Navigating digital convergence with a natural motion remote

November 1, 2008 OpenSystems Media

2Traditional remote control devices no longer fulfill the needs of today's digital-driven home entertainment systems. Ian describes the technological advancements needed to develop a more intuitive interface that follows users' natural hand movements.

With the increasing number of multimedia options available to viewers today, a tectonic shift is taking place in the digital home. This transition is more significant and far-reaching than when television expanded from four networks to hundreds of cable channels or when newspapers began posting stories online. Those were changes in degree; what's happening now is a change in kind.

No single medium has a monopoly on home entertainment, news, and information. In addition to traditional TV and cable media, consumers can download free Internet content such as YouTube clips, subscription-based Web programs like Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, and soon, the video equivalent of podcasts from various sources. Add to that the digitized multimedia already stored on PCs like home movies and iTunes downloads, along with direct movie delivery services from Netflix and other companies, and the home is becoming overwhelmed with a tsunami of inputs. The problem is figuring out how to surf that wave and not drown in the onslaught.

Many consumers are already taking control of their home entertainment programming, and the industry is following suit as companies like Intel and Yahoo hurry to catch up to this new paradigm. Providers of both conventional and Internet media recognize they must compete for consumers' eyes and dollars by offering quality content, easy-to-use interfaces, and a more immediate, tactile user experience. Today's market demands “a user interface that is intuitive [and] allows users to really personalize and customize their viewing habits,” remarks Jeff Heynen of Infonetics Research.

Digital TV innovation

Separating content and carrier may create chaos for users struggling to manage different menus. However, unifying middleware for AV equipment such as Internet Protocol Television (IPTV), digital media adapters, and Tru2way allows consumers to receive interactive cable services like voting and polling capabilities, multiplayer games, and e-commerce in their TVs without requiring separate set-top boxes.

IPTV provides these services by delivering digital television via Internet Protocol instead of traditional broadcast and cable formats. It is usually supplied by a service provider using a closed network in competition with TV content delivery over the public Internet, called Internet Television. Digital media adapters likewise enhance the home entertainment experience by enabling devices to connect to a home network, retrieve digital media files (music, pictures, or videos) from a PC or other media server, and play those files on a home theater system or TV.

Tru2way is the cable industry's response to user demand. This technology delivers interactive digital cable services over the cable video network, offering interactive program guides, ads, games, messaging, and Web browsing. Major cable operators have committed to deploying the platform in service areas covering more than 90 million U.S. homes by the end of 2008.

Given the capabilities offered by these new digital technologies, it's apparent that traditional up-down-left-right controllers no longer suffice. What's needed is something similar to but more intelligent than a computer mouse – a natural movement input device that integrates various content sources into a single menu.

Out with the keyboard, in with the pointer

Because consumers want an advanced interface that is intuitive and easy to use, a natural movement input device must allow viewers to manipulate images on a TV screen by moving a pointer freely in 3D space, as opposed to moving a computer mouse that navigates in 2D space. This interface may come in the form of a simple device included with set-top boxes and digital media players or sold separately as a virtual handheld computer. In any case, the demand for this type of device is giving rise to a new mantra for home entertainment: deep-six the keyboard; embrace the pointer.

This trend is already gaining momentum as TV gaming is expanding beyond teens playing twitch games to people of all ages and interests participating in social games like those offered by the Nintendo Wii. Furthermore, as computing capacity increases with modern set-top boxes, cable and broadband providers have begun offering a variety of games, including traditional favorites like chess and backgammon. These set-top boxes allow users to play with others on the network without any elaborate equipment and network setup.

One reason why the Nintendo Wii has achieved success in the gaming market is because it offers an advanced user interface that is intuitive and flexible, allowing gaming newbies to pick up any game and play without having to learn how to use thumbs-only controllers. Users can play games and make complex menu selections by moving the input device, which follows even the slightest hand movements.

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Figure 1

Refining interface technology

After considering the Wiimote's strengths and limitations as a remote input device, early adopters have concluded that new technologies are needed to implement a natural motion remote for general consumer electronics. To fulfill the requirements for this device, the new technologies must be:

  • Intuitive and easy to use. To make the transition from today's interfaces to the next generation seamless for consumers, the interface should be a simple upgrade from conventional remotes.
  • Low power. The remote should run on household batteries and not require new batteries for at least three months.
  • Self-contained. The natural movement device should not require unsightly add-ons attached to the TV, such as the Wii's LED strips.
  • Able to work anywhere in the room. The Wiimote only works when it is positioned within a narrow cone-shaped area in front of the LED strip, thus limiting users' range of motion. The next-generation device should mimic conventional remotes in terms of their ability to function at any angle to the TV.
  • Priced to enable ubiquitous deployment. To get to consumer price levels, the interface must use inexpensive, commodity sensor elements. Such devices will no doubt cost more at first because they use control algorithms and advanced heuristics with precision analog/mixed-signal capability. But because these devices are built using standard CMOS, they will enjoy the same exponential price declines as other CMOS components.
  • Easy to manufacture. To keep manufacturing costs low, calibrating the sensors used in the remote should be a simple and automated process.

As choices in the digital home multiply exponentially, simplifying multimedia navigation and control is becoming all the more important. By developing an intelligent handheld natural movement input device, the consumer electronics industry can help guide users through the media-rich, computer-based digital viewing experience.

Ian Chen is executive vice president of Sensor Platforms, Inc., based in San Jose, California, where he oversees development and marketing of the company's precision analog/mixed-signal products, including navigation, natural motion, and vibration cancellation devices. Ian has BS and MS degrees in Electrical Engineering and an MBA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Sensor Platforms
408-850-9350
ichen@sensorplatforms.com
www.sensorplatforms.com

Ian Chen (Sensor Platforms)
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