Coming soon: the downloadable remote

Eugene Huang demonstrates the computer-based universal remote he developed with Peter Daley. The two have formed a company to bring their invention to market.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

It was so much simpler when there were only 12 channels and the remote control had three buttons: the on-off switch, the volume control and the channel changer.

Now we have hundreds of cable channels, TVs connected to VCRs and to stereo home theaters, and delayed viewing. And even with universal remotes and VCR Plus codes, sorting through everything one needs to tape "Titanic" on Tuesday and then play it back in surround-sound on Saturday is still a daunting task. And what happens when your cable company adds two-way capability and another 200 channels?

Enter Eugene Huang (EAS/W'99) and Peter Daley (EAS/W'98), who have come up with a way to make computers do it all for you.

Their idea, born as a senior engineering project last spring, was to combine the personal digital assistant with the remote control to produce the first software-controlled universal remote.

Having a remote control with a built-in brain, Huang explained, offers many advantages. Besides handling the basic control functions, the remote can also display information from databases provided by cable or satellite companies. Their prototype, based on the popular Palm Pilot hand-held computer, allows the user to view a complete, searchable program guide on the display screen.

Such functionality will make channel-surfing much easier, Huang explained. "When we start moving to this 500-channel paradigm, the question becomes not 'What's on channel 347?'" he said. "With built-in dynamic filters for searching [the program guide], you can search for all the sports programs that are on, or for all the times that 'Titanic' will air that week."

The same capacity could also be used by other service providers such as home-shopping networks, he added. And it would also eliminate the need for cable or satellite providers to provide new hardware when new services are added: "With this system, you would just make the software available for downloading," he said.

It took eight months for Huang and Daley to turn their idea into a workable prototype. "There was more than one evening when, after a full day of course work, we rolled into the lab at midnight to begin work on the remote, worked straight through till sunrise, then rolled into our 9 o'clock class," Huang said.

The pair received a big boost when they explained their idea to David Farber, the Alfred Fitler Moore Professor of Telecommunications Systems, who in turn pitched it to executives at 3Com Inc., maker of the Palm Pilot.

After winning this year's senior design competition with their project, the pair formed a company, Navispace, Inc., to further develop the device, which they have named InSight. They have applied for a patent for their idea, and Daley is currently lining up investors in Silicon Valley. One of the nation's biggest cable companies has already expressed interest in adopting Navispace's technology, and the pair are seeking other possible partners in the entertainment and computer industries.

Ultimately, Huang believes their remote will be even more versatile and flexible. "Because it's rendered in software, it's not wedded to any one device," he explained. "And it can work with any device that uses infrared circuits" to transmit information, meaning that personal computers and potentially even household devices such as thermostats, lights, ovens, and even refrigerators, could be controlled using the remote.

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Originally published on November 12, 1998