Laura Slattery: One true telly remote to rule them all? We’re still waiting

Television is changing extremely fast, yet TV remote controls still resemble ugly things

Actor Charlene McKenna poses with a Vodafone remote control and YouTuber ‘Piggy Sue’, the star of the telecoms company’s advertisement campaign for its television service. Photograph: Naoise Culhane

Actor Charlene McKenna poses with a Vodafone remote control and YouTuber ‘Piggy Sue’, the star of the telecoms company’s advertisement campaign for its television service. Photograph: Naoise Culhane

 

Where’s the remote? What’s its game? Television is changing extremely fast, yet TV remote controls still resemble ugly things from an analogue museum. Crowded with obsolete buttons, these bricks fan out on the couch under a strict protocol: the first one you pick up won’t be the one you need.

Given all we hear about gesture recognition from the tech industry, I’m not sure why I can’t yet make like the I Dream of Jeannie genie or Phoebe in Friends and turn the television on and off by blinking. I’d settle for the power to change channels with a waving motion, banishing the sight of, say, seven lectern-clinging politicians in one dismissive hand flick.

But though mass-market television remotes may not yet be as high-tech as it seems they should be, they are continually evolving. And the ways in which they are being redesigned seem to both reflect and compound viewer trends.

The bluntest example comes courtesy of Vodafone, which last month launched an Irish TV service that comes with a dedicated Netflix button on the remote – a permanent rubber advertisement for the streaming service right there, front and centre.

Will Vodafone TV customers be less likely to linger on linear channels and just cut straight to Netflix? They are more likely to be subscribers of the service, given that Netflix is offered as one of the possible add-ons thrown in with its TV Plus package.

For Sky, Netflix is the great unmentionable. The logo of its on-demand competitor is unlikely to be promoted on its hardware. But Sky’s latest touchpad remote controls, for the premium Sky Q service, are interesting in a few other ways.

The controls work via Bluetooth, so you don’t need to be in the line of sight of the set-top box to exercise your total and absolute power. And if you’re the kind of person who is careless enough to misplace your remote control, then Sky Q has the foolproof solution for you: a button on the set-top box will prompt the remote to emit a small beep.

Still, these are small changes compared with the update to the “Sky” logo button at the top of the remote. On older Sky services, the button brings users back to the electronic programme guide, where the linear TV channels hang out. On Sky Q, it leads users to their library of recordings.

The legacy option

Essentially, the new remotes are set up to encourage more on-demand and catch-up viewing. Watching live content on RTÉ One, TV3, BBC One, and so on feels like the legacy option on a lengthening and habit-redefining menu.

A microphone also nestles on the side of the Sky Q remote, waiting for Sky to launch its voice activation function later this year. “Show Game of Thrones now,” I would look forward to bellowing, Brian Blessed-style, were I a Sky customer, and were they to work like that.

When TV platforms do get around to introducing voice control, they presumably won’t go the route of Samsung, which warned users not to speak of personal, sensitive things near their voice-activated smart TVs, as it may well be passing on the information to a third party.

These terms and conditions generated such fun headlines such as “Samsung customers warned of eavesdropping televisions” and “Watch out: Your TV is listening to you”, which forced Samsung to clarify its privacy policy.

It’s one way to get people to shut up during Call the Midwife.

Still, you don’t have to be Edward Snowden to know that a clunky dead weight with batteries you have to rub together for luck might be less Orwellian than a television set that operates like a self-installing bug.

Samsung was last seen at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas talking up its “Smart Control remote”, a single device that eliminates the need for separate remotes for gaming consoles, Blu-ray players and other devices linked to the television set. In other words, it’s the remote control consolidation most of us badly need.

Big-buttoned appeal

When everything in the long-trailed smart home from the fridge to the lights becomes a connected device, demand will increase for a one true remote to rule them all. A smartphone could and can already do it, of course, but a separate old-fashioned “clicker” may have some intuitive, big-buttoned appeal.

Back in the 1950s, one of the earliest remote controls was advertised under the name “Lazy Bones”. Sixty years later, laziness – of action and of thought – remains the first principle of the remote control. But a little sleekness, a little beauty, wouldn’t go amiss either.

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