As the world of home entertainment advances with a mermerizing rapidity that puts even PC technology to shame, its one major Achilles Heel remains unchanged: the remote control. Fortunately, I have devised the perfect solution.
Over the past several months I’ve been unlucky enough to use no less than a dozen different remote controls. Some are device-specific, like the one for my stereo receiver. Others, like the one that came with my television, claim to be able to control every device in my living room (yeah, right). All of them — each in their own special way — are Lame.
Recently Apple’s Steve Jobs claimed his company had reinvented the remote control simply because theirs has only six buttons instead of a zillion. Without going into details, I can tell you this is pure bunk. Apple’s six-button remote is about as great as the original (and now infamous) iMac puck mouse: cute and cuddly but frustratingly useless.
Apple’s on-screen interface for their remote, called Front Row, is a kludgy patchwork that wrangles together the Mac’s native abilities to watch movies, browse photos, and listen to music. It’s very limited and interacts surprisingly poorly with the remote control.
The existence of Front Row, however, makes an important statement about the direction of remote control interfaces in general: away from the device and onto the screen.
But there’s a lot of room for improvement in this implementation.
Microsoft’s XBox 360 does it better by a long shot.
For example, one of the most interesting features on the XBox 360’s remote has been borrowed from its game controller: four buttons that are simply colour-coded and marked with letters Y, X, A and B. The the on-screen interface enables these buttons to behave contextually, essentially letting them take on whatever purpose is required of the current function being performed on-screen.
It’s difficult to describe how truly beneficial these non-specific buttons are when combined with an on-screen display. Each letter has a “feel” about it that intuits its current functionality. Each of the 6 buttons on Apple’s remote, in comparison, have particular purposes that limit their usefulness.
In the quest for function without form, one company picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Apple’s Jobs.
At the Intel Developer Conference this year Intel VP Don MacDonald responded to Apple’s low-count-button challenge with a new device that’s part of its Viiv home media centre platform: the voice-driven remote control.
MacDonald tried to talk the device through the simple process of playing a DVD — an act it ultimately failed at, which is supposedly fine, since it’s pre-release technology. I’m not a big fan of voice-driven technology, anyway, so I don’t really expect to see this one in the market anytime soon.
On the other hand, a remote that I’ve come to grudgingly depend on over the last few months is Logitech’s Harmony.
It’s a well-designed unit that can be programmed, using a web-based application, to control virtually any home theatre device in existence.
As anyone with even a couple of home theatre devices can attest, just watching TV can become a frustrating activity pretty quickly. The Harmony does an excellent job of simplifying things, but makes some sacrifices along the way.
The Harmony device features three large buttons: Watch TV, Watch a Movie, Listen to Music. Once programmed correctly (which can be a fair chore) these buttons will automatically configure your various home theatre devices’ settings and inputs for each activity. You can then also use the Harmony to control the devices.
Once you try and move past the basics, however, it can get tricky.
Some esoteric device functions can only be accessed if you specially program them on the Harmony. Even then, to use them you have to navigate through a tiny, low-resolution LCD screen on the device that is barely legible. I usually keep each device’s remote close-at-hand to handle these situations, which arise all-too-often.
If the Harmony remote’s multi-device capabilities were ever married with the XBox 360’s buttons and interface, it would be nearly perfect.
But only “nearly”. Enter my brilliant idea.
Rather than a handheld device that can get lost with the dust bunnies under the couch, or a voice-driven system that won’t understand your Polish accent, I’ve devised a nanotech-based remote control chip implant.
Or, as I’ve termed it: Boob Tube Augmentation Surgery.
Basically, since television and its various trappings are so central to our existence in the modern age, physically implanted remote control devices would be of tremendous benefit. Heck, they do this for buying drinks at raves, why not for watching TV?
The device could be placed anywhere, preferably in a pointing member of the body like a finger, and it would interact through movement with a standardized on-screen display that is capable of communication with all home theatre devices.
I still have to work out some kinks, like how to resolve channel-switching battles among bored teenagers and avoid hijacking by neighbours, but those are minor issues.
Sometimes, when industry fails to take the action we consumers demand, we have to take matters into our own hands. Now if I could just come up with a palm-embedded, on-demand nanotech popcorn machine, the world would be my oyster.
First published in the Yukon News on Friday, March 24, 2006.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Canada License.