Danielle Eiskowitz

Making Life Remotely Easier

Who would have thought that a device first invented for German warfare would be something that we wouldn’t want to live without.  The television remote control became something that is used by virtually every person in the U.S. every day. Remotes were invented for convenience and safety.  “Experts predict that someday remote controls will control almost every device in the home” (Ament); Little did we know then that this prediction from 1997 is coming true. As times changed and electronic devices advanced, the original concept of the TV remote branched out to include electronic devices in almost every room of the house.  Since we have now become dependent on remotes, are we still controlling the device or is it controlling our focus? The convenience of a remote control has changed our society’s attention span forever.

The Germans first used remotes in World War I to manipulate bombs, weapons, and motor boats (“Famous Inventions History”).  In war, bombs would inevitably be used to blow up buildings or people, but the remote cleverly saved the lives of the people detonating bombs since the weapon and the person controlling it were in two different locations. The soldier could set off the bomb and be far away from harm and not be seen by the enemy.  Unfortunately for us, the Germans were our enemy. However, we Americans do like convenience, so it wasn’t long before this technology was used for people’s personal enjoyment. The first TV remote from the 1950’s was called the “Lazy Bones” and simply turned the TV on/off and changed channels by activating a motor that rotated the tuner in the set when someone pushed the buttons on the remote. It was not wireless and worked by a cable wire attached to the TV, as you can see in the picture below (James).  This first design was not well liked because the cable wire was in the way and people tripped on it often (“Famous Invention History”). Before this, the children of the house acted as the “remote control.” They would manually change the channels and volume for everyone gathered around the single television in the house. Everyone sat together and interacted during the shared show they were watching on TV.  Their full attention was on the show that they agreed upon and anticipated all day. While it was a good idea to have an electrical TV assistant for convenience, this first model was not adaptable to the home so consumers wanted something better.

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As with any design, it is only good if it meets the needs of the majority of people. The next model remote control came out in 1955 and was called the “Flash-matic” and was wireless. As shown in the picture, this operated with four photocells, one in each corner of the TV screen (James).  The remote was a directional flashlight that you pointed at the TV to control the four functions on the TV.  This only turned the picture on and off, controlled the sound, and changed the channel in both directions (“Famous Invention History”). While this had the same functions as the original remote, this newer model eliminated the cable wire and changed the mechanics of the original design, which created a new problem: finding the remote. As it was not attached to the TV, it could be carried around, stuffed in the sofa cushion, or even thrown out by accident in the garbage.  This was not the main difficulty though.  This design had problems with the flashlight type activation.  The sunlight would change the channels at random since it didn’t seem to differentiate between the light from the remote and the light from outside (“Famous Invention History”). In addition, the remote needed to be pointed at the correct corner of the TV to perform each of the four functions.  People didn’t always remember which corner this was (Chandler). This design improved upon the first since it was wireless and offered more flexibility because users weren’t limited to the length of the wire. However, it still needed improvements to work consistently. People wanted convenience; they didn’t want to have to remember where the controls were. They were starting to become lazier and needed a device smarter than they were to predict what they needed.

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A few years later, this design was further improved upon with the “Space Command” remote control, which used ultrasonic waves and made clicking sounds (Chandler). The Space Command remote, shown below, also had the advantage of not needing batteries (James).  Instead, it used high-frequency sounds when they struck rods at each end.  The rods were different lengths to make different sounds that were read by the receiver in the TV.  The tubes that this remote needed to work raised the price of televisions. This remote operated the power and channels but it did not control the volume. Another drawback with this method was that the high frequency sounds would make dogs bark (Chandler). Since it did not control the volume, it did not have all the features that people wanted. They were becoming increasingly dependent on devices to make their lives easier and do the work for them. This design was popular for two decades until the infrared remote control was invented.

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Finally, in the 1980’s a remote with infrared technologies came to meet the needs of the present day consumer.  As shown in the picture on the left, a plastic LED on the top of the remote control created an infrared line that is invisible to the human eye but that remained detectable by the decoder on the front of the Television (James). This infrared light beam sent a series of signals to the TV from each different button on the remote control that translated it into the function the TV was supposed to perform (Union). Eventually, with new improvements and new inventions such as the transistor, the remote worked on batteries, and was smaller and less costly. As TV’s were advancing from entertainment to feeling like a necessity in every house, this improvement came at the right time.  Electronics were advancing to include stereos, VCR’s, and video games as cable TV was just becoming more widespread.  Americans were becoming dependent on the TV and on TV-dependent electronics. There were now many more channels grabbing viewers’ attention. People wanted to switch between these many options faster and more accurately. To keep up, the remote needed to be convenient and this design performed well, maintaining use in the 1980’s, 1990’s, and 2000’s.

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Advanced technology changed the design of a remote first as one attached to the TV, to a light that was pointed to the TV, to a series of sounds, and finally to a hand-held device that is more accurate in its controls. The look also changed from four simple functions to as many as fifty functions on a single device. Since the TV is linked to the cable box, DVR, DVD, and home stereo system, it is best to eliminate several of these remotes. Today’s TV remote now controls not only the TV, but numerous other electronic devices from one controller. People don’t want to get up to find many different remotes or even remember where they left them.  They don’t want to remember where the buttons are or what they are called on each different remote.  It is easier than thinking or paying attention if they have all the devices controlled on one portable remote control. In past remote designs, all the buttons were uniform in appearance. Now the size, shapes, and colors of the buttons vary to make their different functions easier to distinguish without thinking or reading. In addition to the regular remote, many homes have a mini-remote to control only the important features on the TV. Even this version has more buttons than the 4-button original of the 1950’s. There are also super-sized remotes for the elderly, visually impaired, or for those who tend to lose them. Presently, we are still using the infrared technology TV remote control. The manufacturers keep adding more features, often to control more television-compatible devices increase convenience, but in the process people are thinking less. In order to work, however, the infrared remote still must be pointed in a straight unobstructed line within a certain distance of the TV. My home TV cable box is in a cabinet, so I needed an adaptor to use it to avoid opening the cabinet each time; flaws such as these help make the blueprints for new models.

The new design of TV remotes changed the comfort of and the way that people watched TV, giving us the term “couch potato” since there was no longer a need to get up to change the channel. Consumers now did not have to sit through commercials. They can “channel surf” and try a new program instead of watching advertisements. They can even pause a live show if the remote has a DVR feature. With the many channels now offered, people don’t have time to watch the commercial or the boring part of the show since they can fast forward. Their attention span has changed and if they are not immediately satisfied, they can find another program with the click of a button. Their busy lifestyle doesn’t allow them to waste time to give the show a chance to get better or relax through a commercial. People are becoming more impatient and this lack of attention has affected other parts of their lives.  Lengths of movies are shorter since children cannot sit through longer ones. Instead of sitting through one classroom, grade school students now switch rooms and teachers to keep them interested. This also changed the predecessor of the TV, going to the movies. With DVD’s, Netflix, Hulu, podcast shows and downloading people are not going out to the movies or watching TV in the present time. They don’t need to pay attention to the TV when it tells them to. They are choosing what and when to watch without leaving their house. Advertisers need to find new ways to catch the consumer’s interest. They try to hide the product they are advertising, include fast-paced pictures or music to keep our shorter attention span. To stop viewers from switching channels, sometimes two TV shows aren’t separated by a commercial any longer. The shows are starting a few minutes later or earlier to keep people from using their remote controls. The original TV remote, “The lazy bones” did create a trend for a more relaxed, couch potato society. We are becoming dependent on all remotes by now and we have lived up to the name lazy bones.  In making us lazier, remotes also took away attention and ability to watch an entire show. We will spend a good portion of our time looking for the remote, instead of simply going to the device to press the button manually. Is it humorous or sad that we have forgotten how to work the buttons on the TV, cable box, or stereo?  The original idea behind the TV remote is convenience so more buttons were added to control our every need.  But have such features made our lives easier or more complicated?

Does the TV remote need another design change or is the concept of TV remotes becoming obsolete and going in the direction of the TV antenna and the dial phone? When the TV remote was invented, it was the first and only remote of its kind per household. Now there are several remotes controlling cable boxes, DVD players, stereos, lights, fans, toys, alarms, window shades, garage doors, and numerous other items in a single house. It is common to have multiple remotes only for the television sets in the home. We now need less remotes in our lives, not more. So in order to downsize, some cellphones and tablets have free applications that sync with the TV’s and cable boxes in our homes (Carr 36-7). Wi-Fi technology solves the problem of needing to be in a direct line of the TV. Another way the remote is being redesigned is with voice recognition, gesture sensors, and smartphone apps (Roger). These would replace the manual finger pushes and slides that the present remote requires. The viewer will instead use voice commands, hand or body motions to operate the device.  Yet, after over 60 years, there still isn’t a solution for one of the main problems with the TV remote — losing it. These new remote control replacements are doing what the original TV remote controls were designed for: convenience.  Now we don’t need to use our fingers to operate the devices. We don’t need to read to find the correct button. We don’t need to even touch the device if we can use our voice, instead. Because of this, we are inevitably becoming lazier.

Has the product that we couldn’t live without a few decades ago become more of an additional inconvenience in our complicated lives? In the future, will the TV remote control be obsolete? It is a remote possibility. Two things are certain; it is making our society more impatient and has changed our lives forever.

Work Cited

Ament, Phil. “Remote Control.” Idea Finder. 2011. Web. 15 Mar. 2013.

Carr, Austin. “The Next Tv Guide.” Fast Company 2011: 36-7. ABI/INFORM  Complete  ProQuest Research Library. Web. 24 Feb. 2013

Chandler, Nathan. “What is the history of the remote control?” How Stuff Works. 2013. Web. 1 Mar. 2013.

“Famous Invention History.” About. 2013. Web. 1 Mar 2013.

James, Bruce. “TV Remote Controls.” BartCop. 2013. Web. 5 Mar. 2013.

Roger, Yu, and TODAY USA. “TV remotes are getting smarter.” USA Today n.d.: Academic Search Complete. Web. 23 Feb. 2013.

Union, Joel. “How Does a TV Remote Control Function?” EHow. Demand Media, 14 Apr. 2010. Web. 03 Mar. 2013.