If you’re over 40 you probably remember the absolute joy of holding a TV remote control for the first time. You were suddenly liberated from getting up to change the channel or volume.

These days, not only do we take remote controls for granted, we have a love/hate relationship with them. As we add more equipment to our entertainment systems (VCR, DVD, CD player, AV receiver, TIVO, DVD burner, Playstation, etc.) we collect more and more remote controls. Figuring out which remote does what you want to do becomes a challenge, assuming you can find the right remote.

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This problem is so common that many of us have tried a “Universal Remote”, a single remote that replaces all of the individual ones. The funny thing is, we still aren’t satisfied. Although we now have only one remote, it still isn’t easy to use.

The Babysitter Test

What is the functionality of the perfect remote control? Imagine having a babysitter visit your house for the first time. Without lessons on how to do it, this babysitter picks up your remote and turns on everything needed for your child to watch a DVD. When the child needs a break, the babysitter pauses the movie. Once the babysitter is alone at night, she can turn on the TV, scroll through the channels, and find something interesting to watch. No frustration. One remote.

This is reminiscent of the joy of that original remote control. It just works.

How can you achieve this nirvana? Why don’t those universal remote controls work the way you expected? There are really three key reasons: multi-modes, macros, and toggle power commands. Understanding these reasons points to what is necessary for the ideal solution.

Multi-modes: Almost all universal remote controls have buttons that change the mode of the remote. Sometimes the remote controls the VCR, sometimes the DVD player, sometimes the TV. The user has to know what device to control and set the correct mode on the remote control. This means that the user must understand the setup well enough to make it all work together.

The ideal remote has a set of source buttons. Pushing one of them initiates everything that needs to occur to watch or listen to that source. Further, when you push a transport control button like pause or play, the correct command is sent to the correct source component (e.g. DVD, VCR), but when you push volume up, the command is sent to the A/V receiver or the TV (as appropriate). It’s almost like the remote control is reading your mind and knows which component to control for each button press.

Macros: With most universal remote controls you have the ability to program them to send out a string of commands, controlling several different devices. However, if you move the remote control before the string is finished, some of those commands will not be executed.

The ideal remote control sends a single command. This way once the button is pressed, the remote can be set down or moved. To make this happen, the remote must talk to some component (i.e. a controller) that interprets this button press and sends commands out to the appropriate A/V components.

Toggle power: Another issue with universal remotes is that the equipment can easily get “out of sync”. Imagine you have written a macro (a string of commands) to turn on the DVD player, the AV receiver, and the TV. You walk into the room, put a DVD in the DVD tray (notice the DVD player turned on when you did that), sat down and pushed the button that sends out the macro. The TV turns on, the AV receiver turns on, but the DVD player turns off. This is because the DVD received the “power” command when it was already on, so instead of staying on it turned off.

There are two ways around this problem. First, make sure all of your components have discrete commands. This means there is a separate “power on” versus “power off” command. Thus, if the DVD player is on and receives a “power on” command, nothing happens. However, not many A/V components have discrete power commands. In the absence of discrete commands the solution is to monitor the on/off status of each individual component. Knowing which components are on or off enables the system to determine when to send power commands to the devices.

Ideal remote control: So, how can you realize the ideal remote control? The solution is a remote control talking to a controller. The controller listens for remote control signals, determines what commands need to be sent to the A/V components, and sends them. The tricky part is determining which A/V commands to send. This requires knowing what the user is listening to or watching, and knowing which components are on and off.

Combining a remote with a controller can bring back the joy of having a simple remote control. Done right, there is no need to “understand” how the entertainment equipment is wired, nor a need to learn how to control it. It just works. In fact, it passes the babysitter test.