The History and Future of Remote Control

“You have to know the past”, said Carl Sagan, “to understand the present.” We at Transmitive are building a better remote control. So, with Mr. Sagan’s sage advice in mind, here is a brief history of the remote control accompanied by my color commentator Mike Meyer, in italics,

  • 1950: Zenith debuted the “Lazy Bones”, the world’s first remote control, which was physically connected to the TV by a wire.

    Mike: does that even count as “remote”? When did “wireless” become such a popular word, anyway? And who was being more lazy, the television audiences at home, or the engineers at Zenith?
  • 1955: The world’s first wireless remote control, the “Flash-matic”, used visible light and a photoelectric receiver. Visible light, unsurprisingly, was not the best technology for remote controls; other light sources confused commands, and users had to point at the receiver “very precisely.”

    Mike: but it did look like a ray gun, and that was cool.

  • 1956: Zenith debuted the “Space Command”, which used ultrasound technology. The remote actually clicked when pressed, leading to the advent of the term “clicker.” This also marked the zenith (Mike: hey-o!) of remote control UI/UX.

    Also, look how awesome it looked! In 1956, beige, brushed tin, and cursive were all the rage. People KILLED for this remote. And the ones made out of glass and black steel? They sat on the shelves.

  • 1970’s-1980: ultrasonic technology remained in use through the early 1980’s. The proliferation of features and content, however, pushed the industry to innovate. In 1980, a company by the name of Viewstar releases the first infrared remote control. It is an immediate commercial success.

    Mike: with 31 buttons, remote clutter was born, but infrared (invisible!) light was so cool that we let it slide.
  • 1985: The first universal remote control is released by Phillips under the Magnavox brand name.

    Mike: it’s a great ad (remember that Sony ruled the world with the Walkman in 1985) but look at that remote! There must be fifty buttons on that thing. Awful. But notice the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman, and the unlabeled cigar. The advertisers could
    insinuate good design and refinement, but the boys at Magnavox were no Charles and Ray Eames. And, well, it was the eighties so… not exactly a high point for aesthetic sensibilities.
  • 1987: The first programmable remote control, developed by Steve Wozniak’s company, CL 9, was released. It was extremely flexible but difficult to use, and saw little commercial success.

    Mike: too much Wozniak; not enough Jobs.
  • 1990’s through today: consumer electronics companies built a variety of remote control solutions, from low-end universal remotes offered by companies like URC, to mid-range remotes from Harmony (which debuted in 2001 and was acquired by Logitech in 2004), to high-end remotes for custom installations, such as the Philips Pronto (which was shut down in late 2010.)

    Mike: no comment.

Remote controls will continue to evolve, especially as they are asked to tame a growing number of increasingly complex devices in the medium term. Even more importantly, though, fundamental changes in how we discover and access content will necessitate fundamental changes in remote controls.

For starters, it’s almost certain that infrared remote controls will disappear over the next 10 years. TV manufacturers such as Samsung are already building WiFi-controllable TVs, though for the time being they are also IR-controllable. Most connected TV devices such as Roku or Apple TV are similarly WiFi-controllable. WiFi doesn’t require line of sight, and is built into a variety of devices—your phone, tablet, PC, and TV—that can therefore be used as remotes. IR will inevitably be replaced by smarter, more flexible, and more useful technology.

Although the average number of devices in the living room has grown over the past ten years, we are on track for long-term contraction as more and more content is served over the internet. Physical media (DVDs) or specific content-serving devices (set top boxes) are endangered species. The DVD player, Roku, and A/V switch currently in my living room are likely to be my last. The living room of the future won’t require more than one (connected TV) or two (surround sound) devices to access the same entertainment content that requires seven devices today.

As a result of this shift, the physical remote is destined to disappear as well. Products such as Memote are jumping to take advantage of users’ second and third screens, and to radically simplify how we interact with our home entertainment systems. In addition, by offering a technology bridge for users’ legacy devices, they also turn existing “dumb” devices—which will be in living rooms for years to come—into “smart” ones that can be controlled by a tablet, PC, or phone.

How are we so certain that so-called “soft remotes” will become the predominant method of remote control? Simply put, because controlling the TV will soon look a lot more like browsing the internet—finding content via search—rather than flipping through a randomly-ordered set of channels. The alternative to a soft remote, of course, is to continue using a hard remote, such as the one Sony created for Google TV. But good luck with that.

Mike: holy cow that’s bad design. Let’s just say that it’s not 1985 anymore, and Sony’s not quite so in touch with what the people want. Sony, if you’re interested, we could help you in this area. Seriously, give us a call.

If you’re interested in finding out more about what we’re up to, please let me know at dk@transmitive.com or sign up for our mailing list over at our website.


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