For the sake of this new kid in town, I hope I'm wrong.

Surc will be available in Spring 2011 at getSurc.com

Head on over to page 2 to learn about another advanced remote control technology from Philips.

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If Mashed Pixel is your rookie prospect, then Philips is your veteran all-star.  In business since 1891, Philips is one of the largest electronics companies in the world.  Philips manufactures a wide range of products, and consumer electronics is one of their mainstays.  At CES 2011 under their Philips Home Control division, Philips displayed the uWand, an intuitive 3D remote control technology.  Unlike Surc, which solves button overload by streamlining numerous remotes into a digital menu, the uWand eliminates almost every button altogether.  When implemented in remote controls, the uWand technology allows users to navigate their home media center in the same way a cursor navigates a computer screen.  Similar to the Nintendo Wiimote in its function, users of the uWand will be able to toggle over a digital TV guide and select a show directly, among numerous options.  And unlike other emerging intuitive remote control technologies that are limited to planar navigation, the uWand incorporates a "Z" coordinate, allowing for true 3D content navigation.  This innovative technology allows remote control manufacturers to significantly reduce the number of buttons needed – almost everything becomes strictly software based.

The uWand uses your TV screen as the main source for content navigation, so only a few buttons are needed.

As the internet and television become more connected, consumers will expect a user interface that is easy to use while expanding functionality, similar to a mouse and PC.  Navigating this new wave of content on a TV using only four directions is near impossible.  The solution to this, according to Navin Natoewal, General Manager of uWand at Philips, is to make a point and gesture user interface.  Navin was gracious enough to do a live demo for me at CES.  Check out the video below (make sure to switch to 720p for the best quality):

As you can see, the uWand technology is easy to learn and provides a strong user experience.  What really fascinates me is the future of this technology.  Navin mentioned to me that eventually it could be possible to control other home products using the same 3D remote control technology.  For example, one could dim the room lighting by twisting the remote left, similar to the motion used to lower TV volume.  With uWand, Philips has definitely challenged our concept of the remote control.  Philips' target date for launching the technology with consumer electronics is 2012, so be on the lookout for uWand in the future.

Head on over to page 3 for my final comments.

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It was a pleasure meeting with both Daphna and Navin at CES.  Both of their respective companies – Mashed Pixel and Philips – offer new and exciting solutions for the way we control our home entertainment devices.  Both Surc and uWand have their upsides and downfalls, but from seeing both in action at CES, I'm convinced that both are an upgrade over the current set of cluttered remote controls.  If you aren't sure which option would be best for you, I would suggest asking to try each system out.  Philips should have demo kiosks at retailer stores, so testing out the uWand most likely won't be a problem.  Getting your hands on a Surc system to demo may be a little trickier, but I'm sure early users will upload some demo videos on YouTube shortly after it's launch, so be sure to be on the lookout for those.

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