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Memory Lane - A Remote Opportunity

Wed, 02/01/2012 - 2:14am
Stewart Schley Media & Technology Writer, Denver, Colo.

Maybe the impetus for TV set replacement is resolving a visceral human need: Eliminating the remote.

Stewart SchleyDuring World War I, the German Navy unleashed an inventive weapon designed to compromise enemy firepower while avoiding casualties. Naval officers steered motorboats loaded with explosives toward enemy ships using a novel remote control technology that operated via radio waves. The concept was an early predecessor of today’s unarmed flying drones and other high-tech instruments of warfare. But its influence would quickly transcend military applications and be subsumed into civic life.

The first incarnation was a revelation that solved an everyday bother for growing legions of automobile owners: opening the garage door. In the 1940s, before there were television remote controls – the medium itself was barely breathing – inventors introduced remote control garage door systems that issued commands out of thin air. Motorists ate them up.

In the 1950s, of course, the next great leap for remote controls was tied to television. Zenith Electronics’ iconic Lazy Bones remote was the first incarnation, but users quickly found fault with its reliance on a physical cable that snaked its way to the TV set, frequently tangling itself around the ankles of unwitting visitors. Inventors tried various workarounds. One was based on the marriage of radio frequencies and push-button remotes. But radio waves had a habit of spilling through nearby walls and interfering with other transmitters – a problem that still bedevils some garage remote controls today.

Sometime around 1955, though, Zenith engineer Robert Adler hit on a breakthrough idea: a wire-free TV remote that made use of “ultrasonic” frequencies. The Zenith Space Command remote sent audio tones, undetectable by humans, from a handheld remote to a specially outfitted TV. Although the combination raised the retail price of a TV set by close to 30 percent, its utility was formidable enough to attract strong buyer interest. The Space Command was a commercial hit, and it almost single-handedly ushered into being a decades-long run for remote controls used for television sets and an assortment of consumer electronics devices – DVRs, stereo systems, Blu-ray players and more. The Consumer Electronics Association has estimated that there are more than 400 million remotes in use across U.S. households, equating to an average of four per home. A little-heralded effect of the remote control proliferation has been its contribution to the mini-economy of disposable batteries. A broad-stroke assumption of an average of two batteries per device and a once-a-year replacement cycle suggests U.S. consumers buy nearly 1 billion batteries annually just to keep their remotes in business.

A look back at the history of remote-controlled electronics devices seems timely given current trends in the category. Because it now appears that after a 60-year run, the remote control is suffering the same fate encountered by nearly every rock ‘n’ roll band that once ruled the stage. That is to say, it’s no longer cool.

Instead, a new breed of television control systems has emerged as the darling. The idea of the moment is voice activation – the idea of literally telling your television set what you want to watch. Although the notion has created its share of jokes and heckles, there is serious investment and development underway from serious players, including the likes of Microsoft, Nuance Communications (the brains behind Apple’s Siri platform) and, if persistent rumors are credible, Apple itself. Added to the voice command vision is a like-minded pursuit of motion sensor control, like that demonstrated by Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect platform, that does away with push-button remotes in favor of a sort of bodily orchestration that appears to be drawn straight from the scenes of the 2002 movie “Minority Report” (minus the whole visual database/hologram thing).

With more than 400 million remote controls in place (and counting) in the U.S. alone, it’s not as if we’re all about to stop tapping buttons to issue commands to the TV set. But even a cursory glance across the CE landscape suggests that things are changing. We know that TV set makers are looking for ways to accelerate the replacement cycle after a nice run in HD and, so far, a mixed bag with 3-D TV. In the 1950s, Zenith proved that consumers were willing to spend significantly more for TV sets that featured a nifty new way to select channels and manipulate volume levels. It’s possible now that TV set and set-top makers are onto something similarly revolutionary. Maybe the real impetus for TV set replacement isn’t watching stereoscopic display, but resolving a more visceral human need: getting rid of the damn remote.

E-Mail: stewart@stewartschley.com

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