Better Remotes

Last week we published an article about how simply doing things better is a more creative and interesting option than trying to be different for the sake of being different. The idea for the post came from an interview I read with Sir Jonathan Ive.

The possibility always exists that almost everything and anything can be made better because technological development never stops. There are always new innovations providing new opportunities for improvement.

But somehow these ideas on design and innovation do not seem to have been noticed by the manufacturers of the television and cable industry.

Last weekend, I helped a family member switch over to cable. Up until then I had not been particularly motivated to think that deeply about finding a design solution for watching television. How hard can it be? You select a channel along with the appropriate volume and off you go — easy peasy. However, with the arrival of almost 200 new channels it seemed that 200 new buttons to press also turned up.

What a waste.

The quality of the television in terms of audio and video was excellent. The problem lies with the remote controls. Their basic purpose is to provide function selection from a user defined location such as a couch or an armchair.

The only real drawbacks from this method of human/technological interaction are the effects on waistlines and the triggering of innumerable domestic arguments.

Why are remotes so unwieldy and why do you have to have more than one of them? Well, one answer would be the standby of lumpheads everywhere, “Well, that is the way we’ve always done it.”

Technical issues could be advanced as a reason. After all coding infra red light to pulse in a certain manner so that each part of the TV system knows what is being asked of it must be a devilishly difficult and Herculean task.

If that were really true, which it is not, then you have to wonder how we ever made it to the moon.

Steve Wozniak came up with a one unit fits all device, the CL 9, back in 1985. It worked but was limited by the technology of the time and one totally bizarre design flaw where if the battery that is soldered to the main board goes flat then that is the end of the device.

Of course with the iPhone and the iPad no one seems to think that its nuts to have a device dependent on a battery that you cannot change. Bit of a deal-killer back then, though.

TV manufacturers regard the specifications of a television set as being the deciding factor in making the sale. They seem to assume that no one buys a TV based on how they feel about the remote control. Hence, they see them as a necessary cost on which the least amount of time, money and design effort should be spent. There is no denying that it shows.

It is a bit like buying a BMW and finding you have a coat hanger for a steering wheel.

This lack of care in the design process has resulted in homes across the planet littered with ugly, unmanageable lumps of plastic that are simply not fit for purpose. It is an ergonomic nightmare compounding itself into an environmental mess for no other reason than callous lack of thought or consideration.

But imagine if you could control your domestic entertainment devices with your smartphone or something of that ilk?

After all, they are, mostly, intelligent and they work. They are able to harness the immense power of the internet. Listings and the setting of record times could be done from websites.

On immediate benefit is that the awful, clunky, unhelpful and inefficient inbuilt cable “guide” can be simply done away with. (Here is a classic design failure in its own right. Something that is supposed to make it easier fo you find and view programmes actually gets in the way and slows you down.)

Almost certainly, a few dozen great ideas for improving human/TV interactivity could be crowd-sourced through any of the app stores or online market places within days. For instance, there could be apps where you can easily share what you are watching so others can join in and comment along with the programme.

All of this is would be so much better than the hard to use, unwieldy mess we have now.

The only advantage that the current controllers would have in this bright, new world is that you would not have to throw them away when the battery goes flat.

I think we might have moved on from that issue being a deal-killer now.

3 thoughts on “Better Remotes

  1. Oddly enough the iPhone is a pretty poor remote control I’ve found while using it with an Apple TV. On the plus side you get a keyboard for entering passwords and searches but gestures are imprecise when moving between movies/items (far too easy to overshoot). Also it is an app which connects to the Apple TV over WiFi which means after an hour of watching a movie and you want to pause it you have to unlock your iPhone, open the Remote app, wait for it to reconnect to the Apple TV and then you can press the pause button.First world problem maybe but it just isn’t as good as you’d think it would be.


  2. The manufacturers don’t do better because they don’t care. They are only interested in their customer’s money not the customers themselves. All those hideous buttons that do nothing at all are a smokescreen of contempt, driven by standard bean-counting practices, that deliberately befuddles users into thinking they are getting more when, in fact, they are getting less. Certainly much less than they are entitled to.In the eyes of industrialists better is directly equivalent to cheaper but cheapness is only an aspect not the totality of a transactional process. Nothing new is created. We just find more efficient ways of doing the same thing. I am all for efficiencies and low costs but not at any price.The idea that Sir Jonathan Ive propounds is that the real progress, the real newness, the real improvements in design and production that actually add to the quality of our lives will come from doing things better rather than doing the same thing differently. This is a first world problem but a) it was the first thing I came across after I wrote the article. I haven’t been to the garage to pick my car up yet. b) it is entirely indicative of the challenge averse (different from risk averse) mindset that leads to environmental atrocities like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch… and landfills of useless plastic lumps that came nowhere near fulfilling their promised, primary function.The mindset that produces first world problems like this has consequences for everyone on the planet.I’m not too up on psychology but if the work of people like BJ Fogg at Stanford on forming habits is really valid then the opportunity for effective change comes from acknowledging that it is easier to change mindsets by behaviour than the other way round. That means the power to make things better resides with us as individuals, not in corporate boardrooms and definitely not in the halls of government.Thanks Paul for replying. Looks like I went off on one:-)


  3. One problem is that smartphones don’t have IR built in. Either you need a device that receives signals via WiFi and emmits an IR signal, or you need a dongle that plugs into a port on your phone (USB, headphone jack,…). Both solutions exists, mainly as commercial products, but both feel unnecessarily cumbersome. The main disadvantage is that the app and the corresponding hardware need to fit together, and of course no manufacturer of one system cares for interoperability with other systems, or provides open specs of their system. If all smartphones just came with a programmable IR LED, free apps would turn up, which would solve the problem sooner rather than later through ongoing improvements. I don’t see that happening, though.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s