The Uncertain Future of Remote Controls in the Living Room

By Bobby Schweizer

We examine the pros and cons of the types of remote controls currently vying for that coveted arms-length spot on your coffee table.

The first wireless television remote control was designed by Robert Adler at Zenith in 1956. The "Space Command" operated by emitting high-frequency sounds, one for each of the buttons, that were picked up by receivers inside the set. The remote has come a long way in the past half-century, but we have become increasingly jaded—proportional to the number of buttons on the clicker's face—about our primary ways of interacting with our television sets.  
The increasing complexity of remotes is understandable given the capabilities and demands of the modern entertainment center, but as Wired notes, " our remote controls are amazing, yet nobody's happy." The problem is that most TV and set top box remotes look like they were designed by children who thought it would be fun to have magic wands for everything in their life: "here's the button that teleports me to school, here's the button that makes ice cream, here's the button that let's me stay up late..." And, on the opposite end of the spectrum, some device manufacturers like Apple and Roku have decided that five to seven buttons is plenty. But people aren't happy with those, either.  


It probably has the nondescript red, green, yellow, and blue function buttons that aren't often used in the United States. It likely requires that you select which device you're operating with one of four or five buttons placed along the top. And, in spite of all this, you probably have three or four of them resting on your coffee table. It's no wonder Consumer Reports readers hate their remotes.  
My favorite remote is for my Samsung DVD player. It first perfectly in my hands. On the first day I got it I moved my thumb to pause an episode of Veronica Mars and the correct button was exactly where I expected it to be. We throw around the word "intuitive" a lot when describing technology, and surely it would be easy to describe that Samsung remote as such and move on. What intuitive really means, though, is that the function and use of the product maps to some mental model we have of how it should work. It's almost miraculous I love that DVD remote, considering my Samsung TV remote is, in contrast, one of the most miserable input devices I've encountered.  
staunch supporters of the multi-function remote, they're certainly not the easiest things on the planet to use. The upper-tier Logitech Harmony remotes attempt to rectify this problem with in-remote displays, but if the cost doesn't scare the average consumer away the complexity will. These are remotes designed for the power-users of TVs. In the right hands, the Harmony macros can tame an unwieldy home theater setup. But in the wrong hands, they're the expensive Christmas gift abandoned at the bottom of a drawer.   
As HTPCs and streaming/Internet boxes have become more prevalent in the living room, our input devices have looked more like computer peripherals—keyboards for the couch (couchboards?). This week's Logitech Revue Google TV box announcement brought with it a whole keyboard controller complete with trackpad and a misguided mini controller. There are plenty of creative designs out there, like TiVo's Slide with its slide-out QWERTY keyboard and Boxee's two-sided combo remote, but all of these have trade-offs. They're big, often require two hands, prioritize keyboards over number pads, and are better at being computer devices than television inputs.

The final category we need to look at is the mobile device remote. We've previously discussed the iPhone as a remote control replacement and mobile phones as interfaces for both hardware and services. Though these software remotes pose exciting potential applications for complex interaction, they still have their problems. Can you pause music on your iPhone without looking at the screen? Can you dial a number on your Android device blindly while watching something else? The tactile nature of a physical remote allows you to change the volume or switch channels just by feeling around with your thumb.  

visual browsing and displaying secondary information, advanced features like chatting and or service integration, and controlling a box remotely. Smart phones and advanced mobile devices will need greater market saturation before taking over the living room. Yes, a lot of people have iPhones and Android handsets, but can you watching a Blu-Ray using a BlackBerry? Before the Apple TV was announced I predicted an iPod Touch price-drop would be announced to help ease the transition to Apple's line of touch devices as the primary interface for Apple's new hardware. I couldn't have been more wrong.  
The remotes shipping with the Apple TV are perfectly competent, and an update for the Remote app was made available after release, but Apple's beliefs about the "needs" of the user could not have been illustrated more clearly. Anything more complicated than scrolling, selecting, pausing, and playing should be handled by the software. And it's actually not a bad way of doing things so long as designers recognize the limitations.  

a button for every function we would need to run, so why should remotes? We have sophisticated displays with Internet-connected features and most our boxes are all little computers, so why don't we spend more time on the user interface? My cable box should feel downright ashamed to be sitting next to my Wii. But until hardware becomes cheaper, the average person will be stuck using crippled interfaces with clunky remotes.   
Where would you like to see the future of remote controls take us? Do you love your expensive universal? Is the Roku remote the just-right bowl of remote control porridge? Would you prefer to chuck your clicker out the window and do it all from your mobile phone? Let us know!
Image credits: Logitech, Boxee, Flickr users bredanberg, rogersmj