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A look at the history of remote controls, some of the coolest remotes out now, and what's ahead for changing the channels on your TV.
Eugene Polley, Inventor
Although the form, the number of buttons, and the interface may have changed since Eugene Polley's invention of the Flash-Matic TV remote in 1955, the purpose of the TV remote remains the same: Allow people to control devices and appliances wirelessly without having to get up off the couch.
There's no denying the TV remote's impact on the way we change channels, navigate a DVR, or stream Netflix movies. In honor of Polley, who passed away on May 20 at age 96, here's a look at the past, present, and future of the device, and a collection of some of the most innovative remote controls.
Zenith Flash-Matic: 1955
Encapsulating the space-age futurism of the 1950s, the first wireless remote was the Flash-Matic. Eugene Polley's remote emitted a visible light beam that the user had to meticulously aim at one of four sensors on a TV set to change channels, adjust the volume, and turn the TV on or off.
(Image: Courtesy of Electronic House)
Zenith Space Command: 1956
A year after issuing the Flash-Matic, Zenith released the Space Command, an entirely mechanical remote control. When the user pressed the buttons, they struck aluminum rods (no batteries needed), emitting ultrasonic tones that a TV microphone (or your dog) could pick up as commands. Unfortunately, anything else that created similar sounds at the same high frequencies could trigger the TV as well.
(Image: Courtesy of Electronic House)
RCA Victor Wireless Wizard: 1961
In 1961 RCA kicked things up a notch with the Wireless Wizard. This remote could control seven functions, including the tint, color, and brightness. However, the Wireless Wizard had one big drawback: It required walking up to the TV set, turning on a remote amplifier, and then waiting for it to charge up. On the plus side, given the device's size, losing a remote to couch crevices was still a few years away.
(Image: Courtesy of RCA Victor)
CL9 CORE: 1987
In addition to co-founding Apple, Steve Wozniak brought to market the world's first programmable universal remote with his post-Apple venture called CL9. The remote, dubbed the CL9 CORE, was released in 1987. What made the remote unique was that it could learn IR patterns from other remotes to operate TVs and stereo components. It featured an LCD, a relatively powerful 6502 microprocessor, and a serial port for connecting to a computer. It did not sell well, though.
(Image: Courtesy of K-Tronics)
Sony SL-HF2100 Remote: 1993
In 1993, Sony proved why it was once king of electronics, releasing this forward-thinking touchscreen remote with the SL-HF2100 VCR. The illuminated display of the Sony SL-HF2100 Remote featured 12 modal screens not unlike the displays on today's smartphones. Unfortunately, with this product Sony also proved why it was no longer king, as it designed this sophisticated remote for none other than its most infamous failed format: Betamax. To make matters worse, though the remote came out in 1993, Betamax had already lost the video-recording wars to VHS around 1988.
(Image: Courtesy of Sony)
Philips Pronto TSU9800: 2008
Released in 2008, the fully IP/Wi-Fi-based Pronto TSU9800 is a home-automation control hub that allows users to see not just what's on TV but also who is in front of their security cameras. The Pronto sports a massive 6.4-inch VGA display, which pushes it pretty darn close to tablet territory. Regrettably, Philips shut down its Pronto home-automation business in October 2010. You can still pick up a TSU9800 for around $700, a fraction of what it used to cost, but you'll probably find it on eBay since it has been discontinued.
(Image: Courtesy of Philips)
Acoustic Research ARRX18G: 2009
Released in late 2009, Acoustic Research's ARRX18G TV remote combines a 2.2-inch LCD touchscreen with physical buttons. Users can program the remote for up to 18 devices, either locally or through the Acoustic Research website. One of the coolest things about the ARRX18G is that it features user profiles, allowing different family members to save their preferences. Although the ARRX18G has been discontinued, you can pick one up for as little as $70.
(Image: Courtesy of Acoustic Research)
Samsung RMC30C2: 2010
With the growth of smartphone ownership, the Samsung RMC30C2 seemed like a no-brainer when it debuted in 2010. Designed to emulate a smartphone, it offers a 3-inch touchscreen, runs Linux, and carries a 600MHz ARM processor, which enables users to browse other channels without disrupting what's on screen--sort of like a physical picture-in-picture. The remote works with compatible Samsung TVs over Wi-Fi, and with other manufacturers' audio/video components over IR. Customers have complained, however, that the RMC30C2 is unresponsive to taps and has an unintuitive interface, making it more of a pricey novelty at $299.
(Image: Courtesy of Samsung)
Universal Remote Control MX-6000
Given that the MX-6000, from Universal Remote Control, costs around $1250--more than the average big-screen TV--it's clearly intended for the full movie-theater experience at home, rather than the typical 46-inch home theater setup. But if you're searching for the perfect remote to manage your AV, home automation, and media streaming, as well as to check news, weather, and stocks, you can't go wrong with the MX-6000, which has a 533MHz ARM A9 processor and a 4.3-inch LCD. It's almost hard to believe that this sophisticated remote debuted way back in 2008.
(Image: Courtesy of Universal Remote Control)
Logitech Harmony 1100
If Logitech's mainstream universal remotes are the kings of the market, the company's top-of-the-line Harmony 1100 is the emperor, with dominion over 15 audio/video components. First released in 2009, the Harmony 1100 is built around a 3.5-inch touchscreen, which according to Logitech features "one-touch activity control, which enables you to start, stop and switch between different activities--such as 'Watch TV,' 'Listen to Music' and 'Play a Video Game.'" The Harmony 1100 now costs about $250, half of its debut price. The company sells RF-to-IR range extenders that allow users to stash away their AV components inside home theater cabinets, too.
(Image: Courtesy of Logitech)
The $199 RedEye, released in 2009, combines an iOS/Android app and hardware to turn just about any smartphone into a touchscreen remote. Using the free app and Wi-Fi, the smartphone connects to the RedEye dock, which acts as a small Linux server. The dock converts the phone's commands into TV/receiver/set-top box-friendly IR. Conveniently, every family member may connect and use their own smartphone--but if they all do it at the same time, someone's going to lose.
(Images: Courtesy of ThinkFlood)
Peel Smart Remote
Another app and hardware combo is the $99 Peel Smart Remote. But rather than just turn your iPhone (it's for iOS devices only) into a remote facsimile, the Peel app lets users browse TV content by genre, and even provides Pandora-style recommendations.
The Fruit--the pear-shaped IR beamer--uses ZigBee to connect to your Wi-Fi network (via an included adapter) to communicate with your iPhone. While ZigBee adds an intermediary step, its energy-efficiency gives the Fruit about six months of use on a single C battery. Note that Peel is phasing out the Fruit hardware and focusing on the free app, which anybody can use as a personalized TV-recommendation engine.
(Image: Courtesy of Peel)
Bang & Olufsen Beo6
Meet the Rolls Royce of universal remote controls. Released in 2010 (though visually indistinguishable from its 2007 Beo5 predecessor), the Beo6, from high-end audio/visual equipment maker Bang & Olufsen, features a distinctive design. Getting the full Beo6 experience requires using some expensive B&O TVs and audio equipment, but if you have $950 to spare for a remote, acquiring the rest shouldn't be too painful. Since the remote also supports home-automation functions, the Beo6 will pull blinds, turn off lights, or even make an espresso. We wonder if Eugene Polley could've imagined that in the '50s.
(Image: Courtesy of Bang and Olufsen)
PrimeSense Natural Interaction
What's the future of the remote control? Perhaps we'll see a shift from control objects to control gestures. Given the success of Microsoft's Kinect for the Xbox 360, it's clear that we will be interacting with devices using physical movements rather than devices. PrimeSense, a company that makes 3D motion-sensing chips for the Kinect, is teaming up with various manufacturers to build similar technology directly into TV sets that will allow users to point and swipe at the things they want to watch.
With smartphone apps and innovative tech such as PrimeSense becoming available, it's no surprise why some of the previously mentioned dedicated remotes have been discontinued.
(Image: Courtesy of Microsoft)
When word surfaced that the late Steve Jobs claimed that he had "cracked" the TV code, it prompted chatter about an upcoming Siri-powered TV from Apple. Voice control certainly makes some sense, as it will ensure that TV operation remains true to its couch-potato origins. (Using PrimeSense's technology may require more physical effort than a consumer may want to engage in.)
Although controlling things with only our voice has long been the stuff of Star Trek dreams, the tech's designers still have to clear a few hurdles before remote control via Siri becomes a reality. For starters, Siri isn't all that accurate when it comes to accents. More important, however, barking orders at your TV seems to go against the very nature of sitting back and relaxing with a clicker in your hand.
(Image: Courtesy of Apple)