The Dick Tracy Wristwatch TV

Input Voltage

–Jeff Child, Editor-in-Chief

JeffHeadShot

At my first technology editor job back in 1990, my boss at the time was obsessed with the concept of the Dick Tracy wristwatch. Dick Tracy was a popular comic strip that ran from the late 30s up until 1972. Now, let me be clear, even I’m not old enough to be from the era when Dick Tracy was part of popular culture. But my boss was. For those of you who don’t know, the 2-Way Wrist Radio was one of the comic strip’s most iconic items. It was worn by Tracy and members of the police force and in 1964 the 2-Way Wrist Radio was upgraded to a 2-Way Wrist TV. When chip companies came to visit our editorial offices—this is back when press tours were still a thing—in many editorial meetings with those companies, my boss would quite often ask the hypothetical question: “When are we going to get the Dick Tracy wristwatch?”

Confident that Moore’s Law would go on forever, semiconductor companies back then were always hungry to get their share of the mobile electronic device market—although the “device” of the day kept changing. My boss’s Dick Tracy wristwatch question was a clever way to spur discussion about chip integration, extreme low power, wireless communication and even full motion video. Full motion video on a mobile device in particular was a technology that many were skeptical could ever happen. In that early 90s period, the DRAM was the main driver of semiconductor process technology, and, in turn, the desktop PC was by far the dominant market for DRAMs. As a result, there was a tendency to view all future computing through the lens of the PC. It would be more than a decade later before flash memory surpassed DRAMs as the main driver of the chip business, and that was because the market size of mobile devices began to eclipse PCs.

As most of you know, Circuit Cellar has BYTE magazine as a part its origin story. Steve Ciarcia had a popular column called Circuit Cellar in BYTE magazine. When Steve founded this magazine three decades ago, he gave it the Circuit Cellar name. The April 1981 issue of BYTE magazine famously had a picture of basically a wristwatch with a CRT screen and keyboard with a mini-floppy disk being inserted into its side. That’s a vivid example that we humans are notoriously really bad at predicting what future technologies will look like. We have an inherent bias imposing what we have now on our view of the future.

Fast forward today and obviously we have the Dick Tracy Wristwatch and so much more—the Apple Watch being the most vivid example. Today’s wearable devices span across the consumer, fitness and medical markets and all need a mix of low-power, low-cost and high-speed processing. But even though technology has come a long way, the design challenges are still tricky. Wearable electronic devices of today all share some common aspects. They have an extremely low budget for power consumption, they tend not to be suited for replaceable batteries and therefore must be rechargeable. They also usually require some kind of wireless connectivity.

Today’s wearables including a variety of products including smartwatches, physical activity monitors, heart rate monitors, smart headphones and more. Microcontrollers for these devices have to have extremely low power and high integration. At the same time, power solutions servicing this market require mastery of low quiescent current design techniques and high integration. To meet those needs chip vendors—primarily from the microcontroller and analog markets—keep advancing solutions that consume extremely low levels and power and manage that power.

One amusing aspect of the Dick Tracy wristwatch was that it was referred as a 2-Way Radio (and later a 2-Way TV). With Internet connectivity, today’s smartwatches basically are connected to an infinite number of network nodes. I can’t claim to be a better predictor of the future than the editors of 1981’s BYTE. But now I need to come up with a new question to ask chip vendors, and I don’t know what the question should be. Perhaps: “When are we going to get the Star Wars holographic 3D image messaging system?”. And in wristwatch form please.

This appears in the May (334) issue of Circuit Cellar magazine

Not a Circuit Cellar subscriber?  Don’t be left out! Sign up today:

Device Silences TV Commercials

Arduino-Controlled Solution

Ever wish you could block out those annoying TV ads? Tommy describes in detail how he built a device for easily muting the audio of commercials. His project relies on three modules: a UHF radio receiver, an IR module and an Arduino Trinket board.

By Tommy Tyler

Does your blood start to boil as soon as one of those people on TV tries to sell you precious metals, a reverse mortgage, a miraculous kitchen gadget or an incredible weight reduction plan? Do you want to climb the wall the next time someone says “But wait! Order now and get a second one free . . .“? Believe it or not, there was a time long ago when TV commercials were actually entertaining. That was before commercial breaks evolved from 30 second or one-minute interruptions into strings of a half-dozen or more advertisements linked end-to-end for three to five minutes—sometimes with the exact same commercial shown twice in the same group! What is perhaps most annoying is the relentless repetition.

Historically, all the feeble attempts at TV commercial elimination have been applied to recordings on VCRs or DVRs. Anyone who watches programming that’s best enjoyed when viewed in real-time—news, weather and sports—has probably wished at one time or another for a device that can enable them to avoid commercials. They long for a device that could be inserted between their TV and the program source—whether it be cable, satellite or an OTA antenna—to instantly recognize a commercial and blank the screen, change channels or somehow make it go away. The technology for doing that does exist, but you’ll probably never find it applied to consumer products. Since funding of the entire television broadcast industry is derived from paid advertisements, any company that interferes with that would face enormous opposition and legal problems.

After many years of searching the Internet I’ve concluded it is wishful thinking to expect anyone to market a product that automatically eliminates commercials in real-time. I decided to work instead on the next-best approach I could think of: A device that makes it quick and easy to minimize the nuisance of commercials with the least amount of manual effort possible. This article describes a “Kommercial Killer (KK)” that is controlled by a small radio transmitter you carry with you so it’s easily and instantly accessible. No scrambling to find that clumsy infrared remote control and aim it at the TV when a commercial starts. Just press the personal button that’s always with you, even while remaining warm and cozy curled up under a blanket.

Kommercial Killer

The KK operates from anywhere in the home, even from another room completely out of sight of the TV and can be triggered at the slightest sound of an advertisement, political message, solicitation or perhaps even a telephone call. It works with any brand and model TV without modifications or complicated wiring connections by using the TV’s infrared remote control system. If you get a new TV, its remote control can easily teach KK a different MUTE command. Don’t worry about leaving the room with the TV muted. KK automatically restores audio after a certain amount of time. The default time is three minutes, the length of a typical commercial break, but you can easily configure this to any amount of time you prefer. And when you want to restore audio immediately—for example if you have muted non-commercial program material by mistake or if a commercial runs shorter than expected—just press your transmitter button again.

Figure 1
Schematic of the Kommercial Killer

KK is built mainly from three commercially available modules that do all the heavy lifting (Figure 1). The first module is a miniature UHF radio receiver. The second is an infrared module that can learn and mimic the TV mute signal. The third module is an Arduino Trinket board that provides commercial break timing and overall control. This article explains how to load a small program into that module without needing any special equipment or training, and even if you have absolutely no previous experience with Arduino devices.

The three modules are small and inexpensive ($7 to $10 each) and with just eight additional components KK can be built on an open perf board, strip board or enclosed in a 6-inch3 box. It is powered from the same USB Micro cable you use to load or modify the Arduino program, or from any other available USB port or 5 V charger.

UHF Receiver Module

The best UHF radio transmitters and receivers are all manufactured in China, and there are no major distributors in the U.S. So, order this item early and be prepared to wait about 20 days for delivery. After sampling many different remote controls to evaluate performance, quality, cost and shipment, I selected a product manufactured by the Shenzhen YK Remote Control Electronics Company, whose products are sold and shipped through AliExpress. Shenzhen remote controls use two types of receivers. . …

Read the full article in the May 334 issue of Circuit Cellar

After you’ve read the full article, don’t forget to go the the Article Materials Page for useful links and information.
Don’t miss out on upcoming issues of Circuit Cellar. Subscribe today!
Note: We’ve made the October 2017 issue of Circuit Cellar available as a free sample issue. In it, you’ll find a rich variety of the kinds of articles and information that exemplify a typical issue of the current magazine.