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Friday, 25 March 2011

The evolution of a Cephalopod

A squid is a Cephalopod. There are many types of squid. All are endowed with ten arms or tentacles.

The Touchsquid evolved from frustration. I was disgusted with the large number of remote controls on our coffee table. Although I do have a "Universal Remote Control" it is by no means easy to program or use. It has 60 tiny buttons, several of which have no known function. What does a yellow triangle do?

Typically, while watching a DVD movie, the telephone rings. I want to pause the movie and answer the phone. Sounds easy. But the room is dark, so I have to get up, turn on a light, find and don my reading glasses, and search for the tiny pause button. By then the phone has stopped ringing.

I had the idea that I could use a tablet computer to operate as a remote control. So I started figuring out how to do it. The problem than was that TV and most other remote control devices communicate with Infrared light.  Tablet computers did not have the hardware on board to emit infrared light.  External USB dongles that can do that do exist, as does software to use them.

I thought of calling my device the icontrolfreak, and even registered

I discussed the idea with my son, and we came up with our first solution, which was to use Bluetooth to communicate with a sort of "puck" which would sit on the coffee table and would have the needed infrared devices. It would run on two AA batteries. We had an engineer build a prototype, but problems arose immediately. Battery life would be only 10 days or so.  Unacceptable. Having a power cord snaking across the living room seemed like a hard sell too. We thought if we put the puck behind the TV or inside a cabinet, it would be OK if it plugged in. But then the device would not be able to "see" the TV and other components such as cable box and DVD player.

The solution to that one proved to be a series of tiny infrared LEDs attached to small wires, or tentacles. This is when I thought of calling it a squid. Of course was not available. Since the ideal controlling computer would have a touchscreen, we dreamed up the name Touchsquid and registered, .net, and so on.

While this was going on I began designing the software and programming it using Visual Studio on a Windows computer. In about two months I had a working prototype. But the Bluetooth squid was temperamental. It would loose its connection with the computer every time it was shut down, and you had to re-enter a PIN number on start up.  And initial installation although not very difficult was time consuming. Also, what would we sell? The bluetooth squid, and software to run on an existing computer? We would need at least 3 versions for Windows, Ipad, and Android devices. And the user would have to download it from the internet.

At about that time two other companies came out with similar devices.  We tried them, and the hardware was OK but the software sucked. A visit to the CES show in January 2011 changed my path.

At the show I met several manufacturers with plant capacity and engineering expertise, but rather generic products. After talking to a few I realized that building the infrared hardware into a tablet computer would produce a much better and more practical solution. We could write better software, dedicated to a single screen size and orientation, and the user would not have to fiddle with tiny wires. The application would be installed at the factory, so it would be a quick setup.

After the CES show I gave a "live" demonstration to a selected group of a dozen friends, using a Windows 7 touchscreen tablet, and a hardwired IR dongle. They all loved the ease of use, and look and feel. The consensus was that they would rather have a "one box" solution that did not involve downloading and installing software.  Thus the the embryonic Touchsquid was born.

More evolution in the next post...

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