Liam Green-Hughes

how will the remote control change?

If you walk into any living room today it will come as no surprise to find a whole pile of remote controls that interact with a vast array of gadgets. The humble remote has been a part of living room technology for many years and brought to a welcome end the days of having to get up off the sofa to change the channel! Yet these devices have their flaws and interesting new ideas are being tried out to improve the experience of using the remote for the customer.

buttons, buttons everywhere

The Roku remoteAs well as having to find the right remote to control a device users are expected to cope with the often incredible number of buttons on a remote control. Manufacturers often feel the need to include a buttons for every function of the device, regardless of how often that function gets used. Buttons for infrequently and frequently used buttons are often the same size and buttons that perform the same function are sometimes found in different places on different remotes.

Do remotes need all of these buttons? Some manufacturers have been marketing devices with minimalist remotes. The Roku box for instance comes with a very simple remote control (shown right) as does the Apple TV. These remotes remove pretty much everything apart from the navigation keys.

These remotes are a delightful picture of simplicity but might be a bit too minimalistic when it comes to operating some devices. One area that can be difficult is text entry. Many set top boxes support text entry for functions like searching an electronic programme guide and internet connected devices might require text entry to find content online.

consonant please carol

Entering text with a traditional remote can be a painful process. With search being such a familiar technique to find content it seems a shame that the limitations of a remote make this so difficult. Some systems try to get round this by implementing a T9 style text entry system similar to early mobile phones. Others use an on screen keyboard where the user must navigate and select each letter individually.

One remote that did solve this quite nicely was the remote used on D-Link’s Boxee Box (below). On the front this remote was a minimalist affair much like the Roku and Apple devices, but flip the device over and you would find a full mini QWERTY keyboard that made text entry much simpler. This has always struck me as an elegant solution.

The Boxee Remote

do we need the numeric buttons?

One notable feature that is missing from the minimalist remotes is the numeric buttons. These are present so that you do such things as directly enter a channel number. It might be possible to remove the need for these buttons by enhancing the user interface. For example digital TV features so many channels that it would be difficult to remember many of them by number, but advances in Electronic Programme Guides could make this unnecessary.

Similarly the enhancement of the user interface to put the functions of the buttons that are not used so much into on screen menus could reduce clutter leaving the remote to be designed to drive the major functionality.

the future

Some devices enhance the user experience by integrating with devices such as smartphones and tablets. Sky have recently enhanced their apps to allow users to control their Sky box fully from their mobile phone, including setting up recordings. This is a great opportunity as people are already familiar with these devices and they may present a useful way to present a lot of information in an easy to navigate way.

The BBC last year published a white paper that took this idea much further. The Universal Control API features a rather interesting idea:

The device being controlled would not get to dictate the nature of the remote user interface (UI): this would be entirely under the control of the software running on the remote device.
This would allow entirely different remotes to be built for different audiences which would be fantastic for accessibility and also for developing new remote control concepts. Some manufacturers have even started to offer features such as voice and gesture control for their TVs, opening up the possibility of doing away with the remote control entirely.

Despite its shortcomings the remote control as it is today is not likely to disappear from our living rooms any time soon, but ideas for its development are being explored. Controlling your next TV could be a very different experience!

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