How did the remote control get so awful and confusing?
Though adoption was slow, new designs for the ultrasonic remote emerged in the 1960s and ’70s. The Danish design firm Bang & Olufsen introduced a sleeker, steel-topped control box, and then haptic cues to make the remote easier to operate in the dark. Buttons that turned the volume or brightness down were concave, and those for turning them up were convex. Still, by 1979 just 17 percent of American households had a remote.
With the growth of cable television in the 1980s, the device became ubiquitous. Now the remote control didn't just mute commercials, it cycled through long menus of programming. Remotes began to look more like switchboards, with dozens of buttons for all the available channels. The arrival of VCRs created the need for still more buttons—play, fast-forward, rewind—and gave remote control yet another purpose in the home. Academics took note of a newly-empowered television viewer, whose ability to channel-surf "must be seen as a crack in a tightly controlled political economic system." Infrared technology replaced ultrasonic, and remotes were everywhere. At the end of the decade, more than two-thirds of all households had one.
Photograph by Hollyce Jeffries / Etsy.com.
As remote control spread, the device became a cultural icon—and its design turned more elaborate and whimsical. A company called Quasar released a line of multicolored Fashion Accent sets with matching remotes that looked like minitelevisions. (You could slide a photograph over the tiny replica screen.) American Standard, the toilet manufacturer, released a super-luxury, remote-controlled bathtub for $25,000 called the "Sensorium." It came with a waterproof device that helped you control the taps, make phone calls, operate the stereo, and flip channels on your TV.
For the mainstream consumer, the acquisition of each new piece of equipment—for playing videocassettes, laser discs, CDs—was marked by a corresponding hand-held device. Eventually these became so numerous as to be self-defeating. The lazy-bones viewer (who had by now been reconfigured as a "couch potato") wasted effort rummaging around for the right piece of plastic. For the first time, we faced the problem of having too much control and too many remotes.
Twenty years later, that problem has not yet been solved—which explains the 92 buttons on my nightstand. Indeed, the design of the remote control seems to have stalled out in the 1980s, an era of skinny rectangles and gridded keypads. Today's devices have more rounded edges, like electronic éclairs, and circular keys for selecting from on-screen menus. But their major functions and foibles haven't much changed.
Still, the struggle to assimilate all those buttons has spawned a new sort of handheld device, one that may soon make the classic remote extinct. Back in 1985, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak noticed the problem of remote-control overload and left the company for a startup, with the goal of creating a universal remote that could be programmed to control his stereo, his TV, his VCR, everything.* "I wanted one remote," he says in his autobiography. "Just one. And I wanted that one main button to be able to do multiple things. I wanted to push it and have it go zip, zip, zip, zip, zip and have all the infrared signals come out of one remote control that turned everything on to the status I wanted."
Wozniak's high-powered, 20-button remote, released in 1987 with a thick user's manual and its own programming language, was far too complicated for the mainstream consumer. His idea split the remote-control market into its two long-standing constituencies—the hackers and the loungers. Now the former had a device that was just for them, a remote that could be loaded up with macros and reprogrammed. (Its descendants live on today.)
Meanwhile, Steve Jobs pushed Apple in the opposite direction, stripping away buttons and options, eventually creating a smooth, hand-held screen—the perfect hardware for lounging. While his former partner worked to tame a wilderness of devices and protocols, Jobs set up his famous walled garden. He put movies and music together in iTunes, and then—with the iPhone and iPad—he put iTunes right there in your lap. In the new Apple universe, nothing is ever remote, which makes the remote control obsolete.
What now? It can't be long before the computers in our pockets take over for the buttons on our nightstands. "In a sense we have to think about the phone as almost a universal remote control for your life," said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer in 2007. Cellphones and tablets can stream video, and with the right apps installed they can serve as controls for your TV and stereo, too. The touch-screen interface comes with its own set of problems, of course—you can't find the inputs with your fingers, or feel your way around. But maybe that's the future of remote control: We started out with too many buttons and we'll end up with too few.
Clarification, Aug. 20, 2012: The original has been corrected to give more explicit credit to historian Max Dawson for the fact that radio remote controls began as DIY projects, and the idea that Zenith had a stake in the backlash against broadcast television.
Correction, June 28, 2012: This article originally misspelled the last name of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. (Return to the corrected sentence.)