The Problem is Too Many Remote Controls

I am often asked for advice about purchasing TVs and consumer electronics. Not that I am any great expert in those areas, but my general experience in specifying and purchasing electronics goods in related to my computer work does translate to other areas (and I know where to find advice on the net).

As part of this I get to closely observe what happens when people install new home entertainment systems. I have not observed anyone who uses anywhere near the full function of their system, even using the bare minimum functionality in all areas is very rare.

I believe that the first problem with this is the input devices. A remote control is designed around the idea of one button for each high-level command, this can be compared to languages such as Chinese and Japanese which have one character per word. In terms of language evolution it seems that the benefits of having multiple characters became apparent and widely accepted thousands of years ago.

Now for a simple input device having one button for each high-level operation makes sense. For the basic functions of a VCR you have PLAY, STOP, Fast-Forward, Rewind, Record, and Eject – 6 buttons is quite reasonable. But then you want slightly advanced features such as “record from 8PM to 9PM on channel A and then record from 10PM to 11PM on channel B” and things become unreasonably difficult. More than 10 years ago I was recommending that people just buy 5 hour tapes and press record before leaving home, getting the full functionality out of a VCR was just too hard. Jokes are often made about people who leave their VCR flashing 12:00 (because it’s too difficult to set the time), I only set the time on a VCR to stop the flashing (flashing lights annoy me).

Since programmable VCRs became popular things have only continued to develop. Now it’s not uncommon to have separate remote controls for the TV, VCR, DVD player, and the Cable TV box – a total of four remote controls! This is obviously a problem, and the solution that some people are adopting is to have a single more complex remote control – this is an example of problems not being solved by the same type of thinking that caused them.

One of the attempts to solve this is to have everything controlled by a PVR [1]. This means that you have one device recording content (maybe from multiple sources or multiple channels), playing recorded content or live content, and maybe playing DVDs and CDs. Of course then you have a complex remote control for that device which just shifts the problem.

To solve these problems we need to consider the entire problem space from a high-level. We start with the signal that is displayed by the TV, it can come from cable TV, digital TV, analogue TV, VCR, or DVD – these input sources have names such as “Composite”, “RCA1”, “RCA2”, “RCA3”, “DTV”, and “ATV”. Often people have written instructions near their TV to map these names to what they do.

Obviously the TV needs to be able to be programmed with human friendly names, and as these names are not of much use on their own it should be possible to use compound names and abbreviations. If I want to watch ABC (the Australian Government sponsored TV channel) then I would rather type “ABC” on a keyboard and then have the entertainment system determine whether that maps to “cable:abc”, “dtv:abc”, or “atv:abc” depending on what options are available. The current process of choosing an input source (such as RCA1 mapping to cable TV) and then choosing a channel (102 mapping to ABC) means among other things that it is essentially impossible for a guest to control the TV.

A further problem is the lack of available output. While it might seem that a large-screen HDTV has adequate output available, it’s often the case that you don’t want to stop watching one show while trying to find another. When something of wide interest is happening (another war or an election) it’s common for several people in one room to want to watch the news. Having everyone stop watching while someone goes through menus to find a different news channel is not well accepted. It seems to me that we need a separate output mechanism for controlling the entire system from that which is used for the main display.

This of course requires integration between all parts of the entertainment system, which shouldn’t be that difficult given the complexity of all the components (every one of which has more compute power than a typical server of 20 years ago). It is currently quite common for PVRs and DVD players to support playing videos from USB and SD devices, so the next logical step is to get an Ethernet port in each device (and maybe have Ethernet switches built in to some of the high-end entertainment hardware). Then XML transferred over HTTP could be used for controlling the different components from a single web server which provides a web-based GUI. While a random guest would not get much functionality out of my TV configuration (or that of most homes where I have assisted in the configuration of new hardware), they shuold be able to use a web-based GUI with ease.

For controlling the entire system a NetBook [2] computer such as the EeePC should do well. As high-end TVs cost over $5,000 an EeePC which costs $500 (list price – surely less in bulk) could easily be bundled without much impact on the overall price in the same way that companies selling computers in the $1,000,000 price range used to bundle $10,000 workstations to manage them. An EeePC has abut the same size and mass as four remote controls (so it wouldn’t be inconvenient to use). Also the built-in wifi could be used for the remote control (wires are inconvenient and Infra-Red has limited bandwidth so probably wouldn’t provide a good web based GUI). Also someone who wanted to save some money could instead choose to use an old laptop on a coffee table (any web browser would do). I have deployed Linux desktop machines for some people who had no trouble using it, but who then had trouble using TVs that I configured for them – so I conclude that a modern Linux distribution is significantly more user friendly than the equipment that you find in a modern lounge room.

Cable TV companies all seem to be ISPs and often provide compelling value as an ISP service if you want to use the TV service. So it seems that the “Cable Modem” could be built in to the Cable TV box for added savings in hardware purchase and less boxes to manage in the home. This of course would increase the value of a NetBook [2] as a remote control as it could also be used for general Internet access at the same time. TV shows often promote their web sites to their customers and TV advertising also often includes a URL. If the URLs were distributed by VideoText then that would provide more information for the viewers, a better reach for advertisers and people who create the TV shows, and it when it became popular it would save us fom those stupid scrolling news tickers that appear on the bottom of most cable new shows!

Some of these benefits are currently achieved by people running MythTV. The first problem with Myth is that it is still largely stuck to the bad old UI paradigm (which of course can be fixed as it’s free software). The next problem is that getting a result of comparable quality to the dedicated hardware is expensive, difficult, or both. A regular PC makes more noise than you desire in your lounge room and configuring a Myth machine for your choice of DTV hardware and the frequencies used in your location is a pain. You can buy a preconfigured machine which solves these problems, but it will be more expensive. For most lounge rooms the cheap Chinese hardware is what will be used.

Ultimately I believe that TV will be killed by the Internet. The range of content on the net is increasing and the rate of acceleration is also increasing. TV seems to have not made any significant changes since the introduction of cable and satellite TV (both of which happened a long time ago and were not significant changes). But I don’t expect it to happen soon. I predict another 10 years of the current TV business model. I believe that better integration of home entertainment hardware so that it can obey simpler commands from the user in a more friendly manner while not getting in the way of the main purpose (displaying the TV picture) has the potential to extend the life of the current TV business model.

Not that I care whether the TV industry dies sooner or later. I just want to escape from having to provide phone-support to people who can’t get their TV to work correctly!

7 comments to The Problem is Too Many Remote Controls

  • I have to totally agree on everything you say. Here in the Netherlands it’s more common for people to only have analog TV, so at most places all you need to do is press the numbers on the TV remote to change channels. Even then there’s the issue of finding the right channel because everyone maps them differently. I use mythtv and I’m quite happy with it, but I’m also waiting for a better pvr to emerge. I love mythtv for it’s recording capabilities, but I think the ui could have been far better.

    I also have a good example of intuitive design. I have used a mac mini and apple delivers it including a remote with only 6 buttons, and it works. Navigation is fine with these 6 buttons, of course searching for something in a large list gets harder. Actually the remote control is almost the same as the controls on some iPod models, on which they’ve also proven their use. So their remote seems to work fine, now what’s next? With the iPod touch and the iPhone you can download apple’s ‘Remote app’. The remote app is an iphone/ipod touch application that allows you to browse the itunes library, see what’s playing, control what’s playing. It does a great job at it, it’s a very easy way to navigate your entire library or to just skip one song. Although it’s made for itunes, the idea is very good. There are some mythtv remotes for the ipod touch too, which look decent at the least.

    I think a device like the ipod touch combined with software like mythtv, elisa or front row can make controlling media easy again.

  • “…this can be compared to languages such as Chinese and Japanese which have one character per word. In terms of language evolution it seems that the benefits of having multiple characters became apparent and widely accepted thousands of years ago.

    So that explains why nobody writes Chinese or Japanese any more. I was wondering.

    The bigger problem is as you hint later on:

    “…among other things that it is essentially impossible for a guest to control the TV.”

    So it’s not the script used, it’s the fact that there is no shared script – every livingroom has it’s own alphabet.

  • etbe

    Michael: You cite a good counter-example. Apple has a history of doing the wrong thing so well that people can be fooled into thinking it’s the right thing (EG the single-button mouse).

    John: Romanji (the Roman alphabet) is very commonly used in Japan, they also have two different syllabaries, I believe that this is evidence of a failure of the Kanji character set. Also I have been told that Japanese children can not read common Japanese text until well after the age of 10. It seems that the ability of Japanese children to read is greatly impaired by the language design. There are some people in Japan who are getting anxious about the future of the Japanese written language, among other things the ability to actually write Kanji characters (rather than input them on a computer) is apparently declining among young people.

    As for the different script, I often visit some relatives who have cable TV (I don’t have it myself as I don’t think it’s value for money). I find it very difficult to find channels other than the few who’s numbers I have memorised. Entering three digit numbers for channels that have three and four letter names simply makes no sense.

  • I think something like a Nokia n800 would be a better fit for a remote than a netbook.

  • Jason

    I’ve thought that Bluetooth would be a good way forward, because it’s become rather ingrained in modern technology, and ranges in features and capabilities. (And it’s SO under utilized in my opinion.)

    Simple phones (those with a small screen) could have basic remote controls, where PDAs/Smart Phones could have a not-unlike-MythTV interface. Treos (perhaps even Centros) and iPhones for example.

    And, if you have a computer/netbook/anything, those are increasingly containing bluetooth built in, and could do the same but with a more traditional (application based?) control, that could do everything. Perhaps even watch TV not on the TV :). (That will probably require ad-hoc wifi, or an already established infrastructure wifi network, and not bluetooth for the actual video stream, but bluetooth could still be leveraged for control.)

  • etbe

    Justin: Good point. An EeePC is something I own and I tend to focus on things that I have experience with. An N800 might be better.

    Jason: Interesting idea about bluetooth, that would probably do well if you don’t plan to also get net access over the same device. If you want net access then although you can do that over bluetooth, Wifi offers a better range of options.

    Your idea of using a phone is interesting. Maybe if we had common formats then everyone could have quick mappings for the operations that they want to do, while a phone is not great for getting the full functionality of a home entertainment system, getting the sub-set that I want should be much easier.

  • Jason

    Have you ever used a Logitech Harmony remote? The version we have is an “xbox branded” more conventional style/oriented remote. But logitech has versions for a couple hundred bucks that are fully fledged handheld touch screens, not terribly unlike the iPhone I’m using to type this on :).

    The difference in the Harmony remotes is that they’re bigger, have a dedicated mini-USB port for service, and have some physical dedicated face buttons.

    Our model doesn’t support Bluetooth, unfortunately; only traditional IR blasting, but the more sophisticated and expensive models do. Logitech’s management software let’s you add high level “activities”, which basically just executes a series of commands, IR or Bluetooth. For example, we have, among others, a “watch tv” activity.

    When activated it:
    • Turns on the TV
    • Turns on the Stereo
    • Sets the TV on antenna input mode.
    • Sets the Stereo on AUX output mode.

    The remote is then intelligent enough about activity transitions. If we use one of the game console activites, it turns on the game console, and changes the TV’s input mode to the connection for the game system. It’s very handy.

    Quite admittedly, it takes some knowledge for the initial setup. You have to add the devices, add the activites (it can set up the skeletons for most automatically), and you have to know what inputs everything is on in the first place.

    The power comes in Logitech’s undoubtedly large device database. You choose a manufacturer from a list, then free text the model number. Logitech then fairly reliably knows what features your device has and what the IR codes are.

    What we have now (me and my girlfriend that is), is infinitely helpful. We are indeed down to 1 remote for 5 devices (and we have 5 programmed activities at the moment), some more limited in scope than the others.

    I can only imagine how many more features we’d have on one with Bluetooth capabilities.

    Back to the point of this post and the original topic in my first comment; something like this (reliable, dealer/manufacturer assisted database), plus an array of capabilities for the controlling device, would make an amazing combination for ubiquious control over your household and it’s devices.

    Of course, if we rid the world of IR, and indeed did adopt Bluetooth on a grand scale, I would hope there would be a Bluetooth profile for all ranges of remote control capability. Again, from as simple as something traditional remote-like, to something more advanced like an http style responder, or some kind of gateway protocol already in the wild.

    Sort of like the audio Bluetooth protocol, whose big brother and more powerful profile is the A2DP profile.