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How do Remote Controls Work?

Updated on March 25, 2014

What are Remote Controls?

Remote controls are used in many categories of consumer electronic to provide users with a simple way of controlling devices without having to touch the device itself. This can be important for electronic devices that are designed to be mounted in inaccessible locations (like ceiling fans) or for electronic devices that are intended for home theaters and other environments where the users will remain seated throughout the user experience.

While everyone has used a remote control at some point, few people understand the degree of complexity that goes into remote control design and engineering. There are dozens of different components involved in the typical remote control, and may consist of electronics that are manufactured by several different firms from around the world.

History of Remote Controls: Early Remotes

The first remote controls came about almost at the same time as the development of the commercial television industry. Zenith Radio Corporation produced a simple remote that was wired to the television set, allowing a user to control the television from a short distance away. This quickly evolved into 1955’s “Flashmatic” remote control – a remote control that used light beams to control a television receiver rather than wires. Both of these early remotes had major limitations. For one, they could only be utilized from a short distance away (although small screen sizes limited viewing distance as well) and the photoelectric remote was easily drowned out by background light that rendered its signals too weak to be understood by the receivers.

History of Remote Controls: Complexity Develops

In the 1970s, more complex remotes began to hit the consumer market, offering multiple different functions including number pads for the selection of channels. The evolution of television remote complexity came alongside the development of innovations in TV technology, as every new television function required a corresponding button on remote controls. By the 1970s, remote controls were sold with nearly every single television set as a standard feature, and buttons on the televisions themselves lost their prominence and were intended primarily as a set of ‘back-up’ controls.

Innovations in Remote Control Technology

Modern remotes do far more than the first channel-changers. The main trends in current remote control technology are for increased integration of two-way communication between remote controls and devices (like including a miniature screen on remotes that provides TV Guide data) and the use of new types of data transmission via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and other long-range modals.

How the Remote Control Changed Television

The invention of the remote control fundamentally changed the way that modern television is programmed. Remote controls allowed television users an unprecedented flexibility to change channels at a whim, so television producers could no longer rely on consumers being “stuck” at a particular station during commercials. For this reason, commercials had to be shortened, and they had to be interspersed during programs rather than placed between programs – since consumers could easily change channels to “surf” during the commercials. Additionally, the end-credits of many shows began to be aired on a split-screen along with the last minute of the show itself to compel viewers to watch the end of the show rather than immediately changing the channel when the credits started.

Remote Control Overload

Throughout the 2000s, consumers purchased an increasingly diverse array of electronic devices, each with their own remote controls. This lead to an overload in the number of remote controls in the typical household, and the creation of an entire new industry around “smart remotes” and “universal remote” that promised to unite the various functions of the disparate remotes already on the market. Many mobile devices also integrated some form of remote control functionality – for example, many home theater receivers now connect to home wireless and can be controlled by Android devices using mobile apps that take advantage of the constant connectivity of every component in the typical new home theater.

Remote Control Technology and Production

Remote controls can be separated into four major “groups” of components based on function.

  • Housing – Remote controls usually use a high-impact plastic as their housing, although some remote controls are made from brushed aluminum or other higher-quality materials. The housing of remote controls is designed to protect the internal components from damage while fitting easily into the hands of the users.
  • Internal Circuitry – There is a huge degree of variation in the internal design of the modern remote control, especially since many remotes can be used for so many other functions. Cheaper remotes, and those that are delivered alongside most consumer devices, use printed circuit boards that are usually produced in mass by overseas companies.
  • Optical Components – The optical components for a remote control usually contains an infra-red lens and the necessary hardware to allow the remote to send an infra-red signal to the device that is being controlled.
  • Silicone Keypads – In the vast majority of remote controls, the rubberized control surfaces are produced by creating a large silicone membrane with individual raised buttons that is placed underneath the hard plastic bezel. Each key can have its own actuation force and each key is molded with different colors and shapes to cut down on the need for labeling.


Remote Control Protocols

Most consumer remotes are currently infrared, since these can be produced cheaply and they are not affected by interference as much as some of the other protocols. Remote controls that use infrared transmitters have some drawbacks, chiefly a lack of range and the requirement that the remote has line-of-site to the object it is controlling. This is why most television remotes require the user to “point” the remote towards the television in order to get a positive signal.

Radio control remotes are usually used for devices that require a little more range between the remote and the device. For example, your car remote is probably a radio controlled system, so you can unlock/lock your car without being in direct line-of-site. Radio control remotes are affected a great deal by the environment, and transmission strength can be limited by obstacles or by interference in the electro-magnetic spectrum.

Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technology are being increasingly used for “active” remotes, or remotes that require an interface to be operating constantly between the remote and the device. On the other hand, some remotes have gone back to the same wired standard that was originally utilized for the first TV remotes, since wired remotes can be shielded from any type of interference and data loss. Industrial remotes and the remotes for some household equipment (like ceiling fans) are typically wired.

How many remote controls are in YOUR house?

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