Handy power not so remote

Centerpiece: In an effort to revolutionize entertainment, Philips unveils a pricey controller to handle various devices within high-tech homes.

March 27, 2003|By Dean Takahashi | Dean Takahashi,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

The humble television remote control has been around since Zenith introduced the Lazy Bone remote in 1950. And now it's getting a new job: controlling everything in your home from lights to the MP3 files on your stereo.

"We call it the dashboard for the digital home," said Sanyal Sugata, a marketing director at Philips Electronics in Sunnyvale, Calif. "We see it becoming the cornerstone of the home."

That may be a stretch, and marketing people have made similar statements for a long time. But the remote control is moving to a nicer neighborhood. Philips has introduced high-end Pronto remotes since 1998, but the company has gone all out with its Internet-connected iPronto TSi 6400 remote control, which began selling last month for $1,700.

Yes, that's $1,700 for a remote control, something that usually comes free with most gear and maybe costs $20 if you want a universal remote control.

But don't change the channels just yet.

This is the future we're talking about, after all, and as more objects in your home go digital, you will need a remote control with a lot more electronic smarts to navigate the environment of talking refrigerators.

But, Sugata notes that, with technological advances, "something something that is $1,000 today is $500 in a year or so."

Sitting in the faux living room of the future at the Philips research lab, Sugata laid out a vision for iPronto. Other consumer electronics makers and PC makers envision a centralized server that will dispense digital entertainment anywhere in the home. Such a hub could be a PC or a television set-top box, a networked DVD player or a souped-up video game console. Many of these ideas have fallen flat in the absence of ubiquitous broadband in the home.

But Philips has a different idea: Make the remote control the centerpiece. Since it's portable, you can take it anywhere in the house and control gadgets. And it fits with the idea that computing in the home will be distributed among a number of different devices.

If your collection of music and movies is spread among different devices, the remote control could make it simpler to find various titles by listing them all on the display screen. The user can scroll through television listings on the display, then click on a movie to start playing it from wherever it is stored, whether on a PC, DVD player, or Tivo digital recorder. And if you were looking for a movie you didn't have, you could use the remote to find one on the Web to download.

Naturally, some players don't think the remote control deserves this promotion. "We're bullish on the PC," said Jodie Cadieux, marketing manager at Microsoft's eHome division, which launched the media center PC as the centerpiece of the living room last fall. "It is by far the most interactive thing in the home today. We've done the software to put all of your entertainment in one place in a way that works."

With the newest computers, you can detach a "smart display" from a computer and carry it around the house and still be connected to the PC and the Internet. The iPronto operates in much the same way but Philips is working to extend its use to all consumer devices. And the Philips device runs Java or Linux code and runs on a 400-megahertz Intel Xscale microprocessor.

"The conventional wisdom is the PC is too complicated to penetrate the broader consumer market," said Scott McGregor, president of Philips Semiconductor and a man who insists that Sugata isn't the only guy at Philips who thinks the remote control is a big deal. "If you think of it as a traditional remote control, you don't want to spend money on it. But if you think of it as the control point for the home, it's not so crazy anymore."

Philips, in fact, has a broad product strategy to introduce iPronto-compatible products throughout the year that will add to its value. One upcoming device is a "wireless bridge" that will take wireless Wi-Fi signals and convert them into traditional infrared signals, so that it will be easier to use an iPronto to control existing consumer electronics gadgets.

There are competitors. Universal Electronics has created the UEI Nevo universal remote control, which converts a Hewlett-Packard iPaq handheld computer so that it can be used to control a variety of gadgets in the home, and it sells for $649.

Philips introduced its first high-end remote control in 1998. The iPronto is its fourth offering, and it is targeting it to custom installers of high-end home theater equipment who are smart enough to figure out how to pre-configure the remotes to control a lot of devices.

Custom installers serve the market for home-theater buffs, and Sugata says those installers "sell convenience for users," often with custom remote controls that cost $3,000. Sugata estimates there are millions of homes with rich people who would actually appreciate a remote that could simplify their lives by tying all their electronic gear together.

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