TV REMOTES are an iconic staple of the American home. Developed in the 1950s with model names like the “Lazy Bones,” they were crafted to keep us planted in the overstuffed couches that eventually devoured them. Couples have sparred over remotes. Cable channels crafted slogans and game shows around them. Comics mocked their bewildering mix of buttons.
But in the last few years, Alexa and Siri have moved in. With this invasion of AI assistants comes incredible command over technology: Don’t set a timer or check the weather; ask. Don’t flip through a binder of CDs for the right song; shout. And don’t spring for that spinning, oak coffee-table caddy to house your obnoxious array of remotes.
“The control and convenience that comes from the next generation of voice are really going to enhance the TV experience,” said John Taylor, senior vice president of LG Electronics and friend of Eugene Polley and Dr. Robert Adler, engineers who invented Zenith’s original 1950 remote. But Mr. Taylor admits that he still can’t imagine a day when our thumbs are rendered completely unnecessary.
The most enticing of these possible clicker replacements is Amazon’s Fire TV Cube ($120, amazon.com), which its marketing director Jen Prenner called less a universal remote, more a “love child between the best of Echo and the best of Fire TV.” The shiny 3-inch block can manage almost any media device you own via voice command—without a mess of wires. Say “Alexa, turn up the volume” and it happens. Say “Alexa, good night” and everything powers down. The Cube can actually switch on the TV and many of its connected devices via one cable using HDMI-CEC technology. That cable also feeds Cube’s functions to the set, including 4K picture, streaming apps, and HDR10 or Dolby Atmos sound.
Like modern remotes, Cube can blast invisible infrared light beams to up the volume, switch channels and inputs or push pause on a DVD. Unlike most remotes, Cube gets smarter each day, adding functions via Amazon’s Cloud.
At the same time, Polk and Sonos are releasing soundbars that perform many of the same tasks as Cube, but with premium audio in the mix. The Polk Command Bar ($300, polkaudio.com) integrates the brains and dial of an Echo and features specialized modes like Movie, which equalizes the dialogue, music, and effects of a film so characters can be heard clearly. With two tweeters, two midrange drivers and a 6.5-inch wireless woofer included, “it’s quite loud,” playing up to 100 decibels, said Marty Wachter, director of UX and technology for Command Bar.
The Sonos Beam packs similar functions into a more compact design ($400, sonos.com). It can sync with a suite of Sonos devices throughout your home so you don’t fall behind on a show if you run to refresh your drink.
Meanwhile, scientists at Lancaster University in the U.K. developed a prototype called MatchPoint that focuses on gesture, not voice, as a means of control. Using a webcam, the system recognizes hand or head motions to move an on-screen cursor. It’s a ways off, but “as technology becomes more embedded into our everyday lives so does the abundance of sensing technologies that would allow us to break free of the physical remote,” said Christopher Clarke, a lead on the MatchPoint project.
Curiously, these devices that might help eliminate remotes each come with tiny ones of their own, for people who want all the functionality but aren’t ready to relinquish the lifelong comfort of button mashing. So we might not be done with clickers yet. “Being able to push a button without moving your body was the big breakthrough” said Tim Brooks, a media historian and former NBC TV executive. “Moving to something where you say commands as opposed to reaching for a device will help. But it’s not a fundamental change. It’s like a better airplane rather than the first airplane.”
by Matthew Kitchen, Wall Street Journal.
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