Remotes come of age

This entertainment essential is entering its stride with modern technology and design
Wednesday, June 2, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:10 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

It has been the couch potato’s weapon since its invention in 1956. The familiar plastic black box has adorned coffee tables and couch cushions for decades, only changing in size and number of buttons on its face. Today, the number of buttons on remotes range anywhere from 20 to 60, half of them never to be used.

But now, the trend of owning a different remote for each electronic device is dying. As home theaters grow in popularity, people are growing tired of being buried in the overflow of remotes on their coffee tables.

“What they don’t want is 100 remotes sitting in front of them,” Dustin Bly said, account manager at Elite Audio and Theater Design Group. “They want that one remote.”

Electronic companies have listened to the people’s requests and are beginning to create more easy-to-use, all-in-one and fashionable remotes.

“They’re looking for something that’s going to do everything but is actually stylish, too,” said Tony Sanders, manager of Circuit City in Columbia.

In 1998, design engineers at TiVo, the company that helped introduce the video digital recorder, set out to produce a remote that was both playful and functional. Its logo, a smiling TV set with feet and rabbit ears, adorns the top of the remote, and its peanut shape contours comfortably to the holder’s hand. Coming in several different colors: red, orange, blue and clear— the remote can now fit better into any home decor.

Although most remotes do not possess vibrant colors, they have moved away from traditional black.

“Many of them are silver now because most TVs have become silver,” Mike DeMaria said, an electronics salesman at Columbia’s Sears store.

According to Bly, who designs home theaters, programmable touch pads are in common use now.

Usually 4-by-3 inches, these remotes are a stylish, contemporary change from the dull rectangles. Featuring a color touchpad screen, these Palm Pilot-shaped remotes contain only a few circular buttons at the bottom and the rest is left to the touch screen.

The screen itself is customizable, allowing users to load their own pictures on it to decorate the room. When in use, the eye-catching panel is illuminated with customizable backlighting.

“Basically push one button and it turns everything on,” Bly said. “It works for everything.”

Sanders said although he sells more universal replacement remotes, he does sell macro-control function remotes as well.

Ranging in price from $89 to $200, these more stylish and design-oriented remotes feature backlit LCD screens and a more ergonomic peanut-shape design.

“It’s probably the coolest one we have,” Sanders said.

Even though remotes are slowly becoming more design-oriented, Kathy Walther, registered commercial interior designer and owner of Cherry Street Design, said she has seen remotes coming off the coffee table and being put into decorative enclosures, including fancy wooden or enameled boxes and baskets.

“That kind of closed storage thing can kind of be customized to any decor, from traditional to contemporary,” Walther said. “I think it’s an easy way to add a decorative touch to a room and organize everything. And then at least there’s a place to return it so you’re not digging them out of the cushions of the couch.”

Walther said she has also seen manufacturers of big over-stuffed chairs now putting pockets or saddlebag details on them so people can have a place to put their remotes.

Although remotes are emerging in new colors and shapes, Walther said she has no plans to focus on them when designing.

“I probably won’t be designing rooms around a remote control any more than I would necessarily design a room around a purple Mac,” Walther said. “Less is more. I really don’t want to see all the gadgetry.”

Remote controls evolved with technological advances

The remote control has been around for so long it is hard to remember having to get up and change the channel ourselves. Since its invention in 1956, people have become pros in the sport of channel surfing and have successfully broken in their couch cushions.

During a commercial break, read these facts on the origin of the most popular decoration that has ever graced the coffee table:

  • The first remote control technology was developed for military use. The Germans used remotes to control motorboats during WWI.
  • In the late 1940s, the first nonmilitary uses for the remote appeared in automatic garage door openers.
  • In 1950, the Zenith Radio Corp. created the first TV remote called “Lazy Bone.” It was attached to the TV by a bulky cable and could only turn the TV on and off and change channels.
  • Eugene Polley, a Zenith engineer, created the first wireless TV remote in 1955. It was called the “Flash-matic.” In each corner of the television screen was a photocell that controlled functions of the TV. The viewer used a directional flashlight to activate the four control functions, which turned the picture and sound on and off and turned a dial to change channels. On sunny days, the remote had problems working well, when channels would sometimes change randomly due to the sunlight.
  • In 1956, the “Zenith Space Command” went into commercial production. Engineer Dr. Robert Adler based his invention on ultrasonic technology. The remote worked using ultrasound waves and ran without batteries. A transmitter inside the remote contained four lightweight aluminum rods that emitted high-frequency sounds when struck at one end. Each rod was a different length and emitted a different sound that controlled a receiver unit built into the TV.
  • The first Space Commands were expansive, requiring six vacuum tubes in the receiver units. Because of this, TV prices raised 30 percent.
  • In the early 1960s, after the invention of the transistor, remote controls came down in price and size, along with all other electronics. The Space Command was modified to a small hand-held, battery-operated remote control.
  • More than nine million ultrasonic remotes were sold by the industry during the 25 year reign of the Space Command.
  • In the early 1980s, infrared devices replaced ultrasonic remote controls.
  • In 2000, more than 99 percent of all TV sets and 100 percent of all VCRs and DVD players sold in the United States came with a remote control.


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