CES 2012: Talking and Waving to Samsung's Remote-Free TV

"Hello, TV"

3 min read
CES 2012: Talking and Waving to Samsung's Remote-Free TV

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“Hello TV.”

That’s how my conversation started with Samsung’s voice and motion controlled television, being demonstrated at CES in Las Vegas this week. Several companies are previewing voice or gesture controlled televisions here at CES, including LG and Nuance; I got up close and personal with Samsung’s prototype.

Conversation starts with a trigger word or phrase that you can select (however, I can’t take credit for "Hello TV"; Samsung preselected that one for the demo). Speaking the trigger words brings up a menu on the bottom of the screen, simple voice commands let you perform different actions listed on the menu bar, like “Channel Up,” “Volume Down,” or “Mute” (I would have preferred “Be Quiet!” or “Shut Up”. The TV could only listen to one person at a time, get people talking over each other, and it simply stopped listening. And, to my disappointment, “Cancel” just turned off the voice command system; I had hoped it could be used to cancel, say, a channel-change request, otherwise, I fear it’s going to be way too easy for a kid to jump in and switch a channel when I’m in the middle of watching something. The system’s response to the voice command, even in a quiet room, felt a little sluggish—certainly standard remotes get quicker responses.

Samsung's motion-control features, activated by a “beauty-queen wave.” had a much better response time. Again, this type of interaction won’t work in a crowded room, at least if more than one person has a hand up. You control a cursor with your hand; leaving an open hand on a point on the screen, say, the channel up button, acts like a finger holding down a button; the action continues until you shut your hand. I was surprised how fast it responded to close/open hand moves; it felt like I was leading a game of freeze tag.

Samsung’s system also includes face recognition for, the company says, logging to personal Facebook and other accounts. It currently supports 23 languages (if you consider American, Australian, and British English different languages).

Is the TV remote headed for obsolescence? Probably not anytime soon, says Intel's Genevieve Bell, speaking on a panel on the future of user interfaces. Bell thinks we will have multiple forms of engagement with devices, depending on the function.

And, she points out, gesture interfaces have a ways to go on the road to maturity. “We need to develop a grammar, so the same gesture means the same thing across multiple devices.”

Ultimately, rather than the perfect interface emerging, user interfaces will simply all fade away as we use them less and less, and our smart devices simply anticipate, for example, that we want to watch news at 6 p.m. and set up the TV (and perhaps the temperature in the family room) automatically.

Update 1/16/12:

Softkinetic gesture interface speaks a different language

As I was wrapping up the week at CES, I did get an opportunity to check out a different motion control interface. As Intel’s Bell predicted, it spoke a far different gesture language. Softkinetic, from Belgium, has developed a gesture recognition platform it’s selling to TV and game manufacurers; the company says it has two as-yet-to-be-announced manufacturers signed on so far. Its language was as different from Samsung’s as French is from Korean. Instead of the “beauty-queen wave” and snapping your hand open and closed to communicate, Softkinetic’s gesture vocabulary is made up of sweeping, graceful arm motions, moves the company says is less tiring than sharp hand signals. (It certainly is prettier to watch.) Control transfers from one user to another when the first user drops his arm; the system can also lock into one dominant person based on the person’s location in the room or using facial recognition.

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.