The Coming Remote Control Revolution

While the growing number of network-connected TVs coming to the market have had the lion’s share of living room–focused attention lately, it’s changes afoot in a more humble device category — the remote control — that may have the biggest impact of all.

Recent news shows technology companies new and old are thinking the same thing. Skype, this decade’s VoIP superstar, recently filed a patent to allow consumers to Skype from their TV, while IBM, perhaps the staidest technology company around, also jumped into the patent pool with a technology that allows “for automatic blogging of media viewing using an enhanced remote controller, suitable for use while viewing media programming and content.”

These patent filings are just part of the story. In fact, we’re on the cusp of a remote control revolution, where networking, compute and more advanced interface technologies will come standard in tomorrow’s consumer electronic remotes.

So, how will the remote control change in the coming years?  Below are four major shifts I expect to see:

Network-enabled remotes. While this shift is self-evident in the move to a networked world, it’s important to understand how underlying changes in remote control communications technology will drive this shift. Today, most remote controls use infrared, a technology limited by distance and line-of-site issues. However, the consumer electronics industry has been developing the required specifications to enable low-cost, standards-based radio technology for network-based control of consumer electronics.

QWERTY/Touchscreen Remotes.  If you’re lucky enough to own a universal remote from the likes of Logitech or Control 4, you’ve witnessed the power of robust input technologies. However, since most consumers won’t pay the $400 for a universal remote just to TV-tweet, more vendors will follow Vizio’s lead and simply add a QWERTY (or even touchscreen) option to their remotes as more Internet and computer apps make it to the TV screen.

Motion Sensing (or, as NewTeeVee’s Chris calls it, Gesture Control). There’s no doubt the game guys are often on the leading edge for consumer interface technologies, with the Wii being the first widely adopted accelerometer based motion sensing controller, and Microsoft talking about making the body the controller with Natal. Clearly gaming is the most logical place for motion sensing, but over time low-cost accelerometers and motion recognition technologies could revolutionize how consumers change the channel.

Remotes May Not be Remotes. In the future, the best remotes may not even be remotes, but simply hand-held devices with downloadable remote software. One look at the Apple app store and you’ll see hundreds of remote control applications (including Apple’s), as software and creative consumer electronics vendors realize the power of a network-enabled device like the iPod touch. Others, such as tvCompass, are building entire platforms for TV-centric control applications across a range of wireless hand-held network devices.

In fact, this last trend may ultimately be the biggest one of all in the remote control space. There’s no doubt the faster development cycles, high-programmability and processing power packed into devices like the iPhone and coming Android devices will surpass that of any fixed-function remote controls. It’s no stretch to say the future remote may not be something you already own: a mobile hand-held device.

Question of the week

Do you believe today’s basic remote controls will be replaced by more advanced handheld devices like the iPhone?
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  1. ^^^No question – the real driver for change here is that the TV screen is broadening in it’s use case – and I think it’s going to have a pretty dramatic effect on the consumer purchase cycles for both TVs and remotes.^^^
    In almost every home, the TV screen is the *best and biggest* screen in the house, and eventually nearly all things digital are going to be consumed there. This introduces a really broad range of use cases for the screen – from watching TV, surfing the net, playing games, video communication, etc etc. This can’t be facilitated very well with a fixed-button remote – so i think the movement will be towards open interfaced touch-screen remotes that can quickly re-configure buttons and real-estate to accomadate the use-case that the screen is being utilized in.
    A second effect of this will be that once consumers have an internet equipped TV, they’ll hang onto the TV for a long period of time, but buy incrementally better remote control devices in relatively quick succession. This is a model that could fit our friends in Cupertino very well.

    1. @Dave – no doubt, the TV use-cases will change. However – I am not entirely sold on the fact the intelligence will be in the TV itself. I am a big believer the display’s main purpose is presenting stunning visuals – but it doesn’t have to be where the processing/compute, decode, or even the network inflow is for content.

      That said, I think we’ll see alot more networked TVs that connect to much more advanced remotes. I think your are right on about life-cycles of TVs – much longer – but the newest networking/convergence service (or even great service provider based service) will likely come from a box (or a card if, say, Cablecard or something like it really did ever take off, though it looks to me like that is unlikely at this point).

      While LCD is the big technology now, I think the CE industry is going to try and push us into a new upgrade cycle with OLED and/or 3D. Will it work – we’ll see. But if it does, these nice new screens will be sold of the stunning picture, not because of an Internet widget.

      1. Ah, the old “compact” vs. “component” stereo battle reemerges once again! Where is the correct place for intelligence in a TV? History has shown clearly that consumers do not upgrade components. Something like 95% of all desktop PCs have never had their case removed since they left the factory, so why are those expansion slots there?

        I think that short term, your concept of monitor attached to intelligence may win out; early adopters are geeks that are willing to struggle with cables and configurations, and current frothiness in the Internet TV choices keeps uncertainty high. But when this is ready for prime time, the average consumer wants one box (with as few cables as possible) that they can “set and forget” and use for the next 10 to 15 years. Intelligence in the set is not such a big problem, now that you can upgrade the software remotely over the Internet, as has been used by set makers to update widgets and Internet services recently.

        Intelligence in the set will help drive down remote control costs, however, as there will be fewer boxes that the remotes will have to control. The biggest challenge is creating a user interface that will make Internet content accessible from a remote; Hulu content is great, but it’s a pain to access even with a keyboard and mouse. User interface for Internet content is the next great technology frontier.

  2. Will this be delayed by a war between zigbee and z-wave? Will consumer electronics (tv, av receiver, cable box) people ever get it?
    Look at the zigbee members. Where’s Denon? Where’s Oknyo?

  3. Luigi Benedicenti Friday, September 11, 2009

    Although I see no obstacles from a technical point of view, I think that the economics of convergence have not made sense yet, even in the US market which is relatively advanced. Until I see a business model that works bilaterally (provider, customer) for delivered content I will remain skeptical.

    I liken the “new” crop of remote controls (remember the Palm remote control by the way?) to smartphones in the mobile phone arena. So in terms of market penetration, confidence in the product, and customer friendliness, I think standard remotes are here to stay for a lot longer, excluding enthusiasts and early adopters of course.

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