Few consumer electronics technologies last for more than half a century.
Yet the TV remote control has been a centerpiece of living rooms and the focus of family squabbles for more than 60 years. Its age is showing, however -- and new technologies built into the next generation of TVs may replace the old clicker.
It's been clear for some time that remote controls weren't cutting it any more. There are too many entertainment options now -- thousands of channels, streaming online video, video on demand, DVRs, music, YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, games, and more -- to direct with a simple hand-held device. Searching for a program with a basic remote is like trying to pick up cat hair with tweezers, and wireless keyboards (yes, there's one sitting on my coffee table) are better but bulky.
So designers are now employing built-in cameras and microphones to enable TVs to recognize your gestures, spoken instructions, and even individual faces. Much like Microsoft's Kinect system for the Xbox 360 game console, these new ways of interacting with and controlling the television could prove liberating -- you'll never have to dig through the pillows on the couch to find the remote again.
But which technology will win out?
Samsung recently introduced the first television that uses all these technologies together. The company's latest so-called smart TVs have a video camera built into the top edge of the set. It can be used to make Skype video calls, but it can also recognize hand gestures like a closed fist to launch a program such as Facebook. Facial recognition software also detects who's in the room and will automatically open your account.
Searching for programs is also made easier with voice recognition software. Basic commands can turn the TV on or off, and your spoken words, like "Glee" or "American Idol," can be entered automatically to find a show. It isn't perfect, but it's a lot better than moving a cursor, letter by letter, to spell out "Kagemusha."
Such features still command a premium price -- a 55-inch Samsung LED 8000 Series Smart TV lists for $3,750 -- but these features will eventually filter down to less expensive flat-panel sets. Other manufacturers, including LG, Panasonic, and Lenovo, are already working on models with similar capabilities.
Paul Gray, director of European TV research for DisplaySearch, says there's no perfect replacement for the remote control -- yet. Not everyone will be comfortable waving at their TV, for example, and it takes some sophisticated processing to understand even basic gestures such as flattened palms. And the software has to be able to ignore extraneous movements, otherwise every time someone on the couch scratches their nose the channel will change.
Another replacement for the remote may already be in your hand. Smartphones and tablet computers are being called "companion screens" by industry analysts because so many of us have them by our sides when we watch TV. Not surprisingly, there are several apps on the market that turn an Android or iPhone handset into a remote control, and in a recent presentation at the IFA Global Press Conference, Gray seemed to believe that such apps would become popular before all the bugs were worked out of voice recognition and gesture systems.
Smartphones and tablets can also be used in novel ways with a television. Panasonic's latest app for its TV's for example lets you wirelessly send a photo from a phone to a TV screen simply with a flick of a finger. It's almost magical in its simplicity, which is why tapping on a touch screen may replace pushing buttons on a clicker.
Ultimately, we won't need any hand-held device to switch on the news or play the latest Gotye hit. But it won't put an end to the TV control wars. Just last night I was vainly waving my arms at the TV trying to launch Netflix, while a friend was barking commands at the set to start YouTube.