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Infrared: back with a vengeance?

The Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTCOne both have infrared blasters. Does this signal the return of IR as a viable wireless communication technology?
March 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 HTCOne 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.

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.

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.