Universal remote: Your predictions about the evolution of home entertainment.

Where technology is going.
April 1 2011 7:21 AM

The Remote Future

Your predictions about the evolution of home entertainment.

This is part of Farhad Manjoo's continuing series on the future of innovation. Read the series introduction, Manjoo's stories on the future of mobile gadgets, the future of the Internet, the future of home entertainment, and the future of social networks as well as readers' predictions about mobile devices and the future of the Web.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Earlier this week, I looked into why home theater systems are so insufferably annoying. They're hard to set up, and with their many incompatible remotes, they're hard to control. Worst of all, there's no sign than any of this is getting better. I argued that what we need is an operating system for the living room—a smart piece of software that can manage all of our devices. In other words, we need our TVs to be as sophisticated as our computers.

Many readers agreed with me that their home theaters are trouble. But several insisted that I was too hard on universal remote controls; the best ones, they said, solve most of the problems I'm describing. There was also a fear that building more intelligence into our home theater components would backfire: Computers can be annoying, after all. By asking for the TV to become more like a computer, wasn't I just asking for different frustrations? I don't think so—I believe that a well-designed, minimalist OS will make home theaters more usable without making them more complex.

I've excerpted the best reader comments below. (I have made some light edits for length and clarity.) Let's continue the discussion: What will our home theaters look like in five years, and why?

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LowSky: I'm a proud owner of a Harmony remote. If and when you accidentally turn something off or choose the wrong setting, you can hit the help button and the remote tries to fix the issue.

If we wanted everything to communicate, it would already be done. It is not that way because most people can barely figure out their Internet routers. When I was a kid my parents had no idea how to change the clock on the VCR; now they have trouble using Facebook without guidance. You expect them to figure out how to get the remote to talk to the TV?

Merlin Love: All of this exists. There are many competing "operating systems" out there for home theaters: Crestron, RTI, URC, Elan, AMX, Control4, etc. The integration of all these components is just something that hasn't trickled down to the average consumer yet.

Tom Castle: Fair point, but I think Farhad is saying that this should be built-in. I understand the explanation for why it hasn't been widely adopted, but I don't buy it as an excuse. Somebody will figure out how to market one or more devices that just work, and when that happens the model for what's acceptable will change, as it has for smart phones. I don't think it will involve third-party applications or devices—it will involve a fundamental change in the way the core components are designed. Engineers will never make it happen. Designers, thinking as real live human beings, will make it happen.

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