Air mouse threatens to replace TV remotes

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Mar. 22, 2006 – As MEMS-based products make their way into the consumer electronics market, one promising application is a device a reviewer dubbed the “remote control bagel.”

Hillcrest Labs, a startup from Rockville, Md., generated considerable buzz at the January Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas with its “Loop” air mouse for televisions. It holds out the promise of replacing clunky 50-button remote controls with a device that has just two buttons and a scroll bar.

But the MEMS-based free-space pointing device is only part of Hillcrest’s offering. The company also has created an on-screen navigation system that abandons the TV Guide-style grid for zoomable visual directories. For instance, users can choose videos from a full-screen mosaic of movie covers. This system, “Spontaneous Navigation,” is key to handling the growing number of media offerings, according to Andy Addis, Hillcrest’s executive vice president and a former Comcast executive.

“People translate visual information 60 times faster than textual information. As the number of offerings grows, presenting things visually offers greater scalability,” he said. “With a grid-based guide, if you have 20,000 media choices, that’s 4,000 page-down pushes on your remote. It just doesn’t work.”

Addis stressed that the Loop and navigation system go hand in hand. “When the mouse was invented, there wasn’t really any application until Apple developed the graphical user interface,” he noted. “It was a pointing device with nothing to point at.” The Loop itself would be the same today without the navigation system, he said. “We think we’ve developed the mouse and Windows for your TV.”

Founded in 2001 and backed by more than $30 million in venture capital, Hillcrest at first focused on the pointing device. Founder and Chief Executive Dan Simpkins had previously led SALIX Technologies, a developer of voice switches that was acquired by Tellabs in 2000. In developing ideas for the Loop, Simpkins and a team of Hillcrest engineers “studied every input device known to man,” Addis said.

He said one-third of the company’s patent filings are related to the Loop itself, which has sophisticated digital signal processing technology built in. Unlike the Gyration Air Mouse, he stressed, the pointer technology is not based on a gyroscope. Addis was reluctant to talk about the inner workings of the Loop or the MEMS component. “Suffice it to say that we leverage multiple low-cost sensors,” he said.

Hillcrest has succeeded at generating a wow factor among consumers and industry analysts, but getting its innovation deployed in a challenging market for startups will be more difficult. As Forrester Research analyst Josh Bernoff wrote last May, although the system looks promising, it has yet to be used anywhere. “It’s still enabling technology that must be built into set-top boxes or consumer electronics devices.”

Hillcrest is talking to companies in the consumer electronics, PC, telecommunications, satellite and cable markets. Addis said its first deals, to be announced later this year, would likely be with consumer electronics companies because that market moves the fastest. The technology may appear first in products such as digital video recorders and game consoles. The cable and telecom companies will be the toughest sell, he admitted.

“The trick is they are trying to sell into companies that do not do revolutions,” said Danny Briere, CEO of telecommunications consulting firm TeleChoice, in Mansfield Center, Conn. “The cable companies are protecting a bunch of paradigms that Hillcrest is blowing away. With Hillcrest’s product, you pick it up and instantly know how to use it. You don’t have to learn how to use it or remember how to use it.

“It’s just a matter of time before the cable companies come around to graphical menus and pointing devices, Briere said. “The cable companies realize that to generate more revenue, they have to become a portal to other media, gaming, and e-commerce, and they run up against a wall really fast in the two-dimensional environment.”

Briere, whose clients include large phone companies, said all the major players are interested in Hillcrest. “It’s a huge competitive advantage for whoever partners with them first. The migration path to this will be insane.”

Forrester’s Bernoff predicted that new navigation products like Hillcrest’s are likely to change the face of TV by 2008.


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