The Race Is On

Who's going to win Convergence 4.0?
Published: October 28, 2018

The remote control was one of the first devices to find its way into our homes. Now, this humble device could be given a new lease of life as our homes become smarter and our televisions become the portal connecting all the devices that help support our day-to-day lives. The remote control has been a key component in the move to convergence so far, with technology in this field developing to allow for interaction with multiple devices and a better user experience.

Most of us will remember a time when changing the channel meant pointing the remote control directly at the television and lining it up precisely. This was due to the use of infrared (IR) technology needing devices to be in the direct line of sight in order to communicate with each other. Needless to say, this could be a frustrating experience, particularly if something was blocking the view.

Now, thanks to the move from IR to radio frequency (RF) such as RF4CE and Bluetooth, this is no longer the case. This technology means users no longer have to point the remote control at a device in order to perform a function. In fact, the device doesn’t even have to face the same way. The use of RF also means that more data can be passed between the remote and the TV, which has allowed for the integration of voice technology in remote controls. With these developments, remote controls could now be at the heart of convergence, providing users with a single device with which to perform synergized functions, controlling everything from the television to your home’s temperature, security and lighting.

As the Internet of Things (IoT) continues to develop, smart technology is becoming increasingly integrated, and the race to fully converge smart devices is heating up. However, with established technology manufacturers competing against smaller, yet more agile, counterparts, who will win Convergence 4.0?

With more and more smart devices appearing in the home, you might think consumers would welcome convergence. In reality, many consumers are currently turned off by the idea, due to the difficulties they face when configuring and setting up smart devices. For the average person, configuring multiple devices can seem daunting, and the perception that this might require some engineering know-how could deter consumers from buying new devices or attempting to integrate them. Difficulties with configuring, discovering and controlling devices are among the biggest pain points for consumers of smart devices, and this is something that needs to be considered in relation to convergence.

For increased uptake, these pain points need to be addressed by manufacturers and industry leaders. It is vital for the end users that convergence and configuration be frictionless and simple processes. Users require intuitive devices which are capable of automatically recognizing new devices, as well as help configuring them. However, many of the key players within the industry have yet to offer devices capable of this. Should manufacturers—and the bigger market challengers, such as Amazon and Google—want to attract audiences, the need for end-to-end solutions which simplify the process of migration to the smart home for the end-user need to be considered.

For example, devices should offer simplistic, voice-based processes to increase ease of use. This could potentially be achieved through the use of ambient radio waves which allow devices to communicate with one another. Research by Disney has found that rather than using power-draining radio sensors, IoT devices could employ background waves from TV, radio and mobile phone technologies (see IoT Devices Could Communicate Using Ambient Radio Waves). This is something that could become more prevalent in the future.

In addition to this, the winner of Convergence 4.0 will produce devices which are capable of learning set skills. These devices not only need to be intuitive in recognizing other devices, but must also intuit what a user requires when he or she performs certain commands. For example, ultimate convergence will come when users are able to ask their device to enter “movie mode,” for instance, and the device will not only play a movie, but draw the curtains and dim the lights as well.

While there are a handful of manufacturers most of us will associate with smart-home technology, many paid TV operators and telecommunication companies are turning their backs on these devices, thus creating space for some of the smaller brands to rise to the top. Not only are devices created by these big brands more expensive for paid TV operators to deploy, but they are also less adaptable for their needs.

Conversely, by partnering with smaller manufacturers to create bespoke solutions, paid TV operators can be in control of their own destiny and create their own ecosystem on which they can build in the future. This is a fluidity that isn’t offered by larger branded devices, for which the roadmaps for convergence are already set out for them. Solutions developed with telcos and paid TV operators in mind also allow them to have more autonomy in their approach to the market, rather than following the trends as dictated by large manufacturers. This is a key issue in convergence, as with paid TV operators on the side, the smaller manufacturers have the potential to tap into different insights and develop new capabilities.

The battle to win Convergence 4.0 also goes hand in hand with the fight for the voice-assistant market. As many smart devices make use of voice control, the two issues are intrinsically linked. The number of voice-controlled devices is growing significantly as user demand increases. A recent study found that 1 in 6 adults in the United States now owns a voice-activated smart speaker, while 65 percent say they wouldn’t want to go back to a life without these devices (see The Smart Audio Report). Their popularity and ease of use show that this technology should be a key feature for the future of convergence.

Currently, convergence is driven primarily by the market as a preemptive strike to anticipate the needs of consumers. Consumer demand has yet to catch up with this, due to the difficulties associated with configuring devices. As such, the real winner of Convergence 4.0 will be the company that can make it as easy and seamless as possible to integrate these devices into the home.

With developments in how devices communicate likely to be on the horizon, this could become easier for manufacturers to achieve. While the big names currently have a monopoly on this market, Convergence 4.0 could be a case of the tortoise and the hare as smaller manufacturers step up their approach to the market. With a more insightful view of the requirements of not only the user but also telecommunication companies, these brands could be better able to tailor their offerings more precisely to suit the users’ needs.

Kuldip Singh Johal is the VP of sales for subscription broadcasting at Universal Electronics. He is an engineering graduate who has spent his entire career in the pay television industry—initially with General Cable (now part of Virgin Media), which was one of the first cable operators in the United Kingdom, and subsequently in senior sales and business-development roles at Pace Micro (now part of Arris) and Samsung Electronics. At Universal Electronics he is responsible for the company’s B2B business, with a key focus on the pay TV market. Kuldip has responsibility for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, as well as the Southeast Asia and Oceania regions.