Introduction to Smart Entertainment: A Brief History of Wireless Remote Controls

Electrical Exhibition in 1898, Madison Square Garden

It is a rainy September afternoon in New York. We are at the first Electrical Exhibition held at Madison Square Garden. A tall, skinny man is standing next to a big pool, surrounded by an excited crowd. In the pool we see a 4 foot long miniature ship. The man’s mustache is trembling as he commands with slavic accent: “Now, we will move the boat to the rrright!”. The crowd is marvelling at the mini boat, which indeed takes the ordered direction. One man recovering from speechlessness, shouts: “Move it to the left!”, only to freeze open-mouthed in amazement, as the boat follows his command.

Yes, it must have been like that. Otherwise I cannot explain how it comes that some people seriously referred to the event back in 1898, as the first demonstration of voice control.

The First Voice Wireless Remote Control: Teleautomaton

What Nikola Tesla actually did, was demonstrating his remote control. I seriously doubt that Tesla wanted to trick the people into believing that it’s his or the audiences voice, which is operating the boat. He was standing behind his rather big remote control, which he had to operate manually. While he was explaining his demonstration, people were staring at the boat, which was magically moving around. Some just got it plain wrong.

The “teleautomaton”, how Tesla called it, was patented under the title „Method of an apparatus for controlling mechanism of moving vessels or vehicles”. His remote control is based on radio waves and this was first presented by Sir Oliver Joseph Lodge in 1894. Lodge demonstrated at Oxford the similarity of radio waves to light and was able to increase the distance of transmission up to 55 meters. He used a radio signal detector, called “coherer” which is based on findings of Édouard Eugène Désiré Branly in 1890, but this must have been a rather boring demo.

The First Multifunctional Remote Control: “Telekine”

Moving forward in time to the next cool demo, we jump to Paris. It’s 1903, we are at the Paris Academy of Science. A bearded man with spanish accent demonstrates his remote control, with a rather unusual robot. Leonardo Torres y Quevedo “Telekine” resembles a boat, but this time not in water. Ok, another mini boat but without water, maybe the demo was not that great. Anyway, the idea behind it definitely was. His ship robot was able to perform 19 different actions, rather than Teslas 3 (left, right, stop).

From the simple “on/off” mechanisms we saw before, executing an action, depending on whether a signal is received or not, he defined a method for controlling any mechanical or electrical device with different states of operation. A transmitter sends a codeword, in form of a binary telegraph signal, and the receiver can do different things depending on this codeword.

Torres-Quevedo was already some years before that into remote controls. He wanted them for testing his airships without risking some poor pilots life. Though, the first application of his remote control concept was a tricycle, which he was able to control from the distance of around 30 meters, before he actually built his receiver into a real boat which he controlled at the distance of 2 kilometers.

Torres-Quevedo has posthumously received 2007 the IEEE Milestone award for these early developments in remote control in 1901.

Both, Tesla and Quevedo tried to sell their technology to the military, both failed. Both were fed up and stopped working on remote controls.

Drawing of Leonardo Torres y Quevedo, some unknown inventor and Nikola Tesla pondering on remote controls.
Rare Picture: Leonardo Torres y Quevedo, some unknown, frazzled inventor and Nikola Tesla contemplating remote controls.

The First Wireless Radio Remote

During World War II many were working on remote controls for the military. Philco ranked as 57th US military contractor, sold from 1939-1941 the “Mystery Control”, as first consumers wireless remote. The first wireless remote for a radio looked like a monstrous wooden box with a dial-phone, but it was already battery operated.

The First TV Remotes: Visible Light and Ultrasound

Eugene Polley, working for Zenith Electronics, developed the first wireless TV remote control in 1955. It operated with visible light, which was suboptimal. Robert Adler, I usually omit the nationalities, but he was Austrian, invented in 1956 the first wireless sound based remote control, also for Zenith.

Teletext and Infrared

The consumer remotes were pretty simple back at the time with up to 4 buttons. With the advancement of teletext we had to enter numbers and so in 1980 the first infrared wireless remote controls with the well known numeric keypad were developed.

Universal Remotes

In 1985 Philips introduced the first universal remote under the Magnavox brand and marketed it with a “Smart, Very Smart” campaign. This was the first time the term “smart” was coined around consumer electronics.

Even the Woz, sorry I mean Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, had his startup working on a universal remote in in 1987, but he sold it a year later.

By 2000 every household had too many remotes and people started looking into universal remotes to combine the many into one.

So, where are we today?

Nowadays remotes are not only a convenience feature. Mostly we cannot find the many commands we need on the device itself, but rather on the devices remote. Todays universal remotes come in different shapes and features.

Remote Hubs

Some of them have WIFI hubs, so we can install apps on our smartphones and tablets and use them as remote control. As most electronic devices are using infrared (IR), which requires line of sight, the connection between an actual universal remote control and the hub can be based on radio frequency (RF), which does not require line of sight, so we can hide the many devices in media racks. To make sure that every device gets its IR signal, some hubs provide small IR blasters, which we can place close to the devices. Apart of WIFI and IR, also bluetooth has established as remote control standard and is also supported by some universal remote controls.

The One Remote

The actual universal remotes mostly have programmable touchscreens, motion sensors and vibration feedback for better usability. We can connect them to a Mac/PC, or program them with apps. The configurations we need for our entertainment or smart home devices can be downloaded from a huge database. In case a device is missing, we can teach our remotes to learn the commands (mostly). And last but not least, they are smart and can combine the many actions needed to navigate our entertainment systems into one single activity.

Todays Cool Demo

Today, you could say “Turn on CNN” and: Your lights dim, your TV flips down from the ceiling turning on, receiver and cable box turn on, TV and receiver switch to the right input channel, the cable box to CNN. Voilà, CNN it is.

Though this is a rather common example for what we can do with remote controls today, I believe, Nikola Tesla and Leonardo Torres y Quevedo would be impressed!

I hope you enjoyed this short introduction into smart remote controls and smart entertainment. Appreciate your ideas and feedback in the comments below.

Where to go from here?

Logitech Harmony: a Hub and it’s Elite, Ultimate, Companion will give you an overview of the product line, concepts, setup and features of Logitech Harmony, which we are using since 2010.

In the assistant posts, we look into the setup of Google Home and Alexa to speech enable our remote control:

Finally, we compare the capabilities of our assistants in Assistant Showdown with Logitech Harmony: Who will win, Alexa or Google?.

You’re into music?

Find the detailed music voice commands for all supported music services in these posts:

If you’d like to know which of our assistants is more musical, see Musical Assistant Showdown: Who will win, Siri, Google or Alexa?

I hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to smart entertainment!

Still, more to come in this section, stay tuned.

Other Links:

A picture of Nikola Tesla’s Teleautomaton
A picture of Leonardo Torres y Quevedo’s Telekine
IEEE paper on the Telekino of Torres-Quevedo
Gizmondo article with a picture of the Mystery Control
The Logitech Harmony Product Line

Introduction to Smart Lighting: A Very Brief History of Light

Siri and Alexa in their cave. Google Assistant explores the surroundings.

Just as light is a vital component of life, smart lighting is a cornerstone of our smart home. In this introduction post (thank you for the feedback, that we need such posts!), we will shed some light on the history and evolution of lighting and how it comes that smart lamps can enlight our home today.

What is light?

Planning on a bigger post about the history of light, from mythology to religion, early optics, art (I got stuck in there), to electromagnetic waves, wave/particle duality, quantum physics etc. I realized soon too late, that this would be a rather huge project.

We need to save this for later, since we need an overview now.

A Very Brief History of Light

With the control of fire, quite some time ago – when exactly, depends on whether we look at Homo habilis, Homo erectus or Homo sapiens – we reached an important point in our cultural development. From cooked food to warm caves and protection, we owe fire many early developments, like tools and weapons for hunting. Yes, for hunting only!

After the torch came the oil lamp, somewhere 4000 B.C. We still use candles today, which were developed in early forms around 3000 B.C., as decorative lights and of course on our birthday cakes (though, I doubt we would put a candle made of whale fat on our cake).

We want our cities illuminated by night. In 1417 the mayor of London ordered to hang lanterns out on dark winter evenings. It was not until we started coal mining, that we discovered that burning coal gas is an effective source for lighting. In 1807 the first public street light was built in London. Late 1813 the whole Westminster bridge was illuminated by gas and by 1858 it could be found all over Britain, soon followed by most cities in North America and Europe.

Electric Lighting and the Light Bulb

Early Days

In 1879 Thomas Alva Edison did not invent the electric light, but he was the first one to create a mass product. According to historians, the light bulb was invented by 22 gentlemen, before Joseph Swan and Thomas Edison built their versions.

Very Rare Drawing of Joseph Wilson Swan, some unknown, handsome inventor, and Thomas Alva Edison.
Rare Picture: Joseph Wilson Swan, pointing the finger at some unknown, handsome inventor (could it be the founder of smartenlight.com?) and Thomas Alva Edison.

The Rise and the Fall of Incandescent Lamps

The effectivity and long-liveness of an incandescent lamp largely depend on the incandescent material (duh), it’s resistance and the vacuum around it. From carbon to platinum, to other metals, back to carbon, Edison’s first successful lamp lasted 13 hours, Swan’s lasted 40 hours. In 1896 Edison bought a patent from Arturo Malignani who found a way to mass manufacture bulbs which last 800 hours. Tungsten was the filament of choice of Sandor Just and Franjo Hanaman in 1904 who added gas into the bulb to improve efficacy. The improvements went on and reached by 1964 the factor of thirty compared to Edison’s initial version.

Around 95% of the power we put into an incandescent lamp is converted into heat, which is actually bad. As we have meanwhile developed more energy efficient lighting alternatives, like Halogen, CFL (compact fluorescent) and LED (light-emitting diode) lamps, governments around the world are phasing out the incandescent light bulbs.

The Age of LED

Replacing our incandescent lamps, which have a typical lifetime of 1000 hours and operate at around 60 Watt on average, but are brutally cheap to purchase, with a LED lamp which costs a lot more, is a no-brainer when we do the math:

A LED lamp has a lifetime of around 15000 hours and operates at around 8 Watt. While an incandescent lamp costs us some $330 over 20 years, a comparable LED lamp costs us only around $60 for the same period. This is for dumb LEDs, but what if we add some smartness? Well, this costs around $15-30 more during purchase, but as we will see, we can operate smarter, saving additional money. We can use sensors to automatically turn them off or dim them, not to mention the added comfort and convenience of light temperature and colors we can control.

What is a Smart Home?

Yesterday

“Smart home” is a term which has evolved over the past decades and keeps transforming into the future. Some 20 years ago, a light timer, which switched our outdoor lights off at a certain time, might have been called smart home technology. 15 years ago, a motion sensor controlled lamp might have been really smart. Around 10 years ago, this motion sensor could have had a daylight sensor incorporated, to switch the light on only when it is needed. Huh, I remember the time!

Today

What we perceive today as smart home are many different, network-connected devices, which help us to monitor and control, automate and optimize various aspects of our home. From lighting to entertainment, security to health. We can do that with our smartphones, tablets or computers and for the past 3 years also with our voice. If we are lucky we can connect all these devices to create a bigger, smarter system: our smart home.

Tomorrow

We are currently being held back by a technological fragmentation, which confuses us with many different smart home standards and makes it difficult to connect them. (Btw. That’s why I’ve created this website!)

We currently see different vendors, creating different “closed ecosystems”, but that’s only a short-term remedy.

Crossing the Chasm: Technology Adoption Curve
Technology Adoption: It starts with some enthusiasts (innovators) who pick up a new technology. A bit more visionaries (early adopters) follow. But then, there is a chasm (OOPS) which needs to be crossed, before pragmatists (early majority) and conservatives (late majority) pick it up. Are we currently in the Smart Home Oops?

Smart home technology will only be widely adopted, when our smart home vendors improve on interoperability of their devices, so we can connect their bits and pieces conveniently to one, really smart home.

What is Smart Lighting?

We have started to look into the energy efficiency aspect of smart lighting. We have also identified smart lighting as an integral part of a smart home. Where do we go from here?

Here are some ideas!

We have The Many Ways of Controlling Smart Lighting, which give us insight into the “smart” part of smart lighting, in which we can look into further improving our energy efficiency, comfort, and convenience. We can Control Smart Lighting with Presence, Geo-fencing and Motion Sensors, hands- and voice free.

Talking about comfort and health, we could use smart lighting for Sleeping Better and Waking Up more Energized. Furthermore, we can simulate Natural Light with Smart Lighting throughout the day.

Here are some devices!

Philips Hue is the smart lighting system we – at our smart home – are using since 2013, and the system evolved into a quite huge setup, with multi-bridge and many accessories.

Nanoleaf Aurora: Smart Lighting, Living Paint or Smart Art? is sticking on our living room wall since end of 2016 and is a quite different smart lighting device.

“Let there be light!”

Though it is kind of cool to be able to “god-like” command your smart lighting with your voice, we are examining here not only the voice commands, but also the setup and capabilities of our smart voice assistants in combination with our smart devices.

For Philips Hue:

For Nanoleaf Aurora:

I hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to smart lighting. If you have questions or want to share your experience, please leave your comment below!

Other Links

For a 5 minute definition of light, see this Kurzgesagt clip.
Here’s a Wikipedia article with comparison and cost calculation of different lamps (scroll down to the table).
The fall of the incandescent lamps: in this Wikipedia article you can check the current state of the phase-out (search for your region).