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This week, we are releasing a new iOS application called Roomie Remote, so I thought I’d put down my thoughts here on the blog as to why we created it and where we’re going to take it.

Roomie began life as a direct response to a lack of good home theater control solutions available at a reasonable price that were easy to use, highly integrated, and easy to change. Being somewhat over-enthusiastic about home theater, I’d gotten involved with many different products over the years always hoping that they would finally be the simple, long term solution to control all different sizes of home theaters whether it was just a kitchen television or an elaborate setup.

No doubt like many users, I had more than a few times chosen the Harmony line of remotes, and this will need to be a very honest blog. They were often so poorly made from a hardware perspective that they’d fail in weeks, their batteries would bulge, crack, or burst (I’ve enjoyed all three of those), random buttons would stop working, and control over devices left the user choosing between a limitless number of configurations for a device that were often user-submitted and wrong – there never seemed to be a correct way to do things, only the way that you eventually gave up and accepted. The software to configure the Harmony devices, ignoring the almost entirely non-functional Mac OS X version (I’ve yet to meet someone who made that work), was a Windows nightmare that was the worst of Java ports not designed for real human consumption but rather like some kind of internal prototype that escaped the laboratory.

Every Harmony remote required a separate login (surely nobody would ever buy a second one…), the user interface was designed to ask questions every step along the way but was then ill-equipped to respond to any answer other than “it worked well”. Pushing out a configuration to a device was a major physical procedure especially for the RF extenders hooking up each device one at a time for a lengthy download process to a Windows machine maintained solely to load configurations onto a remote control. It was safely out of control. Many years have passed since these issues. Yet, for the most part, Harmony still has all of those problems – though one assumes the batteries don’t come close to exploding anymore. Suffice to say, I was done with those products and it was time to find something new.

At times, there were much more expensive solutions when I really wanted to go all out on a system and make sure it had proper control. One very high-end touch panel manufacturer around since at least 2000 was one of those old-style companies that charged very high fees just to be able to build configurations and push them to their products – something that surprisingly even some companies in this area today don’t realize should be a low barrier as that’s how you build a community. (Roomie charges nothing for the ability to add devices and custom commands and will charge nothing when we add the ability to customize remotes.)

Solutions with a very heavyweight change architecture simply were non-viable for a normal consumer that upgraded various bits of home theater equipment with some frequency. Nevertheless, I got their stuff in 2006 or so and learned their designer software – normally, the idea would be that you’d pay someone to do this for you of course. It took literally weeks to refine everything properly. On one level, it was a beautiful thing once complete, but it also reminded me of that old Saturday Night Live skit called “Do Not Taunt Happy Fun Ball”. As long as nothing ever changed, the system worked. But if you looked at it wrong, it was time to reprogram, and reprogramming was the machine equivalent of open heart surgery. It’s not something you want to do every few weeks. Thank goodness I had learned to be a system designer for them as I cannot imagine the trap it would otherwise have been.

There were other control systems tried over the years with similar problems all of which would be categorized into the ostensibly “high end” – otherwise known as expensive but not necessarily better solutions that required herculean efforts if the user ever needed to make a change to the system. The concept of these systems sounded attractive on paper, often looked good in a demo, but the actual implementation was a non-starter.

One aspect of the higher end systems that never made sense was that the more you paid, the less visual design work seemed to go into the product you purchased. At the highest prices, the design of your system becomes entirely the problem of the user or system designer which let’s be honest do not have the pixel perfect visual design and human interface expertise necessary to design a proper user interface much less one that takes advantage of iOS paradigms these days. Do you want a leather background with buttons that glow a pulsing green? Great, go ahead and draw it. Good luck making it look nice, and never mind making it work in a way that anyone other than the original programmer actually understands. Then rethink everything to get away from the tap interfaces of a decade ago and adopt a modern multitouch interface that actually feels like an iOS app should feel rather than like a touch panel from 1998. There is a big difference between commercial software design and a simple hotspot touch screen.

Fast forward to today’s iOS remote control devices. First there is a whole set of manufacturer applications like the Sony Media Remote. They do one thing: control their specific device. I’ve never understood the point of these apps. Switching apps on iOS is a very expensive and undesirable operation. Imagine you have a receiver app and a player app. Now your phone rings and you want to mute the sound and then you decide to pause the video as well. With two dedicated apps, that will take effectively forever (since anything more than 2 seconds is unacceptable). What about your TV? No app for that? Now you need another physical remote. It’s pointless. It’s good these apps exist because they generally cause those companies to maintain the right protocols necessary for IP control, but the apps themselves rarely make sense in practice. The true usefulness for these apps is in very narrow special cases such as Pioneer’s app helping with your initial speaker calibration.

Then we have a category of apps that try to control multiple devices, but force you into some kind of hardware solution they build. They need to force you into their hardware because their cost structure is in the hardware and they trick you by theoretically giving you the software free that is otherwise useless without their hardware. The devil is in the details with a lot of these things, but some of them are just unworthy of existence. One of them actually makes you insert something into your headphone jack to transmit IR. What do you think the most common problem with that device is? Naturally, your volume may be too low to transmit IR… That’s just flat out bad design. Then there are other apps that are line of sight based. I refer to these as the “coffee table gadgetry” apps. You need to find a place in front of your system that can reach all of your equipment with no possibility of that line of sight ever being blocked. That’s generally much harder than one might hope. Some of these products have also made uniquely poor choices. One for instance connects via Bluetooth to its transmitter and thus only supports one device. Another actually requires real old-school batteries in its transmitter.

Finally, some of these, almost a third category, claim to control home theaters but have almost no real functionality or control in that area. You might get lucky with a device or two perhaps, but their real focus is elsewhere and that is in trying to establish a link between what you watch on TV, advertising, and your social network. They focus on these things because it sounds interesting for fund raising purposes. It’s safe to say the focus in that area is never going to lead to the best product for home theater control and automation.

After diving head first into many control systems and then eventually trying to get rid of them, replace them, or just update them for a simple device change over the years, the concept behind Roomie started developing:

  1. Something simple that automatically configures most of the details, sequences complex commands to many devices without breaking a sweat, and makes it easy to change configurations for anyone of even moderate skill level. Something that only requires a few minutes of initial setup. Confirm your devices, add activities, choose from simple and good looking built-in artwork, and you’re set.
  2. Something that doesn’t require line of sight – no home theater control system that had graduated from the fleet of coffee table remotes would use line of sight control with all due respect to the myriad of products out there based on that concept.
  3. Something that takes full advantage of direct IP connected devices that has essentially taken over almost every type of device and manufacturer in the last couple years. The day when IR can be abandoned is certainly not here today. It is self-evident that all home theater devices will be controllable via IP in the coming years. It’s not so much that IR is bad. IR has been wonderful, and is still the way most devices are controlled. More importantly, IP offers two-way control that is simply not possible with IR. The ability for Roomie to know things like your volume, whether your system is muted, and other details completely changes the definition of home theater control.
  4. Something that synchronizes between devices, backs itself up, easily adds rooms and controls an entire home, and uses commodity hardware of the highest quality.
  5. Something that is regularly updated with support for the latest devices, and taking that a step further, we believe popular devices deserve our direct attention. Have you ever tried adding a TiVo to a Harmony? A large fleet of user-submitted configurations is presented to the user, and surely the user will know which is best… TiVo has 2 million plus users. Is that really what should be happening? Are all devices created equal? No. Popular devices should be purely automatic and correct. It’s not an analog operation. We spent a lot of time developing Roomie with popular TiVo, Roku, and many other devices, and added very useful functionality specifically for those devices.

A healthy amount of the Roomie vision is met in version 1.0.0, released at the time of this writing. We have many more plans that will make things even easier to use in the future. Command automation is a primary area for further improvement. Right now, the user needs to tell Roomie most of the commands to send when starting an activity – with the exception of power on for devices that are in all activities. Roomie should be doing all of that for the user. Various other areas will see improvement to simplify setup, simplify management, and make two-way feedback broader to new devices and types of devices.

The goal is not just to control the user’s system right now as it stands in ways never imagined by the one way control systems of the past, but also to give the user the confidence that they will be able to continue using Roomie for years to come without getting stuck in a system that is difficult to change, or relies on services such as a configuration website or Java application or other critical components that may go down or stop working at any moment. We certainly believe some users can and should have their systems designed by a professional even with Roomie. Some home theaters are definitely that complex, but we also believe that home theater control should never be a trap.

We’re looking forward to seeing what users do with Roomie and are always interested in your feedback. Please don’t hesitate to let us know your thoughts by sending them to info@roomieremote.com, and if you’re really feeling the love for Roomie, don’t forget to review the application on the App Store!

Will Price, Founder
August 2011

3 Responses to Origins of Roomie Remote

  1. Pingback: Origins of Roomie Remote « Deep Thoughts

  2. Wow, you’ve identified everything I’ve run across in trying to figure out a solution for what I need. A remote solution that lets me have two TV areas (with the ability to send IR commands to my TVs), with all my equipment in the basement, and I just want a remote control solution which quickly lets met go, I’m in my living room, display my Cable box. I want to minimize my analog hardware, don’t want a server or a $400 box to control my IR signals, etc. I’m really excited to try your application! The video preview looks perfect.

  3. I have just run across a reference to Roomie in the Remote AVS Forum. After reading everything about Roomie on the AVS forum, I did a Google search and found your essay on the “Origins of Roomie Remote”. My experience with Home Theater remotes parallels yours and the objectives you outline for Roomie are perfectly aligned with my needs. The user experiences reported in the AVS Forum are very encouraging and I definitely plan to try out the Roomie Remote.

    Although I have had success with several systems over the last 10 years, they have all been too expensive, too limited in functionality and way too complex to set up, operate and maintain. I have used Harmony, Home Theater Master MX-800, CommandFusion and am currently using Elve which is primarily aimed at the home automation market. I believe that this market, by the way, is a natural for your product also.