Don’t you just hate it, when you’re ready for a long night in front of your home theatre and suddenly your remote control refuses to function because it has run out of batteries? Or maybe – once again, you have dropped the remote on the floor and the battery compartment is broken, held together by rubber bands.

In addition, wouldn’t it nice to be able to use your remote control from anywhere in the house – not just in front of the device you are trying to use? And why do those appliances need to be out in the open where everyone can see them? Why can’t they be neatly tucked away in a cabinet out of site, with just the display screen visible?

The next generation of home remotes for consumer electronics solves those problems.

RF to replace IR – say goodbye to infrared and hello to radio

The consumer electronics industry has used infrared (IR) technology for more than 30 years for communication and networking purposes. But IR is not the best solution. Not only does it offer a limited range, an IR-based remote control unit must be in line-of-sight of the device. In addition, IR does not support interactivity and can not support data intensive applications like gaming.

The home theatre and home entertainment demands a more flexible and powerful solution like RF (radio frequency) technology equipped remote controls can provide.

Contrary to traditional IR based remote controls, RF remote controls provide two-way high-speed communication and do not require line of sight as the signal transmits through walls and floors. RF based remote controls are excellent for controlling equipment inside a cabinet or in another room. With a nice stylish flat screen on the wall, people do not need to have their set-top boxes, media server control units, DVD jukeboxes, etc., sitting out in the open. Even better, an RF remote control can use an interactive display screen built into the remote so you can monitor your entertainment choices and performance parameters.

The next generation of remotes

A few companies, – most specifically Sony, have been shipping RF remotes for a year or so. However, as four of the world’s largest consumer electronics companies have come together to create a new standard for Remote Controls (RF4CE), the number of new RF controlled device is expected to explode within the next year or two.

These four companies – Panasonic, Phillips, Samsung and Sony – have agreed to a standard that will ensure interoperability, security and ease of set up between remote controls. The big four manufacturers are working with various leading semiconductor vendors to create this new protocol that will enable the development of radio frequency remote controls that deliver richer communication, increased reliability and more flexible use.

The new RF4CE standard will be based on IEEE 802.15.4. MAC/PHY radio technology in the 2.4GHz unlicensed frequency band, which enables worldwide operation, low power consumption and instantaneous response time.

RC4CE Application Layer Profiles – from web site

The RF4CE Consortium’s goal is to develop a radio frequency platform that allows omni-directional and reliable two-way wireless communication, frequency agility to co-exist with other 2.4GHz wireless technologies, simple security set-up and configuration.

GreenPeak Spin

GreenPeak has developed RF remote control radio technology that enables the consumer electronics designer to develop an ultra low power RF system with a much longer battery life. Because of the ultra low power draw of the GreenPeak RF radio, RF remote controls can essentially be maintenance free. A single watch type battery hard wired into the device can outlast the lifetime of the remote. GreenPeak’s calculations, based on measurement results and profiles show a lifetime of more than 30 years on a small 2032 battery with 1000 key pressures per day, which is much longer than the average expected 10 years lifetime of consumer electronics.

At the 2009 CES Show, GreenPeak showed this reference of a RF remote control. The cover has been cut away to show the GreenPeak 500C radio chip that enables its high performance, ultra low power operation.

Not only does this mean no more changing of batteries it means no more rubber bands holding together the remote controls. Many families, especially those with kids, find that the battery compartment doors on IR based remote controls do not last very long. After a few drops on the floor, the plastic breaks and the batteries come spilling out. By having a small cell battery hard wired inside the remote, this problem is solved forever.

GreenPeak has developed a set of reference designs for this new generation of RF remote controls and RF modules for integration into host such as TVs, DVDs and set-top boxes.

The RF remote control can point through walls and as far as 30m. This extraordinary range is obtained by using a superior radio with antenna diversity, frequency agility and delay spread handling, resulting in robust communication.

GreenPeak is providing both parts of the puzzle – a small chip and design solution module that goes inside the device to be controlled as well as the low power radio and technology for the remote control.

How Does It Work – The Technical Stuff

Kill two birds with one remote control

Remote controls designed with RF are based on the IEEE 802.15.4 industry standard technology in the 2.4GHz unlicensed frequency band, which enables worldwide operation for multiple devices control. Some solutions – such as GreenPeak’s reference design – also include an IR transmitter as secondary use for legacy systems. This combo solution allows the use of a single universal remote control for both IR and RF devices. It is going to take many years before all the IR devices are gone and it is necessary to be able to control those as well in addition to the new generation of RF controlled devices.

Because of GreenPeak’s unique diversity antenna technology, RF remotes are much more resistant to interference from other 2.4 GHz radio sources and from radio echoes within a home or business. RF waves bounce off of metal, off of walls and if they hit a single antenna at the right time, can cancel each other out. By using diversity antennas, two antennas at right angles to each other, this wave cancellation effect is greatly minimized.

GreenPeak’s unique diversity antennas can be seen embedded into the remote control circuit board at the top of the image.

The ultimate goal of the RF communication is more than just replacing an IR remote control in entertainment. Universal remote controls based on RF are expected to enable advanced control capabilities, such as two-way communication between entertainment devices.

Two-way communication with high throughputs can allow more advanced features like high speed content browsing, touchpad operation, Wii-like motion-control technology gaming, as well as high resolution display feedback on the remote control for an enhanced entertainment experience and richer communication.

The new and improved connected home – linked together via RF

But there is more than entertainment. With a single, universal RF remote device, consumers will be able to control every aspect of their connected home. RF is engineered to control more than a TV and DVD, it can also control lighting, heating and air conditioning, blinds and shutters. Two-way communication can also be used to help you locate your lost remote control hidden in the couch pillows or under the table.

This new generation of RF communication is opening up a market for low cost, reliable high speed RF remote controls and is expected to have a huge impact on the user experience, as IEEE 802.15.4 remote controls will allow a completely new way to use a remote control. In short, the development of radio frequency remote controls will replace IR remote controls and deliver richer communications, increase reliability and improve flexibility.