A simple exercise on the power of compute

We were lifting something very heavy in the gym today and to take our mind off of that we became fixated on the gym’s wall timer. A simple digital clock that can display the time or a countdown timer. Our gym just installed some new equipment and everyone is deeply enamored with this new timer. All agree it is far superior to the previous one. They have identical displays and perform the same functions with the same accuracy. But the new timer can be operated with a smartphone app, while the old timer had a remote control device, which is universally despised. Below are photos of what we are talking about.

These products are essentially identical. The timer with the remote is $10 less than the one with the app. But everyone loves the app. The app lets users quickly set count down times, change the time and date and choose clock functions. It just works like every other app. The remote… is hard to use, and always getting lost. In particular, the remote has an extremely unfriendly user interface. It has 25 buttons and a directional d-pad. No one really knows what all the functions are. With the new timer, everyone has been wondering why the remote could not be as user friendly.

The difference is semiconductors. Tear open the remote and you will not find any “chips”. Instead there are just a lot of electrical components plus input sensors for the buttons. The photos below are not from this remote, they are just the innards of a standard TV remote, but the timer’s remote will look largely the same. (We tried to teardown the gym’s old remote, but no one could find it.)

If you wanted a simpler user interface on the remote, you would need a lot more compute power, maybe a high-end microcontroller, but probably a stripped down mobile applications processor. This is needed to do all the processing involved in interpreting user inputs. You would also likely need a screen, and some form of connectivity – Wi-Fi or Bluetooth depending on which flavor of pain you want to inflict on users. The basic remote probably costs $10 at most to build including the case and assembly. The version with a user-friendly input would cost at least $50 and probably closer to $100. By contrast, the app can use all the components in the phone – the applications processor, screen and connectivity. Put simply, there is no economical way to build a remote with a better user interface.

2 responses to “A simple exercise on the power of compute

  1. Lovely storytelling. I wonder if the people who make my TV will read it and understand the value-add gain in experience if they were to only let us use our mobile computing platforms (our phones) to manage our TVs. Imagine the shard savings, the win/win, if I could operate ALL my smart devices in my edge (my home) with my phone, and could choose to buy the ‘remote free’ options.

    • Home networking is a mess and will likely remain so for a long time. There are just too many stakeholders – TV makers, ISPs, cable providers, content providers, device makers, app platforms – too hard to get them all aligned on a common interface.

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