RF4CE – The wireless remote control that keeps coming back

The consumer electronics industry has always had something of a love-hate relationship with remote controls.  It’s painful to design and ship a new remote control with every product, but attempts to come up with an interoperable standard have been plagued with problems.  As a result our homes are littered with lost and unused remote controls.  A few independent companies have tried to solve the problem by producing decent, but generally expensive universal controls, but they’re still a rarity around the home.

In the early days of remotes, the dominant technology was ultrasonic, but they’ve evolved to the point today that almost all use infra red (IR) transmitters.  IR is cheap and directional; the latter feature being useful in a world where there is limited interoperability and interference can be mitigated by pointing the remote control in the right direction.  However, it’s a one way connection, as keeping a photo diode alive to look for a signal coming back from the TV would decimate the battery life.

As the audio-video equipment we buy has become more sophisticated, manufacturers have been looking for an alternative technology that would allow low power, two-way communication between equipment and remote.  The obvious solution is wireless, but the question is which one?  A few years ago chip vendors who were looking for customers for their 802.15.4 radio ICs, decided to put together a standard to try and sell a few more of their chips.  (802.15.4 is underlying radio standard used by ZigBee and other specialist wireless stacks, none of which are shipping in the volumes required to make chip manufacture very profitable.)  That standard became known as RF4CE (Radio Frequency for Consumer Electronics) and was eventually embraced by the ZigBee Alliance.  The Japanese AV industry bought the story and have recently begun shipping RF4CE handsets into their local market.  As the volumes have ramped up, rumours are growing that an increasing number are being returned because they don’t work.  It’s too early to be sure what the reason is, but when you delve into the detail of the RF4CE standard it looks a bit flaky.  That could herald a golden opportunity for Bluetooth low energy, which is charging onto the remote control scene like a wireless knight in shining armour.

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