The evolution of televisions over the last several decades has been slow and steady. Every year, as true as the seasons, TVs have gotten bigger and more complex. Unfortunately, so have the remotes that come along with them.
In a way, the correlation is easy to understand. If you’re a company adding a new feature to your TV, what do you do? You add a new button to its remote. The approach leaves us with devices that are packed with utility, sure, but also ones that are totally devoid of emotion. Of all the objects we weirdly profess to love—lamps and coffee mugs and even smartphones—it’s hard to imagine many TV remotes making the list. And even if you think you know your remote, you probably don’t. It’s like those online tests that make you label all the European countries. Give someone a blank diagram of their TV remote to fill in and watch how they freeze up after "channel" and "volume."
Nicolas Henchoz, director of the EPFL + ECAL Lab, in Lausanne, Switzerland, finds this disconnect between man and remote striking. After all, he points out, we’ve been living with the things for nearly 60 years. So last fall, he posed a challenge to his students in Lausanne, as well as those at three other top design schools—ENSCI-Les Ateliers in Paris, the Royal College of Art in London, and Parsons in New York: Build a remote control someone could fall in love with.
The general reaction at all the schools, Henchoz says, was students looking at their instructors like they were crazy. Yes, the remote was flawed, they agreed. That much was obvious. But the path to redemption, in the students’ eyes, was just as evident: the touch screen, that fundamentally simple interface with the potential for infinite complexity. With a touch-based remote, they suggested, button glut is solved straight away. Other students jumped ahead a few years to the touch screen’s obvious heir: the gestural interface. The thinking, presumably, was that the best way to solve the remote’s limitations as a dumb, physical thing was to liberate it from its physicality completely.
But Henchoz, along with his fellow instructors at other schools, pressed students to look beyond this inevitable trajectory. "If you come up with something really meaningful, we’re not against it," he told the students that immediately reached for their Kinects. "But really think about it." In the end, he pointed out to me a bit proudly, very few projects relied on touch screens, and none involved TV watchers waving their arms around in the air.
The final submissions are, however, wildly varied. One student re-imagined the plastic remote as a smooth wooden groove, like the basin at the end of a Mancala board, in which the user slides a magnetic black stone to change channels and volume. Another replaced the button grid with a single thumb-sized joystick, surrounded by an array of small screens. One of Henchoz’s ECAL students succeeded in freeing the remote from its thing-ness, but not quite in the way you’d expect—his small plastic rocker, outfitted with suction cups, attaches to any device with a slick surface, turning smartphones, wine glasses, and coffee tables into remotes themselves.
Of course, most couch potatoes would look at you like you were crazy if you tried to replace their plastic clicker with a joystick, much less one of the more audacious proposals, like an abacus or a necklace. And it’s true that many of the submissions don’t come close to accounting for all the complexity of modern TVs. Part of that comes from the brief; Henchoz and company told students that they could pick and choose functions, so long as their idea was coherent and meaningful. "We really wanted to have some new and fresh ideas," he says. Points weren’t docked for ignoring picture-in-picture.
But though these radical ranks may not include the remote of the future, taken collectively, they do suggest a sensible path forward (incidentally, Henchoz mentioned that some of the school’s manufacturing partners have shown a great deal of interest in some of the designs). What many of the fanciful concepts share is a reliance on a simple, satisfying physical interaction. Instead of moving away from the idea of the remote as an object, Henchoz points out, the students enthusiastically returned to it. They embraced the physical relationship—and, in many cases, drastically simplified it. Which brings us to one of the project’s more exciting insights: Maybe the best next-generation remote is a far more primitive one?
Real, cushy buttons will always make for a more pleasant channel surfing experience than a slab of glass and a piece of software, no matter how well the remote app is designed. So instead of pushing remotes toward a future of touch screens and software and gestures, why not nudge them backward to even simpler forms? Offload all the extraneous crap into a smartphone app and give users a remote with a few satisfyingly chunky dials to spin, or a handful of pads to mash. You could make them big buttons. Irresistible buttons. Buttons people couldn’t help but love.