The Clicker's Moment: After 60 Years, TV Remotes Get Zapped With Makeovers

Every TV manufacturer agrees, the remote control will change more in the next three years than it has the previous six decades. But how will it actually change? Sony, Samsung, LG, and Vizio tell us.

Sixty-one years ago, Zenith Radio Corporation developed the first remote control for televisions. It was wired, but you'd recognize its function.

Three years later, Watson and Crick would discover the double helix. Sixteen years after that, Armstrong and Aldrin would walk on the moon. TVs would get larger. Go flatter. Get cheaper, then get cable, videogames, and get called obsolete in the face of the Internet. And during all this progress, the humble yet ubiquitous TV remote remained mostly unchanged. Channel up. Volume down. There have been a handful of programmable universal remotes with touchscreens available for the high-end market. But the average remote that comes bundled with a new TV is about as advanced as the one my grandpa used.

Yet in the next three years, the TV remote—possibly the most overused and underrated gadget of the past century—will change more than it has since its birth. In fact, just this week comes news that the History Channel and Verizon FiOS will allow viewers to buy products from companies such as Schwinn, Crosley Radio, and the Franklin Mint by using their remotes while watching History Channel programs.

With this brave, new, remote-controlled world looming, designers and decision-makers at Sony, Samsung, LG, and Vizio, four companies that make up 50% of the global television market, tell Fast Company they are planning a new generation of remotes that could become the defining icons of television's future.

Why Has Nothing Changed in Decades?

"Especially in the U.S., there are certain reasons why the remote control has actually not innovated for the last decade or so—it has to do a lot with infrastructure. Cable and satellite provider remote controls are the ones that most consumers utilize...If that's the case, for manufacturers like us, we think, how much more influence could we have if we innovated around the remote? That's sort of the looming question for us." —Mike Abary, Head of Sony Home Entertainment of America.

Television manufacturers told me over and over again that their innovation has been thwarted by our set-top boxes. While Sony may be free to imagine any type of crazy remote scheme to control Sony TVs, it's inevitably thrown by the wayside for the remotes that are packaged, and often preprogrammed, by companies like Comcast and DirecTV.

It's no coincidence that cable and satellite providers have developed the gaudiest remotes in the industry. That redundant array of buttons keeps the hardware low-cost and flexible in the face of long-term upgrades to your set-top box, for one thing. But the real reason is purely human: Data shows that consumers love their buttons. Our minds quickly and blindly map even the strangest array of tiny rubber nobs, meaning that these thousand-buttoned-monstrosities of the contemporary cable provider are really just manifestations of our own tacit talents.

"I actually hate physical buttons," laughs Vizio's CTO Matt McRae. "From a design standpoint, I'd love to get everything off this remote and make it so simple you didn't need to learn the muscle memory to use it."

But Vizio's user testing revealed a divergence between what people want and what they use. Participants in a study were presented with two remotes, one with a "crap-load" of buttons on it, and another that was stripped down. People gravitated toward the simple remote first, says McRae. "Then you leave it with them for a week or two, and they'll say, 'I love the look of the thing, but it's just a pain.'"

Another, more practical reason that remotes haven't evolved with newer technologies is that no company sells a TV based upon its remote. Think about it. When you bought your last TV, what was the deciding factor? Most people look at price, resolution, and size. But how many of you, whether in the store or online, took a look at the bundled remote first?

"We shipped a universal remote control with Bluetooth embedded and a slider QWERTY keyboard with game controls, and it didn't affect our sales whatsoever," says McRae. "We garnered a lot of customer loyalty...but for somebody standing in a Costco, looking at two boxes, it didn't affect their purchase decision at all."

This could change soon. Cell phones have driven the prices down on several handheld control technologies. And a new generation of TV technologies will offer manufactures another chance—some might say, one last chance—to sell consumers on their own innovation. It's the era of the smart TV, and it's both the reason behind and the justification for the remote revolution.

It's also why you may look at the remote attached to your next TV before purchasing it.

New Control Standards

If your next TV is going to have built-in Wi-Fi, apps like Netflix and Skype, and even access the Internet via Google TV, there are two direct results:

1. The TV industry believes their services give them leverage over cable operators.

2. The contemporary remote scheme, with more and more buttons, becomes untenable.

It's good news. Smart TVs will usher in a new era of fancy remotes. The bad news is, there are a lot of similarly plausible technologies—motion, touchscreens, and voice—that are all competing to be part of that remote. Manufacturers are looking at each of these three technologies quite seriously.

After a multi-decade draught of creativity, the industry is about to inundate us with new ideas—maybe too many new ideas. In the next three years there will be experimentation, then fragmentation, even with a single brand. Sony calls this UI Darwinism a "natural evolution" rather than some preplanned "consortium," citing Apple's iPhone pinch-to-zoom as control scheme that just worked, and so it immediately engrained itself in consumer consciousness and smartphones everywhere—patent issues aside.

But not everyone in the industry is so eager to adopt the same control schemes as the next guy.

"For gestures or voice...I don't think there's a great motivation to create a standard, because that's how we want to differentiate ourselves," says Tim Alessi, Director of New Product Development for LG Electronics USA. "We want to be able to say, if you buy an LG TV, you're going to have the most intuitive and easy-to-navigate experience against all of our competitors."

LG's argument makes sense if you consider the market from the perspective of right now: There are two major products that differentiate themselves on unique control schemes alone, and each just happens to be squeezing itself into the TV market.

Microsoft's Kinect is an Xbox 360 controller that supports voice and full-body gesture inputs without a remote. Right now, it's used mostly for games and Netflix in the U.S. market. But as Microsoft pushes to bring more IP-based content through their Xbox 360, it's only growing more relevant to TV watchers.

Apple's iPhone 4S features Siri. We've all seen the commercials, but consider the real impact of Siri for the industry: It's a single voice input feature that's been powerful enough to drive the upgrades of millions of new iPhones (hundreds in millions of dollars in actual sales), and it's especially relevant as strong rumors point to Apple developing their own TV set.

"Apple has set a bar now that you need to meet or beat for a user to have a good experience, and I'm actually glad now that they did that," says Vizio's Matt McRae. "It shows not only what's possible, but the benefits of voice...It won't come this year, most likely, but we're doing some Android products based on Google TV, and Android has a whole voice engine built in."

"It's certainly something we here at Sony are thinking about, in terms of what are the possibilities that could come about from Apple's track record of disruption across industries," admits Sony's Mike Abary. "I'd be lying if I didn't tell you we're thinking about it."

 

The Future Of Remote Control Tech

[ VIZIO ]
General Outlook:
New technologies will be physical button supplements, not replacements.
Motion:
"If you have a gyro, you can take almost every button off a remote and it looks beautiful. But you give it to a consumer, and after a few weeks, they're sick of it."
Touch:
"If you look at usability and watch people use this in the living room, there's this look up look down problem with touchscreens…you just watch their necks and it's hilarious."
Voice:
"Voice I think is going to be pretty important for navigation, but it needs to be very accurate…imagine, it's 11 at night, you're exhausted, you have to wake up at 5 a.m., and your kid is crying in the middle of the night. It's got to be one of those things that is bulletproof or consumers will reject it."

[ SAMSUNG ]
General Outlook:
Consumers will choose their preferred remote, every day.
Motion:
No comment, we're too close to CES 2012 in January.
Touch:
"If you're in love with your smartphone and you want to download an app to your internet enabled TV, you can control everything that way…if you want to pick up a remote and tell it to switch to channel 206, you can do this, too."
Voice:
"Voice is one of those technologies that's being looked at…certainly it's something that us and any other manufacturer is looking at."

[ SONY ]
General Outlook:
TVs need to keep up better with other technologies.
Motion:
"There is now, especially with the younger generation, a growing, let's call it, expectation that anything that has a screen on it is going to be touch capable or gesture capable. Certainly, I think, the way we interact with a TV will need to change because a TV is the last screen that actually doesn't yet have gesture control capability."
Voice:
"In the next 3-5 years, maybe the way people will interact with a TV will not be primarily through a remote—maybe it will be voice, for example. It depends on the demographic. I think the younger demographics...are going to expect and demand a different type of [wholly new] interface."

[ LG ]
General Outlook:
The "Holy Grail" is to reduce the remotes on the coffee table.
Motion:
"Motion [will come] in a big way." (In fact, LG has a gyroscope remote on the market)
Touch:
"Everyone has really responded strongly to things like iPhones and tablets. Making remotes that function in that same familiar way is something you'll see more of….[though] my sense is touch won't be the de facto. It's supplemental. "
Voice:
"Voice is an interesting one. The days of saying one thing and having it understand another are coming to an end…[but] I don't think you'll see anyone go all in. It will start in premium sets."

Vizio and Sony are in good company. Every TV manufacturer is looking closely at what I'm calling the Big 3 in future remote control tech: Motion (waving your arms around), Touch (touchpads or touchscreens), and Voice commands.

So What Is the Future of the Remote, Really?

No manufacturer would divulge full specifics about their next models of remote, but I was able to glean a bit in practical terms, reading between the lines as much as possible.

  • Everyone plans to include a remote of some kind with their TV for the foreseeable future. Kinect and Siri schemes won't stop that.
  • No one (who isn't Apple) will feature voice in 2012, beyond maybe one manufacturer (I'm guessing Samsung, if it happens) using only the most simple of command logic.
  • Gesture control will be part of the premium ends of most lines of TVs within two years. Everybody appreciates gestures, and the words "Nintendo Wii" popped up more than once.
  • You'll be able to control every smart TV on the market with a smartphone or tablet app (you can now, actually, even though most of us don't).
  • Super premium, iPhone-like touchscreens won't be bundled with any TVs as remotes because downloadable apps can handle that job for free (less cost to manufacturers and consumers). Every manufacturer is interested in leveraging this screen to provide supplemental content to TV programming.
  • Oh, and let's just admit it: Each company is waiting to see what Apple does before they go all-in with the next era of remote, or commit to ditching the remote altogether.

For all the potential, the near-future of remotes is neither romantic or utopian. Every TV buyer will be a guinea pig for the next few years as each manufacturer offers us its unique bake of hard buttons, gestures, touch and voice control. The average couch potato will need to choose from a cacophony of technology far more varied than HD or 3D, all until one company just makes it click.

And our beloved remote, much like the television industry itself and every other single thing in this world, will evolve or die trying.

Hang on tight to that gyroscope, little buddy. Everything's going to be alright. Probably.

Follow Mark Wilson on Twitter, and Fast Company, too.

[Images: Flickr users icedsoul; carbon design]

Add New Comment

7 Comments

  • Kallmejonee

    iam an old man and i use my button cable t.v remote a whole bunch. ive been having
    pain in my wrists ,  the length of my right arm  and in my right shoulder and neck area.
    i beleive a lot of this pain is coming from my fingers trying to push those buttons. i can feel the
    shooting pain whenever iam using the remote or when iam keyboarding.   sure wish there
    was a remote out there i could buy that i wouldnt have to pound my fingers to get it to work?

  • DAVID SCOTT

    I don't want TV remotes instead I want smartphone apps which can be used to control the TV and DVR. TV manufacturers and Cable operators instead of trying to create remotes with new interfaces they must try to create apps for smartphones which can be used to control both TV and DVR.

  • Andrus Raudsalu

    There will be a fundamental change in TV that will include remote. I think we will be surrounded by number of connected dumb screens, content will flow to these screens from cloud services and you can use your cellphone as identity device and remote control on any of these screens.
    We have launched a service to these that concept. You can check it out at http://takeoverapp.com

  • Hong

    Nice article! Dan and Mark, you should check out Peel TV (http://peel.com). It does many things described in the article. Their recent Android tablet app Peel Smart Remote on Samsung Galaxy tab has personalized visual TV guide (no need to remember channels), gesture-based controls, smart activity switching, recommendations, and others:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...

  • TuckerTues

    I must take a, somewhat,  contrarian view to this article.  While there is a certain allure to the simplified remote and the titanium encased tablet am I alone in feeling that the iPad is well, soul-less in comparison? I am troubled by the frictionless gloss of icons, I miss the tactile feel of a physical interface.  

    Perhaps it is simple nostalgia but I long for the clickty-clack-clunk of an 8-track tape, the solid mechanical ka-chunk of open reel tape decks, and the tactile feel and response of weighted gain knobs. I am not sure just why I love these knobs so much, the sheer pleasure of them in my hand – they just feel right, perfectly balanced in my fingers and against my palm. something the smartphones and tablets just do not recreate. Miss September 1963 would never be the inspiration for these newbies. http://tuckerstuesday.typepad.... not trust the device manufactures to come up with a dramatic method or control experience. Despite claims by the very same that it is the content providers ( Dish, Cable, etc) who are restricting new interfaces by churning out millions of ‘clunky’ remotes into the hands of users - (who have become ‘accustomed’ to it via muscle memory) - no real alternatives have come out.  Does everyone forget the disaster of the Sony Commander? No wonder we stick with tactile response devices provide.  This said , Dan is correct- the entire concept of 'navigating' content is changing and will start to resemble the method used by Netflix streaming or Crestron's ADMS.

  • Dan Kozikowski

    Great piece. One thing that doesn't come up -- which is crucial when thinking about the future of remote control -- is that the concept of a channel is going to evolve over the next 5-10 years, and the concept of a channel number will fade away. Selecting content will start to look a lot more like web browsing: search, content recommendation, curation, and links from social networks will rule the roost.