December 06, 2012
| by Grant Clauser
IR (INFRARED) has long been the technology we’ve used to turn our TVs on, adjust the volume and control pretty much everything else our electronic devices do. It’s an old, proven and reliable technology, which means it’s time for it to go.
Why get rid of something that works fine? The answer is simple: IR is not living up to the needs of today’s audio, video and control systems. First, IR requires a line-of-sight connection to the equipment it’s operating. IR signals won’t go through walls or cabinets, so hiding your gear requires wires and repeaters.
Second, IR is one-way. Today’s home systems require more complex commands than simple on/off and up/down. We want feedback. We want our media servers to send metadata to our handheld controllers. We want to see a volume status bar on our remotes, channel guides on our touchscreens and receive status alerts from thermostats and security systems. For that you need two-way communication, and IP(Internet Protocol) fills that niche.
Nearly every new home theater component already has some level of IP connectivity built in. In the most basic products, IP provides content in the form of streaming audio and video apps. However, more products also include IP control with model-specific apps to run them.
If you’ve purchased a smart TV or home theater receiver lately, you’ve probably tried out its smartphone or tablet app. Those apps are nice supplements, but they don’t replace standard remotes for easy, convenient control.
There are RF standards that offer two-way control, but there are several, which means they’re hardly standard. IP is, more or less, a universal standard.
URC (Universal Remote Control) makes IR remotes for everything, but the company also launched an IP-based control system for home theater and just about everything else. Total Control fits natively on top of a home’s IP network and controls many A/V components with IP commands. Any IP device on the network is capable of being directly controlled. With non-IP devices, bridge products convert the IP signals to whatever the component needs, such as IR or RS-232.
With so many home theater components coming out with IP built in, it should be easy to connect your whole system that way, right? Not so fast.
Just because a home theater product has IP control via an app, doesn’t mean a third-party system can access that control. “Drivers are still necessary,” says URC’s Mitch Klein. “There’s no automatic download of drivers. You need some way of putting the control codes in.” While companies like URC are building databases of IP control codes, they’re not nearly as complete as the IR code databases.
This makes sense, but consider your computer—when you plug in a new printer or digital camera, the device loads its own driver and tells the computer how to communicate with it. Could the A/V industry adopt a similar plug-and-play level of friendliness?
Yes it can, and it’s happening. Orrin Charm of Gefen sees a rosy outlook for IP control. The company recently launched an IP home control system called GAVA. “I think most manufacturers have opened up to the fact that if they’re not compatible with an integration system, then they’re not really competitive.” He’s also optimistic about Universal Plug-N-Play for A/V devices. “That will actually allow the device to broadcast its capabilities to the network,” he says. UPnP for A/V gear is still in the early stages, but when it comes it could revolutionize system control.
Such universal plug-n-play isn’t universal yet, but it’s coming, and with it will be the death of IR remotes.
When this happens, configuring a system with multiple A/V components should be fairly simple—along the lines of configuring a universal remote. However, it still takes a network professional to make sure your network is robust and functioning properly.
Grant Clauser has been covering home electronics for more than 10 years with editorial roles in several consumer and trade magazines. He's done ISF-level damage to hundreds of reviewed products and has had audio training from Home Acoustics Alliance and Sencore. He's also the author of the book The Trouble with Rivers
. Follow him on Twitter @geclauser.