An Abridged History (and the Future) of Home Control

Chapter 3 – One Remote, Two Remote, Three Remote, Four…
Enter The Universal Remote

While multiroom music was struggling to getting its legs, the real center of home entertainment became, well, the “home entertainment center”. One shrine to technology was typically built in a family room or den, hands off to anyone but THE MAN OF THE HOUSE. His very masculinity could be measured in watts, his worth in woofers, his future in tweeters. Complexity was its own reward – and its own curse. So remote control began to become somewhat common for home stereo.

Then TV Surround Sound came out of the shadows, and the TV and stereo merged. Now the system has a TV, a CD player, a VCR, a DVD, the stereo receiver, cable, and sometimes a satellite receiver. Talk about multiplied convenience – now there are six or more remote controls. Enjoyment is only seven to ten clicks away!

This stage is in full effect for many households today. A stack of remotes on the coffee table, and only THE MAN knows which ones, in what order will result in any sound or light. But the next evolution is, as always, well underway.

It’s been many years since the first consolidation of remote controls was offered to the consumer. Nowadays, you can get a 4-in-one unit at the drugstore for $8, and it already knows how to talk to the equipment you have. That's the feature, and that's also the downfall.

Universal remotes have a library of IR commands built in, which you select to match your equipment. Some also are “learning”, meaning that they can memorize the commands sent by some other remote control and then send them again on cue. The more powerful of these universal remotes can also send a string of commands in a determined order that will execute a number of commands to several different devices. This “macro” capability allows users to automate a series of events with a single button.

Programming macros takes planning and patience. The best remotes have some kind of touch screen with graphical cues to make it easier to understand programming and results. Even so, most users never try to combine many commands. That’s because the “spray and pray” nature of sending optical IR commands with critical timing to a number of devices at once leads to frequent errors and missed orders. The classic example is where a macro turns on both the TV and the cable box. The same command to turn them on also turns them off again. Fine… until the TV misses the ON and stays off while the cable came on. Press again, the TV comes on, but the cable goes off. And again… yikes. Now imagine the potential for trouble when you try to combine four or more commands.

So in practical terms, instead of having to understand six remotes, now you have to understand how to use the single remote six different ways. A virtual button war rages on, with some remote makers competing to offer the most buttons, while others seek ways to make more buttons look like less.

The only certain result of a standard universal remote is that now you have the ability to lose the remote to everything at once, instead of one at a time. As for easing the control of the entertainment center, increasingly called the “home theater”, not so much. The fact is that if the universal remote is merely a consolidation of all the separate remotes, the operator must know what combinations of equipment must be set in what ways to get anything to happen. That's actually harder to do with only one remote than with several, and is simply beyond too many people.

History of Remote Control -Introduction
Chapter 1 – From Communications to Music
Chapter 2 – TV goes Mobile
This Chapter – One Remote, Two Remote, Three Remote, Four…
Chapter 4 – Automation Platforms – The Rise of the Machines
Chapter 5 – The Next Generation – User and Content Centric Control
Chapter 6 – Multi-zone and Theater Convergence


Copyright 2007 by GP Systems, Inc.