The End Dawns for the Classic TV Remote
People have been very friendly to TVs at the Consumer Electronics Show this week, talking to them, waving at them, occasionally stroking their screens.
Major manufacturers including Samsung, LG and Sony displayed a bevy of new gesture and voice commands as well as advanced controllers for their sets, many of which will hit the market this year.
As televisions and set top boxes gain more content and features, such as Internet access, games, video chat, advanced recording and playback, the button-laden remote control of old is gradually fading away.
"This is something serious," said Brian Blau, an analyst who covers user interfaces at research firm Gartner. "All of these devices now have enough computing power to process all of these inputs. The question is - what do we do with it?"
On the show floor in Las Vegas, the big names in technology are searching for answers.
Samsung opted for a little bit of everything. Its new line of smart TVs due out later this year has voice commands, gesture controls, facial recognition for loading preferences, and a standard remote.
The company is strongly pushing its smart TV platform, which will include apps like Angry Birds, a family service that lets users upload and share photos, and a fitness module that offers custom workouts. A few minutes with a demo model makes it clear that the company's standard remote control, which has nearly 50 buttons on it, is not an efficient way to navigate around.
At the Samsung booth, a TV's voice recognition constantly listens for the greeting as a signal that a command will come next. It works well when things are quiet - flipping through channels and running basic menu commands - but has trouble gleaning orders from background noise.
An LG set has a similar problem with its gesture control technology, which is due to ship later this year. A TV on display smoothly interprets commands from a presenter, including swipes to change channels and wrist turns to control the volume, but goes slightly haywire when he turns to talk and gesture at the audience.
This "trigger" problem is a major one: if devices are going to recognize natural words and motions, how are they supposed to know when we are talking to them? Even Apple's heralded Siri voice technology, released as standard on the iPhone 4S last year, requires a button press to start taking input.
"A camera doesn't know when you want to take control of the environment," said Daniel Simpkins, the founder and CEO of Hillcrest Labs.
Simpkins feels that the ever-expanding menus and desktop layouts now common on TVs are best navigated with the point-and-click paradigm common on PCs. Hillcrest's technology, which uses accelerometers and gyroscopes to track a remote control's motion through the air and control a screen pointer, is currently used in LG TV remote controls.
At CES, Sony and Panasonic are showing remotes with small built-in touchpads that are used like the mouse on a computer. But analysts feel such devices are more of a stop-gap measure.
"Over the long-term, wired devices will go away," said Gartner's Blau, referring to controllers that interact with TVs and set top boxes.
That leaves gesture control, where Microsoft is a clear leader. The company's Kinnect platform, launched in 2010, is the first successful mass-market device that is controlled by motion alone, using a camera together with its XBox 360 game console to allow gamers to play with jumps and other movements.
The company is demonstrating a Kinect app that interacts with Sesame Street characters, and has announced it will expand Kinect to work with Windows this year. Media reports have said it is also in talks to with major TV manufacturers to license the technology.
If gestures do eventually become the standard way of controlling our TVs, a necessary first step will be for a standard set of motions, common across brands and models, to evolve. This can happen relatively quickly, as it did for the pinch and swipe commands now ubiquitous in smartphones.
Some industry veterans such as Simpkins, however, feel that people will never be completely comfortable with devices that constantly watch and listen to them for commands in the privacy of their own homes. He feels people will always be more comfortable selecting certain channels with a remote than asking or gesturing for them.