Rhodri Marsden: Help! My universal remote has turned me into a control freak
Rhodri Marsden is the Technology Columnist for The Independent; he has also written about crumpets, Captain Beefheart, rude place names and string. He's also a musician who plays in the band Scritti Politti, and won the under-10 piano category at the 1980 Watford Music Festival by playing a piece called "Silver Trumpets" with verve and aplomb.
Wednesday 30 April 2014
A friend of mine has recently come to stay for a few weeks. I have no problem with many of the attendant consequences of this, from the sharing of semi-skimmed milk to the curtailing of semi-naked wandering to the bathroom, but one thing that I'm not looking forward to is having to explain the remote control in the living room.
Having spent a great deal of time and effort setting up that godforsaken universal remote to operate four pieces of electronic equipment, I'm familiar with the many secrets held within its sleek body and behind its multitude of buttons. But having to talk someone through it feels a bit embarrassing. It seems preposterous that it should be like this in the year 2014.
But it is. We're surrounded by a wealth of audio-visual technology whose main raison d'être, beyond supplying audio or visuals, seems to be the enforced accumulation of remotes. Logitech's efforts in producing a range of universal remote controls are to be gently applauded, but anyone who's ever tried to key in a search phrase on a TV screen using one – or even using the bunch of remotes that it replaces – will be familiar with the irritation of spending 30 seconds or more entering the word "the". Channel up, channel down and volume present no problem, but accessing iPlayer or iTunes or 4OD with a remote control feels as though you're landscape gardening with a cotton bud. Yes, smartphone apps can offer ways around this but, again, they don't work with everything.
The voice, though. We all have voices. Gadgets are getting better at recognising our voices. So surely we can't be too far away from a Her-esque scenario, where intelligent screens meekly obey our murmured commands? We've certainly moved on from JVC's memorable (and failed) innovation of clap control, where morse code-like sequences of claps were used to change the volume. Samsung, LG and Panasonic have offered some form of voice control in their smart TVs for a few years now, and many Xbox owners will have shouted "Xbox Mute!" to mute their Xboxes, and shouted it again when it didn't work the first time. But on-demand media requires something more sophisticated. Amazon's new Fire TV set-top box, launched a month ago in the US, comes with voice control, but voice searches currently only scan Amazon's library; Hulu, Netflix and the like will have to opt in and make their libraries available for voice searching.
Someone with eagle eyes recently noticed that Apple's iOS 7.1 development kit makes provision for a device – possibly a new Apple TV – to tap into the power of Siri, Apple's voice-recognition assistant. This would represent the TV revolution envisaged by Steve Jobs; he once claimed to his biographer that he had "cracked it" when the future of TV voice control was revealed to him in some kind of technological vision.
But even if a new Apple TV has that capability, we're still dependent on the remote for so many other functions. There seem to be barely any incentives for manufacturers to innovate; indeed, if your company makes FreeView, cable or satellite boxes, easy voice-command access to on-demand telly represents a bullet in the temple of the scheduled programming they provide. It seems that the television's profoundly irritating sidekick will only go to its grave with one heck of a struggle, flaunting its largely redundant yellow, green and blue buttons in a belligerent show of defiance.
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