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The dawn of the networked remote control

Remote controls have been an indispensible, and frequently annoying, part of television watching since Zenith introduced the Space Commander, the first practical wireless remote, 55 years ago. But the days of the familiar clicker may finally be numbered as smartphones and tablets take over the duties of remotes.

The disadvantages of traditional remotes are many. Each device comes with its own remote, leading to couches and coffee tables littered with multiple remotes. Many of the remotes have 50 or more buttons and the lack of any real standardization makes them confusing to use. Most of them use infrared light for communications, meaning they need a clear line of sight to work. And while there have been universal remotes on the market for some years, their cost and the difficulty of programming them has relegated them to niche markets.

The fact that many new consumer electronics devices, including cable set top boxes, televisions, Blu-ray players, and game consoles, can now be connected to home networks and the internet means that they can be controlled over the network. And the latest smart phones and tablets are ideally suited for the job. Large displays present the user with more and clearer information that the usual profusion of buttons and touch screens make using the devices simple. And individual apps allow a phone or tablet to morph into a controller customized for the job at hand.

One of the first companies to take advantage of this was Sonos, maker of wireless home music systems. Sonos started out using a dedicated touchscreen controller. But once the company released apps for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad (an Android version is due shortly) the $349 Sonos Controller 200 became superfluous for many customers; the app provides the same functionality at no additional cost.

Cable TV operators are now jumping on the bandwagon. A modern set top box, especially one equipped with a digital video recorder, is a complex device and controlling it requires the often awkward combination of a multi-button remote and a large assortment of on-screen displays. Cable operators first made it possible to schedule recordings over the internet and now are making full control available on handheld devices. Comcast’s Xfinity, Verizon FiOS, and AT&T uVerse all let you use an iPhone or iPad as a remote. Other operators have similar plans in the works and apps are being written for other platforms, especially Android. (An AT&T uVerse app comes preinstalled as part of Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7.) In the UK, Sky is making similar moves in this respect.

These devices, especially tablets with their big screens, are more than just replacements for standard remotes. When you use an iPad as a remote, the program guide, DVR content, or on-demand listings appear on the tablet display, leaving the TV screen free for you to go on watching programming. Searching for content is easier because it is much simpler to enter search terms on the tablet’s keyboard than hunting and pecking through an onscreen keyboard with a regular remote.

The next phase will get even more interesting. Major cable operators want to make it possible for subscribers to stream video content to mobile devices. Offerings have been in the works for some time but have been slow to roll out mainly, it appears, because of the complexity of getting the necessary rights from content owners. AT&T offers a limited selection of shows for download to mobile devices and Comcast and Verizon expect to launch streaming services soon.

Another change could someday eliminate the remote altogether. Microsoft’s Kinect uses a camera and infrared sensors to detect motion for no-controller gaming. But it also lets you control the functions of an Xbox simply by pointing at the screen. The use of the Kinect, or Kinect-like sensors could let you become a remote that will never disappear into the couch.

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