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."
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.