If you have a phone with an IR blaster, it can be used as a universal remote, one that can control your TV, set top box, air conditioner, and so on. It was a common feature in phones a few years back, but it's become less so over time. There are a number of reasons for this, including the drive to make thinner phones requiring more and more components to be dropped, but part of the problem is also that the experience of using a physical remote is just better than a virtual remote.
Yes, it's convenient to not have to fumble between different remotes for your set top box, television, audio system, and to keep track of the remote of each AC in your house, but that's the only benefit being offered. As a trade-off, you have to unlock your phone, load the app, swipe (or tap, depending on your app) to the correct remote, and then hold your phone at the exact angle, just to do something that you could have accomplished by picking up the physical remote and pressing one button.
So when Bengaluru-based Bharath Mohan decided to create a smart remote product to go with his TV search app, he wanted to think of a way to add value beyond "getting all your remotes in one place". The result was the Sensy smart-remote, which works via a Bluetooth-controlled IR blaster called the Sensy Home.
The Sensy Home is actually just a simple IR blaster, that connects to your phone via Bluetooth low-energy. It's powered by AA batteries, that should keep it going for months according to Mohan. There's a simple pairing process with your phone through the companion app, and after that, you can control your TV or set-top box through the app on your phone, as long as it's connected to the Sensy Home via Bluetooth.
"The idea was to change the way people interact with televisions at home, in simple and affordable ways," says Mohan. "That is why - for example - we didn't want to include Wi-Fi, to allow you to control the device over the Internet. In many Indian homes, people still don't have Wi-Fi, and consume data directly on their phones." The company also worked for a long time to get the design right, so the resulting product would look stylish and high-end, without being expensive.
But the star of the show isn't the hardware, but the brains behind it. Mohan described his company, Sensara, as an artificial intelligence company, and that's because the Sensy app isn't just a remote - it's also a TV guide.
When you sign in to the Sensy app, you also tell it what set-top box you're using, apart from your TV model. There's no training involved, as it sets up the remote automatically. After that, the app starts to ask you about your television preferences, so you can choose the languages, channels, and specific shows that you like.
It uses all of this information to build a custom television guide for you. So for example, if you tell it that you watch a lot of English movies, then the channels list on top will show you picks like Star Movies, Sony Pix, and so on, along with the channel number. Tap on the text, and it'll show you upcoming movies on the channel, or you can tap the poster to quickly switch to that channel as well.
This allows you to browse through the kind of content you want to watch in a kind of smart program guide. At the same time, the search function also lets you search for channels, or shows or movies, or even actors - so for example, we searched for Bill Murray, and it immediately showed us when we can watch Ghostbusters, and The Jungle Book next, with the option to set a reminder. Then, when a show or movie you want to watch is about to start, you get a notification asking if you want to change the channel.
The resulting experience is a lot better than any EPG on a set top box that we've experienced in India, and makes it worthwhile to dig the phone out of the pocket to use this instead of just reaching for the remote.
That's also why the Sensy only works with TVs and set top boxes for now. "The device is a generic IR blaster, but the app doesn't control ACs, DVD players, or sound systems right now," explains Mohan. "We wanted to drastically improve the TV experience, but we'll consider adding support for more devices. It will only require an app update so it will be quite easy. The thing is, we didn't want to just replicate buttons on the screen. We wanted to distill the experience of the remote and make it better."
Sensy also has one feature that some might not be comfortable with - it can "auto-discover" TV, by using your phone's microphone to listen to what's playing. By doing this, it can use the audio information to track what you're watching, and thus improve its understanding of your interests.
Mohan points out that the setting is an opt-in choice, and the app also does clearly state what it's doing. We're not sure how many users will be comfortable with this as we live in an age where our devices are increasingly hacked to spy on us, but Sensara isn't trying to sneak it in.
The app does rely on the Internet to work - the TV guide requires it, and so does the voice command feature in the app through which you can even say complicated things like "English action movies in HD" to get a list of picks. Changing channels using the regular "remote" function works even without the Internet, though that's just a basic remote app.
If you have a phone with a built in IR blaster, then the simple remote feature doesn't add any value. For most devices though, the IR blaster is a thing of the past, so having the Sensy Home will still serve a purpose. Mohan says the unit has four IR blasters so you can place it anywhere in the room and use it to control your devices. It works with most STBs, Mohan says, except Videocon’s since that doesn't use an IR remote, but a proprietary RF remote.
But without the app it feels like a gadget you get simply for the sake of adding a gadget to the process. The app on the other hand makes a huge impact on the the watching experience.
Mohan also pointed out that the Sensy is made in India. "It is 100 percent designed and manufactured in Bengaluru, India," says Mohan. "Everything from cloud and app development, PCB design, device firmware development, infrared code database, is done in our office in Bengaluru, as is assembly of PCBs and testing, enclosure manufacturing."
"The speech recognition also works well with Indian accents, and does a pretty good job of recognising queries," he adds. To test this out for yourself, you could of course download the Sensy app from the Play Store - an iOS version is also available - although of course, only users whose phones have an IR blaster can use it to control their devices; others will be limited to using it as a guide. Mohan says that in the future, more devices such as home theatre will be supported. There are no plans to integrate with IFTTT for automation as yet, but he's not writing that off either.