Cover Story: Remote Revolution

The humble remote control — lost in the couch cushions, cursed when it won't change the channel or even flung across the room — is ready for a major face-lift.

The devices have evolved since Zenith introduced the first TV remote in the 1950s, a bulky handheld job called the Space Commander, which used ultrasonic frequencies to change channels (magically!) without wires.

But while they've acquired more buttons, remote controls for the most part remain handcuffed to the same way of finding stuff to watch on TV since their birth 50 years ago.

“The remote has been frozen in time,” said Andy Addis, senior vice president of marketing and business development at interactive-TV software firm Ensequence. “The user interfaces on the market today were designed for 100 channels.”

With hundreds of linear channels, gigabytes of digital video recordings, thousands of video-on-demand options and potentially soon millions of Internet TV clips available to viewers, ye olde remote ain't gonna cut it.

“We need better devices to get through that large plethora of choices,” said Comcast senior vice president of user experience and product design Gerard Kunkel.

Futuristic versions of the remote abound in the lab. Panasonic recently unveiled a prototype of a touchpad-based device with just six buttons, the EZ Touch, working with a live cable set-top box. The remote provides an on-screen keyboard to enter search terms and thumb-based movement of the cursor.

AT&T has in its labs a prototype of a remote with voice recognition that could respond to spoken commands like, “Switch to the Cubs game, but keep recording The Closer.” The telco also has demonstrated an iPhone app that could control a U-Verse IPTV box (akin to Apple's own app for the Apple TV set-top), but hasn't announced plans to introduce that feature commercially yet.

Such gadgets will become critical as TV viewers increasingly interact with content and interactive applications instead of merely flipping channels, said Genevieve Bell, an Intel fellow who has studied the television-viewing habits of consumers around the world.

Remote controls as we know them today “will be considerably more useless when you have additional content streams coming in from different sources,” Bell said. “We already see consumers struggling with the remote controls they have.”

Updated versions will be in viewers' homes this year. Dish Network will launch the SlingLoaded ViP 922 HD DVR this summer — a remote control featuring a touchpad, with half the buttons of standard remotes. The design allows for thumb-control navigation and “underside index-finger trigger selection” to work with a on-screen pointer to simplify navigation.

Universal Electronics's Dolphin remote, set to be shipping to operators in late 2009, incorporates Hillcrest Labs's motion-detection Freespace technology to allow a user to wave a remote control in the air — like the Nintendo Wii — and move an on-screen cursor in any direction.

Comcast has a longer-term project, looking at next-generation remotes that will use a mechanism like a roller ball, scroll wheel or touchpad to make flipping through huge amounts of VOD or channels faster and easier. The cable company's Project Infinity aims to offer some 100,000 or more VOD titles someday — more or less impossible to scroll through using a typical up-down-left-right remote.

And Cox Communications is gearing up for the launch of its new interactive program guide in the third quarter of 2009, which will simplify navigation and, the operator said, lead to a more stripped-down, easier-to-use remote.

Remarkably, until now remotes haven't really needed to be updated: They're cheap for cable operators, and everyone knows how to use them. “The remote has been an afterthought,” said Ramzi Ammari, vice president of product development at Universal Electronics, a large supplier of cable set-top remotes. “It's been sort of a necessary-evil cost for operators.”

Cable companies have tended to treat remotes as something to “cost-reduce the crap out of” — in the words of one supplier — rather than as the key element of the customer “experience.” For cable operators, the per-unit cost for standard operator-provided remotes is somewhere between $4.50 and $5, according to industry sources.

“You're still dealing with the fact that the remote is like a commodity,” said Dominic Santa Maria, assistant product manager at Contec Holdings, a manufacturer of set-top remotes that also provides equipment-refurbishment services. “We have to balance the cost side of it with the value side of it, trying to strike that balance to keep the MSO happy but also keeping it in a price point that's affordable.”

Moreover, cable subscribers — for now — aren't actually demanding new ways to interact with their TV. Comcast recently conducted an in-depth poll of 800 subscribers to measure their attitudes about existing remotes and future concepts for input devices. The unexpected finding: 74% of those surveyed gave their current Comcast remote an 8 or higher on a 10-point scale, with 10 being the most satisfied.

“I went into that research expecting to see consumers hungry for a new device from Comcast,” Kunkel said. “It wasn't that they were without comments or criticisms … But if you look at the research results by the numbers, there were an overwhelming percentage of consumers who said, 'This works well.' ”

Comcast also asked consumers if they'd prefer a simpler, six-button device to their current cable remote; Comcast's standard DVR remote has 53 buttons. More people indicated they would stick with the current model. “I expected to see simplicity reign over the current remote, and it did not,” said Kunkel. “There's a familiarity that's born out of constant usage.”

The two main features Comcast customers have asked for, and which Kunkel's team is currently working on, are: a backlit keypad, which can be seen in the dark; and the ability to find a lost remote with an audible tone. (Dish's remote for the ViP 922 has such a “find me” feature.)

Remote controls are tied into the on-screen guides they control, another big reason they haven't changed, according to Addis, a former marketing executive at Comcast and Hillcrest Labs. “We're stuck with these tools that have outlived their usefulness,” Addis said. “Basically, that grid was force-fit into an environment with thousands of on-demand choices. The remote is an extension of that.”

Cox's new guide will integrate interactive applications into a consistent interface. “If we fix the [user interface] and we optimize our remote control to make it simple to access and easy to use, you've fixed the total experience for navigating applications and content on your TV,” said manager of video user-interface development Anant Patil.

However, introducing a new navigation technology requires an overhaul of the interactive program guide — a time-consuming and expensive proposition. Cox, for example, began its guide-overhaul project (code-named SCIN, for “Simple Consistent Intuitive Navigation”) in 2005.

Parag Sheth, Hillcrest Labs vice president of corporate marketing, compared the difference between a conventional IPG with a conventional “clicker” and a next-generation pointer-based guide to the difference between a DOS PC and Windows. “The mouse-based interface revolutionized the PC. We believe that will also ignite the TV,” he said.

For the near-term, innovation on remotes will likely come in small steps. Motion-sensitive remotes and other input technologies “are exciting,” said Universal Remote Control vice president of national accounts Bill Baker. “But they have to get the prices down to a reasonable level.” The most innovative new features the company has developed recently for cable customers are keypad backlighting and the ability for a remote to “learn” a set of commands from another unit, Baker said.

Another new feature sought by cable providers and their customers is radio-frequency transmission. Remotes today use infrared waves, which require line-of-sight to the receiver. An RF wireless remote allows a set-top to be placed out of sight, even in another room, to jibe with the aesthetic of sleek, wall-mounted HDTV flat panels.

Equipment-vendor UEI's Ammari said that in the last 12 months, cable operators have begun expressing more interest in new concepts for navigation, such as trackballs, touchpads or gesture-based controls. But the importance of advanced features will always be weighed by the cost, said Panasonic chief technology officer Paul Liao.

Panasonic's EZ Touch touchpad-based remote would cost operators at least double what they now pay for a standard remote, according to Liao. He said the company has not determined how it will commercialize the concept.

But Liao believes new remotes are inevitable: “There's an explosion of content available to cable consumers. And without search, it becomes amazingly difficult to navigate.”

Next-generation remote controls include: