Infrared: back with a vengeance?

by: J. Angelo RacomaMarch 19, 2013

Sense TV

If you’ve been familiar with mobile devices long enough to remember the 1990s, then you would know that infrared was a big thing back then. In fact, IrDA — which stands for Infrared Data Association — was supposedly a feature in top-of-the-line devices, including mobile phones, PDAs and laptops. You could do all sorts of things with IrDA-enabled devices, such as exchange contact details, beam data and even control your TV. But with the rise in popularity of alternative wireless communication standards like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, IrDA seems to have gone the way of the dodo.

In fact, it is reported that by 2012, there were no current IrDA-compliant devices. My last IrDA-enabled device was a Nokia E-series bought in 2008. But with the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 launching with an Infrared blaster, does this mean that infrared technology is coming back with a vengeance?

IrDA was an excellent means of transferring data back when no other wireless protocols were available. The standard back then was connecting your device via serial port — yes, the 9-pin variety and not USB! — to sync your PDA or mobile phone with your computer. The supported speed of 115.2 kbps or so seems to have been adequate for most needs. Of course, there is one inherent disadvantage: infrared communications require line-of-sight, which is not exactly ideal in all scenarios.

Read also: HTC OpenSense SDK now includes Infrared API. Better remote controls, anyone?

IrDA was excellent for beaming data across two devices and for controlling your TV set. But you couldn’t use it to keep a consistent connection when your phone is in your pocket, making it useless for applications that will require movement breaking line-of-sight. As such, it may be a surprise that infrared is coming back when it now seems to have a niche application.

An IrDA dongle, back in the day.

An IrDA dongle, back in the day

Both the Galaxy S4 and the One have IR blasters or emitters. But these are not exactly the same as the IrDA-compliant devices of old. The two flagship Android smartphones carry a “blaster” which means it only goes one way. Good enough? Here are a few points to consider.

  • Who needs an IR transceiver anyway? It’s 2013. We have persistent data connections, Bluetooth and NFC anyway. A blaster should be good enough.
  • Line of sight is a drag. You wouldn’t want to have to point your phone somewhere just to get a decent connection. But wait, NFC works on the principle of very close proximity. So data is exchanged with a tap. Are we essentially bringing back the same limitation? Not necessarily, because tapping something does have its own advantages and use-case scenarios.
  • Trainability might suffer, though. You can’t just point your old remote into the IR emitter to “train” it like you would old-school universal remotes. You need to make sure you have the proper codes for your brand TV.

It’s a question of whether our devices will still support infrared as a remote-control technology in the future. Right now, we’re moving toward IP-based content, where we beam videos to our TV sets (or set-top boxes). But basic TV controls are still done via infrared. A few years down the line, we might do away with IR-based remotes altogether and just control our TV straight from the wireless LAN or the Internet.

Read also: Android invades the home: Can we get some Android home automation?

Which makes me wonder: why the resurgence of IR-enabled devices? Is this just a passing fad that only a small minority will enjoy? Will you get all excited about your new S4’s or One’s TV remote-control capability, but only end up actually using it for a few days and forget it had that feature?

So is infrared here to stay, or is it just a passing fad best left behind in the 1990s? Thoughts? Pitch in.

  • Sal

    You know what they say. History repeats itself. So with this infrared that was used back in the 90’s which I understand was a hot thing but no longer is around. Now with the advances in technology these days, this old method of tech had been revamped to new ways possible. So I don’t mind if Samsung and HTC had decided to put it back again. Technology of the future will always keep changing from the technology of yesterday.

  • As for trainability, I believe the cameras on these devices should be able to pick up IR codes.

  • Mike Reid

    I think it’s about TV, wide a side order of home automation and entertainment systems.

    Supposedly Android 5 may bring home automation features, and these new flagships will be near the head of the line for Key Lime Pie. I think Samsung and HTC both knew about this when designing the One and S4.

    And google has that Fiber thing going with Google TV.

    I look forward to some cool remote control apps that promise to control “almost everything”.

  • eszol

    meh. that’s is why they call it SMARTphone. Just because you can’t innovate doesn’t mean you can’t be necromaniac

  • dextersgenius

    Sorry HTC, I’ve moved on.

    They are about 5 years too late on this one. When I switched to Android from WinMo, the thing I missed the most was IR – there were quite a few useful universal remote apps, and it did help consolidate all the remotes in the home. Also had a fair but of fun playing with the TV at public places and stores. ;) Anyways, it’s 2013 now and now all my devices are either WiFi/network capable, or have Raspberry Pi’s attached to them, turning them into “smart” devices. With XBMC, all my media needs are taken care of, and I use an XBMC remote app on my phone. There are similar remote control apps for other devices and media players as well. Heck I can even remote into my desktop and have it stream to my phone in real-time. So for me, it’s no longer an exciting technology. Perhaps folks who still use standalone DVD players might find it useful.

  • Sara

    IR sucks and is annoying to use. But as the guy below me said history repeats itself. Soon everyone will want smaller phone screens (aka 4″-4.5″) since Samsung will push the envelope too far and other manufacturers will have 4.7″ screens as the standard. I mean why stop there, why not have a small chip that as all your personal info on it and hmm, call it the RFID chip and thus we won’t be able to buy or sell without this small miracle of a chip. Not to worry I’m sure there’s a nice little cot for you with a your number on it at the FEMA camps. Thanks for dragging the rest of the world down America!

  • np

    irda is not the same and never will be the same as an ir blaster. an irda port/usb dongle cannot control a tv. get it right.

  • Faiz

    I think the main reason they add it is for remote control, since majority of devices out there still use ir, such as tvs, set top boxes, aircons etc. I welcome this as I could have a smartphone that double as a universal controller. But I don’t think it’s meant to be what you said in this article. It’s just a useful functionality they added to connect our devices more.

  • hoggleboggle

    As far as I can tell Sony has been at it long before HTC and Samsung started ofering IR transmitters again. The Xperia Tablet S had an IR Blaster back in 2011 for example.Personally I think this is a great idea with the side effect of killing off a lot of the universal remote control market.

  • crash613

    how do is it? My samsung galaxy tab 2 had 1 over a year ago

  • crash613 should have read how new is it?

  • HebeGuess

    Yet another unverified post from AA again, tell me there are no *tranceiver like* capability on HTC One.