New standard for ZigBee remotes makes friends with connected homes

ZigBee Remote 2.0 expands the technology to reach more types of devices

Making life easier is the whole point of both home automation and remote controls, so the group behind the ZigBee home network specification has tried to bring the two together more tightly in a new standard.

On Tuesday, the ZigBee Alliance announced the ZigBee Remote Control 2.0 standard, which could become the foundation for remotes that control an entire house full of networked appliances. Among other things, a remote built with ZRC 2.0 will be able to send commands directly to networks of ZigBee-connected devices such as heating, air conditioning, lights, home monitoring devices and security systems.

ZigBee is one of several wireless protocols that are starting to connect so-called smart appliances and consumer electronics in homes. Others include Z-Wave, Bluetooth Low Energy, Wi-Fi and 6LoWPAN, the system underlying the Thread specification. Though some types of connected home devices are starting to generate interest, in the short run, having so many wireless protocols to talk to them could make it more difficult for consumers to adopt the new gadgets.

ZRC 2.0 probably can't solve that problem, but it may help to make ZigBee a more attractive option. It introduces several enhancements over the previous ZigBee Remote Control standard, including a "find my remote" feature, easier pairing with the devices you want to control, and a more efficient way to make a hybrid ZigBee-infrared remote work with older IR-controlled consumer electronics.

In the past, most ZigBee remotes have been built to work with consumer electronics, especially TV set-top boxes. Some of those set-top boxes can talk to other types of home devices, such as heaters and window shades, that fall under the ZigBee Home Automation standard, so users can control those by working through the set-top box's home automation menu. There, users can configure the home alarm system or set a thermostat's temperature, for example.

The ZRC 2.0 standard allows for remotes that can control home automation devices directly, through dedicated buttons or a built-in LCD screen, without going through the set-top box.

With the "find my remote" feature, owners befuddled by where their ZigBee remote has gone will be able to call out to it by going through one of the products that it controls, such as by pressing a physical button on a set-top box, TV or other device. That will trigger wireless messages to the remote, telling it to flash a light or make a sound so the owner can track it down.

The new standard also eliminates the need for a "push button" stimulus on the target device in order to pair the remote to it. Instead, the remote can discover the nearby ZigBee devices itself and start pairing with them.

ZRC 2.0 is backward compatible with all earlier ZigBee Remote Control standards, so products made to be controlled by earlier remotes will also work with new ones, according to the ZigBee Alliance. The new standard could also help vendors build hybrid remotes that can control both ZigBee-capable products and older electronics that were built for IR. It includes a standard specification for uploading IR codes to the remote, so the remote only has to hold the codes for the IR devices it has to talk to. That should save manufacturers from having to build in a database of every IR code a consumer might need and store it in the remote.

At least one hardware vendor is pushing ZRC 2.0 already. On Thursday, GreenPeak Technologies, in the Netherlands, announced its GP565 Smart Home radio chip for remote controls, which works with the new standard. GreenPeak will sell the chip to vendors that want to build ZigBee remotes. The GP565 also includes technology for voice control, saving consumers a few button presses, and motion control, for gestures such as tipping a remote up to raise volume and down to lower it. The company expects to ship the GP565 in commercial quantities in the first quarter of next year.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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Stephen Lawson

IDG News Service
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