Why Are Remote Controls So Terrible?

The way things look.
June 27 2012 6:30 AM

Ugly Buttons

How did the remote control get so awful and confusing?

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The improved "Space Command" remote.
The improved "Space Command" remote came with four buttons—power, tune up, tune down, and mute. This version dates from the 1970s.

Photograph by Todd Ehlers/ Flickr.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

I can't figure out how to watch my brother's TV. He's explained it to me a hundred times, but that's the curse of the baby-sitting uncle: It's harder to work a remote control than it is to change a diaper. Every living room has its own orchestra of buttoned rectangles, a set of instruments that must be played in just the right sequence and according to a musical logic that can never be taught, only learned. Yet we indulge the fantasy that using someone else's TiVo is a matter of following a few simple directions: Just make sure you power up the cable with the gray remote and then flip on the set with that skinny black one, otherwise you'll get all screwed up. You can change the channels with the silver, and use the gray again for the volume, but remember, whatever happens, don't you dare press any of the buttons on this little gray one. For the love of god, just leave this little gray one alone …

An MCE Hauppauge remote with classic modern design: rounded edges and circular keys.
An MCE Hauppauge remote with classic modern design: rounded edges and circular keys

Courtesy Hauppauge.

There's an excess of buttons in my house, too—92 of them, to be exact, arranged on my nightstand in rubbery rows, seven different colors' worth, with overlapping labels that range in tone from clear and aggressive ("POWER," "FREEZE") to meek and mysterious ("SUR," "NAVI"). Following the model of usability expert Jakob Nielsen, I counted up the buttons I've actually pressed—not the ones I've pressed most often, but the ones I've pressed, period. The number was 34. I had a surplus of nearly five dozen.

More striking was the fact that all my spare buttons were so densely packed into one corner of my living space. My home computer has 79 buttons. (I use almost all of them.) My clock radio has 15 buttons. My MP3 player and cellphone have five buttons between them. So why should my television, a simple device that's not so interactive, spread so much clutter and confusion? Imagine if there were a separate door for each shelf of your refrigerator, and each of those doors had its own combination lock. That's the state of the modern entertainment center, and the hand-held devices we use to manipulate it. The remote control was supposed to make life easier, but instead it's led us into a labyrinth of bad design. How did we get here, and where are we going?

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The history of the remote, as it's widely and improperly understood, began in 1950 with a Zenith device called the Lazy Bones. The new, hand-held thumb-clicker was attached to a set by a long cord, and allowed customers to "take it easy" by working a receiver from their seat. Ads called it "the greatest aid to relaxation and comfort that's ever happened to television," while behind closed doors Zenith execs referred to their marketing scheme as "the lazy man's approach." Their sales pitch worked: After more than six decades, the Lazy Bones is still how most of us understand the remote control—as a tool of relaxation and a means for doing nothing at all.

Ad for the Zenith "Lazy Bones" from the 1950s.
Ad for the Zenith Lazy Bones from the 1950s, which had a hand-held thumb-clicker attached to a set by a long cord

Courtesy Electronic House/TVHistory.tv

In fact, the Lazy Bones was not the first television remote, nor can human laziness more than halfway explain the evolution of the device. Before Zenith, the remote functioned as a kind of patch for busted hardware, says historian Max Dawson of Northwestern University, , who is working on a book called The History of Television’s Futures. Early television sets had an array of dials that were tuned in aggregate to get a clear image—a process so frustrating that it spawned an industry of how-to books and magazine guides. One RCA television was so plagued by tuning drift, Dawson explains, that the company released a single-function remote controller in 1949—a separate tuning knob that viewers could manipulate from the couch.

By this point, remote controls were already commonplace—for the radio. They began not as mass-produced accessories, but as DIY projects—the province of hackers, tinkerers, and backyard inventors. In the 1920s, as Dawson explains, hobbyist magazines printed instructions for building your own motorized, remote-controlled radio tuner. Here control was more important than remoteness: Amateurs could take command of their home electronics for the sake of better sound and signals. Eventually these efforts were repackaged as commercial products, and 12 years before the invention of the Lazy Bones, Philco released the first official wireless remote for radio—a rotary-dial device called the Mystery Control.

The real history of the remote control, then, is one of competing impulses—to take control of your television and to never leave your couch, to hack and to lounge, to do something and nothing. The remote devices that followed the Lazy Bones were marketed not as a means of relaxation, but as a way to fight back against the network oligarchs and their commercial sponsors. By the mid-1950s, a backlash had formed against the excesses of advertising. (Vance Packard's dire warning in The Hidden Persuaders arrived in 1957.) Consumers wanted to protect themselves against brainwashing ad-men, and remote controls offered a means of self-defense. First came the independently-marketed TV Hush and Blab-Off—a volume knob and a mute switch respectively—that could be manipulated from your seat. (The latter was invented by matzo magnate Howard Manischewitz.) But Dawson points out that Zenith, too, had a stake in the backlash: The company was pushing its own alternative to broadcast TV, an early version of pay-per-view called Phonevision. In 1955, it introduced the Flash-Matic—a wireless TV remote shaped like a laser gun, so viewers could zap commercials into silence.

Ad for Zenith's "Flash-Matic"—a wireless TV remote shaped like a laser gun, introduced in 1955.
Ad for Zenith's Flash-Matic—a wireless TV remote shaped like a laser gun, introduced in 1955

Courtesy Terramedia.

The Flash-Matic was a flashlight, more or less, to be aimed at sensors at the corners of the TV screen. Shoot one corner to adjust the tuning, shoot another to lower the sound. A year later, Zenith replaced the gun with the boxy Space Command, an improved remote with four buttons—power, tune up, tune down, and mute. Each press caused a hammer to strike a piece of aluminum and produce an inaudible, high-frequency tone that could be picked up by the television. Ultrasonic technology proved more reliable than the light-based Flash-Matic, and less prone to interference than the radio-wave remotes that had been tried before. For the next 25 years it remained the standard.

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