Combine sophistication and simplicity to achieve elegance. Such is the primary goal for today's developers of home-entertainment/ automation control devices.
How come? Simply put, the high end is driving the market for such devices, and consumers willing to spend tens of thousands on gear and setup have neither the time nor the inclination to abide anything clunky or overly complex. The trend today is to store electronic equipment out of sight, but the remote control must remain front and center— and it better look spiffy.
Developers at Universal Electronics Inc. kept elegance in mind when they designed the NevoSL handheld universal remote controller and its companion product, an IP-addressable bridge called NevoLink (Fig. 1).
"We were sold on another manufacturer, and I was skeptical, but I held (the NevoSL) in my hand for about two seconds, and then said 'okay, this is it,'" says Robert Gilligan, customer service manager at Engineered Environments, which assembles and installs customized residential electronics systems.
"Ergonomically, NevoSL is the best-of-breed among highend remote controllers. We've had a chance to use it fairly extensively for the last month or so and have a number of clients who are very excited about it."
The Nevo name should sound familiar if you own an iPAQ PDA. UEI first developed Nevo as an embedded application for the iPAQ 3900, as well as for some tablet-sized products. It modified the application for the iPAQ rx3715.
Apparently the application didn't hurt the iPAQ, as sales have run well into the millions. But UEI was aware of a disconnect of sorts between its conventional wand-style universal remotes and Nevo in either a PDA or a tablet. "In either of those, changing the volume or changing the channel was a two-handed affair that also required the user to look at the face of the device," says Mauro Dresti, UEI's senior director of emerging technologies.
UEI selected affluent consumers who go for cuttingedge technology and professional installers of high-end home-entertainment systems as its target markets for Nevo hardware. The company had lots of experience designing remote controls, plus a large database of RF control codes and the ability to squeeze that database tightly enough to make it fit inside an 8-bit microprocessor. Without compression, Dresti says, the codes would require about 100 times more storage capacity.
To overcome those limitations and address what it saw as a significant market opportunity, UEI developed its own hardware to support its Nevo software. "Research indicated that the average family spends four to five hours a day watching TV," says Dresti. "That makes the remote one of the most frequently used devices in the home and the logical gateway to home-entertainment and automation devices and systems."
The cornucopia of codes makes it likely that NevoSL will work with just about every product from almost any manufacturer. System installers can download additional codes from UEI's database via the Web. But pointing a wand at a TV or stereo receiver is one thing, and controlling a high-end home from any room is another. UEI was far from the only company to see opportunity in universal remote controls.
DESIGN CHALLENGES - UEI wanted to bring its Nevo remote to market as quickly as possible and at a reasonable cost. "We saw an opportunity to redefine the experience of home control," says Dresti. "We wanted to combine the functionality of the software we developed for tablets and PDAs with the intuitive tactile feedback of our traditional remotes. Products that had the ability to support multiple devices lacked the form factor and the ergonomics of remotes. Considering the target user, we wanted to design a simple, elegant, high-end solution."
For UEI's in-house design team, that meant the ability to use the device by touch alone, without looking at a display screen. It required a color graphical user interface sufficient to permit the use of large icons, as well as backlit keys with good tactile feel and acoustic key response.
The remote had to be small and light enough for one-handed operation, yet able to manage complete control of multiple devices. Easy setup and customization also were essential for the Nevo. And, it had to include USB support.
UEI's in-house industrial design team consisted of four engineers, including team leader Sandro Klein, manager of industrial design. Klein maintained close contact with Dresti, the firm's product and program manager, to incorporate marketing intelligence gleaned from UEI's experience in developing and selling universal remote controllers. The industrial designers also worked closely with Chanh Thai, UEI's director of mechanical engineering; Bill Brown, director of electrical engineering; Wayne Scott, senior director of advanced technology; Chris Chambers, director of home connectivity; Luis Villagomez, laboratory and test supervisor; and members of their respective teams.
The NevoSL provides wireless control of digital media and home-entertainment system components over home networks no matter where the components or media sources are located in the home. A family member in the kitchen can use the NevoSL to stream music from a computer in the family room to a receiver in the upstairs bedroom, or route a movie through a media bridge to a TV in the guest room (Fig. 2).
Using the 802.11b (Wi-Fi) protocol, the NevoSL transmits control signals to a bridge or to a router that relays them to NevoLink units connected with or without wires to entertainment system components. Key to UEI's control solution is the XPort embedded device server from Lantronix Inc.
Embedded in the NevoLink, the server enables TCP/IP communication over Ethernet. With the XPort, UEI can control devices over an Ethernet network without having done any detail design work on either the software or the magnetics required for regulatory compliance and certification. It's designed to meet class B emissions levels.
ETHERNET CONNECTIVITY - The XPort consists of a 10/100BaseTX Ethernet connection, an operating system stored in flash memory, an embedded Web server, a full TCP/IP protocol stack, AES-based encryption (Rijndael), Ethernet magnetics, status LEDs, and shielding. Its Lantronix DSTni EX controller includes a 16-bit i86 core with 24-bit addressing capability plus 256 kbytes of SRAM, 16 kbytes of boot ROM, and a media-access controller (MAC) with an integrated 10/100BaseTX physical layer (PHY) (Fig. 3).
The XPort communicates to edge devices through a 3.3-V serial interface and three general-purpose programmable I/O pins. It runs on 3.3 V. Its built-in voltage supervisory circuit will trigger a reset if the supply voltage drops to unreliable levels (2.7 V). A built-in 1.8-V regulator drives the controller's processing core.
The XPort is small enough to fit into an RJ45 connector. But its size was less important to UEI than the fact that it provides a complete solution, according to Dresti.
"It was a one-stop shop," says Dresti. "XPort allowed us to get Nevo to market faster than we could have otherwise. We were able to plug it in and prove the concept within a few hours, which was very appealing."
Further accelerating time-to-market, UEI selected Microsoft's .NET Web services development platform and Microsoft Windows CE .NET 4.2 as its development platform and operating system, respectively. Both were familiar from UEI's iPAQ development. Also, neither required a learning curve.
For the main processor in the NevoSL, UEI selected a 32-bit, ARM920T-based Samsung S3C2410A20-YORO FPGA with 32 Mbytes of flash memory for protected boot, operating-system, and configuration files, as well as 64 Mbytes of RAM for operation.
The board also contains a homegrown 8-bit MCU in a 48-pin ELP, which provides worldwide Consumer InfraRed (CIR). Its high-power CIR transmitter contains dual IR LEDs for maximum room coverage. A patented CIR circuit enables the unit to learn the RF codes of the components under control. Metal dome keypad switches provide positive tactile feedback.
UEI's design team selected a 3.5-in., 320-by-240 (QVGA) 64k color thin-film transistor display screen, combining it with 17 backlit programmable keys and a scroll wheel for page navigation. The controller integrates both IR and 802.11b Wi-Fi wireless communication. It includes a USB 1.1 port as well.
A rechargeable 1300-mAh lithium-ion battery powers the 5-V dc, 600-mA NevoSL. Weighing less than a pound, the controller comes with a charging cradle, an ac power adapter, NevoStudio and NevoMedia Manager software, a USB cable, a quick-start guide, and an instruction manual.
NevoStudio is a suite of drag-and-drop editing tools used to customize the user interface and control functions on a NevoSL. The software includes button and background galleries, and it supports graphic formats (.jpg, .bmp, .png, and .gif) for building customized control pages.
In addition, the software permits modification of both hard and soft keys. A site-map visualization feature provides page link information. There's also a remote function emulator available for testing finished designs within NevoStudio prior to downloading data to a NevoSL.
A Windows XP application, NevoMedia Manager, works with media PCs and the Universal Plug-n-Play (UPnP) protocol stack. It enables browsing of available digital content to stream music, share photos, and play movies on UPnP-compliant network devices anywhere in the home.
A companion product, NevoLink, is an IP-addressable bridge that lets the NevoSL control devices in a cabinet or other rooms. It features a built-in Ethernet connection and offers a 180 IR spread via six built-in, high-power color infrared diodes or six external IR extenders (or "bugs").
NevoLink comes with an ac power adapter, 10-ft IR extender cables, five switch plugs, and an installation guide. It measures 3 by 4 by 1.25 in. and weighs 0.25 lb. Also, it operates from a 5-V dc, 800-mA power supply.
UEI created a marketing requirements document. From that, the company derived a product requirements document and hardware and software specifications for the NevoSL and NevoLink. During the design process, which took about a year, UEI's design and engineering teams met regularly with UEI marketers in the U.S. and Europe, who had to sign off on the final design. Along with gathering feedback from customers at MyNevo.com, UEI conducted focus groups to identify ergonomic issues and graphical-user-interface preferences.
"Video was taken of subjects interacting with initial product concepts, and we incorporated that feedback," says Dresti. Early in the design effort, UEI solicited advice from professional custom home-theater installers to fine-tune the products' feature set. "This feedback significantly influenced the development of NevoStudio, which is the custom installer's interface with the product," notes Dresti.
SHAPING UP - UEI's design team used Pro/Engineer and Rhino 3D NURBS (Non-Uniform Rational B-Spline) software to create the NevoSL. The team began its work by creating a visual map in the form of a quadrant—" simple/complex" and "refined/whimsical"—to determine an appropriate design language. Then, the team settled on "refined" and "simple."
"The designers combined rectilinear surfaces and subtle curves to give the SL a sleek and sophisticated form," says Dresti. "Softer shapes tend to make a 'friendlier' and 'easyto-hold' impression."
Designers began to explore ergonomically friendly shapes that would be easy to grip with large or small hands and would also create an illusion of weightlessness. They used intersecting surfaces to form a finger grip. A pronounced "waistline" directs users toward the navigation island. A two-tone surface breakup and tapered sides make the remote appear thinner without sacrificing functionality.
The bottom corners of the remote were softened, and the bottom itself was tapered to make it more comfortable to hold (Fig. 4). The bottom case groove detail was designed to enable single-handed operation and permit users to transition more easily from the remote's hard keys to the soft keys on its LCD touchscreen.
"The design team knew users would interact with the hard keys as much as with the screen," says Dresti. "They worked to find the right balance of soft and hard keys so as not to overwhelm the user. Only the keys that were independent of a device would be exposed. Others would be shown on the screen."
Three key layout schemes were considered—square, circular, and transitional—to determine the best combination of key shape, size, and location for ease of use without users having to look at the keys. "The designers looked at how users would most likely hold the remote and the patterns where fingers would rest," Dresti explains. "Square keys were effective in bringing custom keys closer to the LCD, but they weren't very inviting, aesthetically. Round keys were just the opposite."
The custom keys incorporated the square LCD and transitioned into softer, rounder shapes that were more visually inviting. The transitional shapes were further refined, and a final key layout was chosen.
A clear plastic cradle and a charging base were designed to give users the option of interacting with the remote when it's being charged. The angle of the base positions the remote for optimal IR transmission. The cradle illuminates to a blue glow that highlights the remote and creates a floating effect.
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