The remote control, back when we only had four channels to choose from, was the perfect way to interact with television. We had a power on/off switch, channel and volume buttons and—if you were really tech-savvy—a numeric keypad. No directional pad, settings buttons, RGBY buttons, or guide controls. They weren’t needed. Television sets were used to watch television programs, and the remote control was used to change from channel to channel. Easy.
Of course, that time of innocence for the television was over 30 years ago and things have moved on since then. The TV has evolved from a just a single screen into part of the home entertainment center, and again recently into a hub for the Internet. The number of channels has exploded from the initial half dozen to thousands of different options. You don’t even need to own a television to get your favourite TV shows anymore, thanks to options like BBC iPlayer, Netflix, Amazon Instant Video and Hulu.
The evolution of the TV space has been rapid and extreme. And yet, like the humble tortoise, the remote control has grown bigger and bulkier but hasn’t actually evolved much at all.
By the television remote not evolving along with the screen, users the world over are forced to navigate alphanumeric keyboards or endless channel lists with single directional button presses, occasionally using the RGBY buttons to speed (and I use the term loosely) past that odd point of inconvenience, only to run into another brick wall. Add to this the sheer number of different remotes that users now have to get used to with every new set top box, TV or even Blu-ray player, and you can see there’s a problem.
Televisions remain generally underpowered screens, and the sole point of interaction we have for them is woefully out of date and completely unstandardized.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Media streaming devices like Roku, Apple TV and Google Chromecast—even the Xbox One—have effectively supercharged the television set, allowing for swift navigation through complex menus and quick access to content. They have also effectively begun redesigning the remote control, jettisoning the legion of buttons in favour of simple, slimmed-down schemas of interaction that actually adhere to a general standard of form and function. It’s a good start, but it can be taken much further.
Several companies are experimenting with a number of touchscreen alternatives to the remote by embedding controls for the television (or set-top box) into touchscreen devices like iPhones, iPads and Android devices, which are designed to display different sets of buttons depending on the situation and the user’s needs.
These remote control alternatives can be optimized for range of gestures and even voice commands from connected mobile devices, which allow users to effectively navigate menus, program guides and playback controls on dedicated devices quickly and efficiently, freeing them of the grind of the hundreds of individual button presses needed to enter an email address just to get to channel 800 in the EPG.
The remote control is not dead yet—although I wish it were so—but the remote has survived because people are simply used to using it. It’s become part of one’s natural behavior when interacting with a television.
For users that grew up with TV being a new form of entertainment, the remote control was always a way of controlling the TV without having to get off the couch to change that channel on the set. Ask them if they would prefer to do that on a smartphone or tablet, and most of them will say no. They’re used to their remote control, they (mostly) understand it, and they have no interest in learning a new behaviour—especially when it involves having their mobile or tablet on them at all times in order to use their TV. Millennials may have no problem having their iPhone welded to their hand as they menu surf through their Apple TV, but their parents (mostly) do.
So what do we do? Do we just wait for this older generation of remote control-philes to die off? While the reality of the situation isn’t quite so dramatic, we really should consider the question of how to move forward past this particular point of inefficiency. The remote control has survived for a reason, and to replace it we need to understand how to make it better, not just newer.
I do not claim to have a perfect solution to the problem (I wouldn’t be sharing it publicly if I did), but there are some questions we need to work on answering:
What Are We Interacting With?
If it’s just a TV we’re talking about, devices used to supplement the experience are not yet powerful enough to handle linking to a second screen and performing the actions required in real-time. There are pauses, load times and limitations. Also, if the user only has a TV, it is unlikely they will be bothered enough to actually replace their remote control.
If it’s a set top box or something similar (like a tablet or smartphone), the media player can be tethered to the screen and controlled from anywhere in the room, saving the annoying need to always have an unobstructed line of sight between the user and the TV. Making things easier makes people more likely to use them.
Who Is Using The Device?
Is it a mother or father? A grandparent? A child? These users have distinct modes of using a remote control but all have similar needs: Controls need to be intuitive.
Gestures are great when you know what they are and how to use them, but it’s unlikely every end user will immediately know all of the bells and whistles right away. To this end, gesture-based controls need to be memorable, easy and—most importantly—enjoyable to use.
Give the user positive feedback when they perform an action, and they will want to perform it again. Do it enough times and they will remember the action for good. Using the technological flourishes afforded by touchscreen technology can create pleasingly intuitive experiences that everyone can enjoy. Ask a psychologist: Positive feedback works.
When Is The Device Going To Be Used?
The primary reason the remote control has lasted so long is because you can just pick it up and use it; tablets and smartphones need to be unlocked and apps need time to launch. This is a huge barrier, since it’s still easier to simply pick up the remote control and point it at the television.
To me, this obstacle lies at the core of why we’re not using our connected devices as our main remote controls just yet, even though they make interacting with what’s on screen much easier; they still require too many actions.
Ideally, one would be allowed to work the “remote” functionality on one’s mobile device even when it’s locked, so picking up the device and using it as a remote could be available at any time to any user. This, however, would require the changing of existing conventions and the bending of current rules—something device manufacturers and OS owners may initially be cold to. But just as playback controls for music can be surfaced on one’s phone or tablet lock screen, television controls could easily appear there, too.
These will not be easy roads to navigate—changing behaviour and establishing paradigms is a long, hard process that requires patience, investment, and finesse—but I firmly believe that if we remain committed and focused on the goal at hand, we can slay the ancient beast known as the remote control and welcome our old, much loved friend—the television—into the world of true interactivity