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.

Random User: To play devil's advocate—how lazy are we, anyway? I grew up having four real channels of TV; turning the set on and off and changing the volume or channel required, gasp, a trip to the TV to make the adjustment. When 13-channel cable came along, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. The stereo was in a whole separate room of the house. There was no DVR or any other means for watching anything that wasn't being broadcast that very second. Do we really think we're being mistreated by having to reach across the cushion to grab the separate remote for the DVD player?

Merlin Love: You can't use the shift and modernization of technology to make excuses for still needing pain to make it all work together. That's like making an argument that you shouldn't have to replace the dead battery in your car because we all used to go by horseback! Yes, we all have more that we used to. Yes, technology has accelerated and is inherently more complicated, but, yes, we should expect it to be easy to use and easy to integrate.

Dan Janni: Farhad's not thinking big enough here. There are other appliances around the house that I'd like to cooperate. How about my thermostat talking to Outlook on my PC to know when I'm getting up and when I'm coming home? How about my alarm clock knowing all that and just waking me up at the right time? How about building an interface on my PC (or other large-screen device) for all of the devices that have crappy little interfaces (alarm clocks, VCRs, etc.)?

I suspect the real solution is probably closer than we think—probably something like little Linux servers on all of these devices combined with wireless networking. Any device could learn to talk to any other device by simply getting the description and sending requests. Yes, yes there are tons of details around security and whatnot to be worked out here, but there are simple tools that could be used together to cobble together a solution through which devices can query one another (your remote can ask whether the TV is on already!) and send commands.

Doncl: What about Windows Media Center? We've been using this since 2003-04. Admittedly it is not a new unifying communications protocol between audiovisual gear from disparate manufacturer. It piggybacks on the unifying standards of Windows and PCs that you alluded to in the article. It gives me access to cable, music, videos, photos, and FM radio, all from a unified interface, using a single remote. It's my DVR. It connects to any HD visual display (since it can use any standard video card), and can be made to work with just about any audiophile hardware out there, I believe. What it really doesn't have is decent market share; it seems like Microsoft has been schizophrenic about pushing it as the center of your living room. It started out with that vision, then they retreated from that, and now they seem to be advancing again. (Windows 7 has simplified things such that just about any PC and digital tuner will work well.)

Mr. Laurent: The problem I have isn't so much the setup of the technology; it's the optimization. With the advent of HDMI, plugging in various components to your receiver is simple. Usually, everything then works properly. The TV turns on, you get a picture, you get sound ... but then how do you know if everything is working the way it was intended to? Maybe that picture you're seeing isn't the best picture or that sound you're hearing isn't the way it's supposed to sound? It's way too complicated to optimize these gadgets.

W: You happily point out the positives of an operating system, but you've left out all the frustrations. Even the most modern OSes have issues, and the advantage of dumb home theater components is that they just work. You want to add layers of software and drivers to this? Also, you describe an OS as if that eliminates the need for a standard communication protocol, which is simply not possible. It just adds to the standards that will be required.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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