Are Today's Remote Interfaces Up To The Task?
By Jessica Millward
Count on Ozzy Osbourne to act as mouthpiece for a marketplace. In one of the first episodes of his family's popular reality series, the Ozz can't work his own video system, even though he's been provided with a customized remote control. The baffled hero laments to millions that "you've got to have computer knowledge to turn the TV on and off! I press one button and the shower starts!"
It'd be comforting to chalk this comment up to substance abuse and/or overexposure to arena rock. But everyone knows Ozzy's not the only one, and these days, his sentiment is being echoed by some not-so-usual suspects. If you peek your head outside the CE industry bubble, you'll see even educated, technology-savvy people struggling with technology interfaces. Perhaps Donald Norman, a professor of computer science at Northwestern University and former VP of advanced technology at Apple Computer, said it best in his timeless essay, "The Perils of Home Theater": I am appalled by the lack of understanding of consumers in the home theater industry, by the complexity, by the emphasis on jargon, by the lack of standards...."
The importance of a user-friendly controller simply can't be overemphasized — truth be told, it makes or breaks a system. And that importance only grows as technology layers/sophistication levels increase. But even today's best remote controls — as powerful as they can be — are proving to be beyond the comfort zone of many end-users. Controller manufacturers continue to experiment and refine, in hope of some day producing the perfect combination of functionality and usability. But their goal may be an elusive one — perhaps even an impossible one.
HOW WE GOT WHERE WE ARE
Remote control for home entertainment has a surprisingly long history, with Zenith premiering its Lazy Bone, Flashmatic and Space Command controller models in the early 1950s. The Space Command, designed by Zenith engineer Robert Adler and based on ultrasonic principles, went into commercial production in 1956, and its design served as the prototypical TV controller model through to the early '80s, when the industry moved to infrared (IR) technology. In other words, consumers had nearly three decades to grow accustomed to the interface conventions we take for granted today — up/down keys, arrows, enter buttons and the like.