Thursday, February 02, 2006

Remotes that Make Sense

New ideas that fit in the palm of your hand

by Carla Diana

[See Photo]

October 31, 1996 -- You embrace it with your [Image]
palm. Using your fingertips to gently press on
its surface, you use it to manipulate your surroundings.
You keep it within arm's reach, and sometimes you even
use it in the dark. Yes, it's the remote control.

In an ideal world, such an intimate object would look
sensuous, like a virtual extension of yourself, right?
Most remote controls, however, look like calculators.
Hard, slim black boxes with grids of tiny, rectangular
buttons, they require close inspectio n to distinguish
one function from another. They've spent decades as an
overlooked accessory, an infrared afterthought thrown in
to keep up with the competition's list of features.

In the past few years redesigned remotes have brought new
shapes, textures and -- gasp! -- colors into consumer
electronics. More frequently used functions like channel
up and down, volume control and VCR play have larger
buttons than the less commonly us ed mute, record and
channel numbers. Keypads are laid out in a logical order,
buttons are made with touchy-feely materials like supple
rubber, and forms like ellipses, semicircles, and
triangles have emerged. Not only does all this smooth the
process of s etting your home theater into motion, but
the different shapes and surface indentations help you
find controls when the lights are dimmed. Some remotes
even have backlit or glow-in-the-dark buttons.

Overall shapes have improved, too. Thomson researched the
space inside the closed hand (by asking 300 users to
reform a ball of clay into a comfortable shape). The
result is the curvy CRK61, which operates a ProScan TV
and external VCR. Scottsdale Techn ologies makes a
similar product in a gorgeous, egg-shaped design that
nestles into your palm and lets your thumb fall naturally
onto the main control pad.

With each appliance sporting its own separate controlling
device, things have gotten pretty messy. Many of us let
out a sigh of relief when the universal remote control,
which uses one controller to activate several devices,
came around. Now standard with most midrange and higher
television sets, they've become a strong product category
on their own. They're great for controlling three or four
devices, but beyond that they start looking as though
they could launch spacecraft, and programming all your
devi ces with those elusive brand codes can turn into a
real headache.

To make controlling simpler, some products feature
onscreen menus and super-simple remotes. The VideoGuide
system, which delivers program-listing grids and headline
news on the television screen, has a sexy remote with
only two buttons, a rocker switch an d a joystick for
smoothly moving around the screen to make channel
selections. (By the way, its one-button VCR record
program feature is really sweet.) Digital satellite
systems and Starsight, an interactive program guide built
into some VCRs and TVs, hav e a similar on-screen menu
control. While this improves ease-of-use, you usually
have to wade through a couple of screen layers before
making a channel selection or performing a function that
was previously handled by one dedicated button.

Technophiles and designers alike have raved about the
Kenwood KC-Z1 Home Theater Controller. This high-end
audio/video preamp handles six video inputs, five analog
audio inputs and four digital audio inputs (yikes!). It
comes with the Lamborghini of universal remotes, a liquid
crystal touchscreen which shows icons of your components
to indicate control choices. Touching an icon reveals
more detailed screen layers, much like the menus in a
computer operating system. Slick features include its use
of radio frequency signals (900 MHz, just like high-end
cordless phones) instead of infrared so that you can use
it without pointing it at your equipment, even from
another room. Creston's SmarTouch remote also has an LCD
screen, and can allow the remote control ling of
integrated home systems like alarms, temperature controls
and motorized windows (in high-tech Smart House homes).
The KC-Z1 costs $2800 and includes the handheld
controller along with a tuner/preamp, while the SmarTouch
is a whopping $4200.

If you like the idea of using the remote for zapping
things other than home theater gear, but can't handle the
heart-stopping price of the SmarTouch (and don't live in
an automated Smart House), RCA's Home Control is a new
remote that can be used to turn off lights, start up
coffeemakers, and activate almost anything that plugs
into a household outlet. It's a classy Clapper!

Remotes have become the control center for lots more than
turning the TV on and off. Getting the coffeepot going is
a neat trick, but my wish-list remote control is more
like the shiny orgasmatron in Woody Allen's Sleeper. Put
one of those on your coffeetable. Now *that's* control.

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This column is an etown.com exclusive.

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