Before the smartphone took over as the Swiss Army gadget of my dreams, universal remotes had the same sort of consolidated, does-it-all appeal. This one thing controls all these other things? How efficient. How practical. How cool.
Unfortunately, back then, universal remotes were largely the province of the one rich friend whose dad had a projector TV in the living room. Regular families had to futz with a small arsenal of remotes. It’s the same story today, with a few apps thrown in for our internet-connected thermostats and light bulbs.
Which is why Rafael Oberholz thinks this is the perfect time for a truly great universal remote.
The Neeo, like most remotes, is shaped like a big candy bar. The top half is dominated by a touchscreen display, which will reportedly boast a density of 291 pixels per inch, not far from the 326 ppi display of the iPhone 6. Beneath that is a cluster of buttons for changing channels, adjusting volume, and summoning menus. It’s carved from a single piece of aluminum. From the photographs on its Kickstarter page, where Oberholz and his 15-person team have raised more than $800,000 to manufacture the device, it’s about as attractive as a remote can get.
According to Oberholz, the $200 remote is meant to be a single, sensible interface for your house and everything in it. To start, that means streamlining and automating home entertainment. The remote’s makers claim it can control 30,000 products out of the box. That covers all major AV gear made in the last decade, including TVs and sound systems, cable boxes from the likes of Comcast and Time Warner, set top boxes like Apple TV and Roku, and other popular products like Sonos speakers and Phillips Hue light bulbs. If you want to get geeky, it’s got four antennas, allowing it to communicate via Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, 6LowPAN, ZigBee, Thread and Z-Wave. A puck-like “brain” serves as a 360 degree infrared transmitter, letting it tap into older devices.
Oberholzer, who splits time between California and his native Switzerland, where most of the Neeo team is based, has spent much of his professional life around remotes. He started his career as an electrical engineer at Bang & Olufsen. After that, he spent eight years managing one of Europe’s leading smart-home installation companies.
In that role, Oberholzer saw smart-home solutions weren’t great. For one thing, universal remotes didn’t always streamline the home entertainment experience. Much of this has to do with the codes that tell AV equipment what to do.
An engineer working on the internal design of the infrared “brain.”
An old school universal remote, for example, might’ve tapped into your TV’s code for “on-off,” Oberholzer says. Trigger the code once, the TV goes on. Trigger it again, it goes off. But say you plunk down on the couch and for whatever reason, the DVD player and receiver are off but the TV is already on. That shortcut now turns the DVD player and the receiver on—and the TV off.
What gives Neeo the edge here, according to Oberholzer, is a vast database of undocumented codes that give it more specific control over your devices. Aside from the standard on-off code, Oberholzer says, TVs typically have dedicated codes, allowing you to shortcut the same types of sequences outlined above. With a dedicated “on” code, for instance, you trigger the code, and the TV goes on. Trigger it again and it stays on. These secret, shadowy codes, Oberholzer says, are what’s at the heart of home entertainment automation, much like the illuminati is the center of modern geopolitics.
The Best Interfaces for the Job
Oberholzer’s experience with home automation also gave him valuable insights into user experience. He encountered many clients who wanted to control their entire house from an iPad. Some even wanted to eliminate light switches altogether. But using an app to control something like lights, or even volume, often is a clunky experience. “It’s not direct,” he says. “It’s not instant enough.”
Neeo co-founder Rafael Oberholz.
Neeo addresses this by packing two interfaces into a single piece of hardware. It’s got hardware buttons to mash while channel surfing and a touchscreen for flicking through a Sonos playlist. It’s also designed to know who’s using it, thanks to an ambitious palm detection feature. Theoretically, when your girlfriend picks it up, it could automatically bring up her playlists. It’s a fascinating idea: Powerful, personalized interfaces.
As with all Kickstarter projects, there’s no way of knowing if Neeo will deliver on these promises. But conceptually, Neeo is on exactly the right track. Sometimes you need apps. Sometimes you need buttons. A nice, solid piece of hardware that has the best of both, sitting right there on your coffee table, is as enticing an idea as ever.