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Originally published Wednesday, May 30, 2012 at 10:30 PM

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Pushing all our buttons: TV remotes

It frustrates us, we fight over it, and still we can't live without the TV remote.

The New York Times

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It started out in the 1950s as an effort-saving gadget, like the electric can opener or electronic car keys. It evolved into a necessity, a cultural magic wand that has transformed the relationship of viewers to their televisions, and the style and content of the programs on view.

Today, U.S. television viewers click away at some 335 million TV remotes — nearly three per household. No longer a curiosity, the remote is as much a part of the U.S. home as the personal computer or the cellphone.

Novelist Saul Bellow denounced it as a malign invention whose invitation to jump from channel to channel, scrambling stories, "makes mental mincemeat of us." Ellen Goodman called it "the most reactionary implement currently used to undermine equality in modern marriage" in a 1992 column for The Boston Globe, noting its resemblance to a royal scepter and the tendency of men to dictate its use.

"It really changed, in a fundamental way, our interaction with technology and with each other," said Edward Tenner, a historian of technology and culture and the author of "Our Own Devices." "Think of the clickers that allow us to communicate with all sorts of electronic devices. The TV remote was the origin of that idea."

No one foresaw the transformative power of the device when Zenith unveiled the first cordless remote, the Flash-Matic, in 1955. Created by Eugene J. Polley, who died May 20 at 96, it looked like a small ray gun. By directing a beam of light at four photocells, one at each corner of the screen, the viewer could change channels up or down and increase or decrease the volume.

The company's advertisements proclaimed the Flash-Matic "a marvel of the electronic age that gives you remote control without wires, cables or cords."

Unlike the Lazy Bones, Zenith's first remote, introduced in 1950, it did not have a wire connecting it to the television.

But it did have other drawbacks. The photocells could be activated randomly by bright sunlight during the day and by the lights of passing cars at night.

Nevertheless, Polley regarded his device with satisfaction.

"It makes me think my life was not wasted," he told The Baltimore Sun in 2000. "Maybe I did something for humanity, like the guy who invented the flush toilet."

Robert Adler, the inventor of the Lazy Bones, carried remote technology forward with an ultrasound device called the Space Command. Viewers could press one of four buttons on a box to turn the television on and off, change channels and adjust the volume. Each key, with a sharp click, struck an aluminum rod that sent ultrasound waves to the receiver in the set.

The Space Command was introduced in 1956 and lived on into the age of transistor technology in the early 1960s. With the arrival of infrared technology in the early 1980s, it became obsolete, but by that time the remote had already made deep inroads into U.S. life.

In 1965, the first year that statistics were kept on sales of televisions with remote controls, only 1 in 20 sets came with a remote control. By 1985, half of all color sets came with a remote control, and by 1988, three-quarters.

For the big networks, the remote, the VCR and multiple cable channels formed an axis of evil. The ray-gun design of the Flash-Matic, it turned out, was a kind of omen. Programming executives now faced a world in which "the audience was armed," as James Gleick put it in "Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything."

Television began to change, rapidly and profoundly, as power shifted from corporate offices to increasingly fickle viewers. After a research team at NBC discovered that 25 percent of its audience changed channels when credits rolled, the network introduced the format known as "squeeze and tease" in 1999. Credits were consigned to a third of the screen, running simultaneously with promotional spots intended to keep the viewers hooked.

The networks either abandoned or modified strategies they had relied on for decades. Increasingly, television shows were "top-loaded." That is, flashy production values were given prominence at the beginning of shows, to entice restless eyes, and commercials were moved to the middle. The transition from one show to the next became almost seamless, with viewers thrust into new narratives almost before they knew the old one had ended. The visual style of television became much faster and jumpier to stave off visual ennui.

Viewers, for their part, enjoyed a somewhat conflicted relationship with the handy little device, which often seemed to have a mind of its own. It showed an uncanny talent for concealing itself in the deepest recesses of a sofa or wandering off to points unknown. A thriving business in electronic television-remote finders grew up overnight.

As the remotes proliferated, so did the number of function keys. The devices that came with cable boxes, bristling with buttons, looked like personal massagers intended to break up cellulite.

The Tito who imposed unity on this Balkanized world was the universal remote, a superwand that could be programmed to control dozens of devices. But many consumers found that it simply added a new layer of complexity to their lives and in some cases sent them running to professional consultants for an intervention.

"The problem is, there are a billion buttons and you have no idea what they do," said Jeff Gernbacher, who supervises Geek Squad technicians for Best Buy in Minneapolis. "It puts people off the technology and makes them not want to use it."

The visual appearance of the typical remote did not help matters.

"The television remote is the iconic example of bad design," said Bill Moggridge, the director of the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum and the author of "Designing Interactions." "There was a great deal of original design thinking in the first modes. Flash-Matic, with its ray-gun look and red trigger, was very innovative, but modern remotes suffer from the Swiss Army knife problem. When there are as many features as possible, doing any one thing becomes very difficult and confusing."

Pushing the wrong button

A new generation of universal remotes, like the Logitech Harmony series, tries to simplify matters by doing the programming automatically once users log on to a computer and, referring to an extensive menu, select the model names of the electronic devices they own.

The remote control may have liberated viewers. But it has also produced anxiety, stress and even violent conflict. In April 2011, a woman in Wellington, Fla., attacked her husband with a remote, which the police characterized as a "deadly weapon." And Exulam Holman, of Joliet, Ill., was charged in January with gouging out his uncle's eyes and throwing him down a flight of stairs after a dispute over the remote.

But simmering resentment is more the norm. Social scientists became intrigued by the sexual politics of the remote as the device became ubiquitous in the late 1980s. Men and women, it seemed, used it differently. Men were obsessive clickers, flipping through channels out of boredom, restlessness, the sense that something better might be on elsewhere or because they wanted to watch two programs at once. Women tuned into a specific program, which they then watched.

Alexis J. Walker, who studies the sociology of the U.S. family at Oregon State University, examined remote-control use among 36 couples in 1996 and finished up by interviewing her subjects.

"I would say that the only thing that's frustrating for me is when we first turn on the TV and he just flips through the channels," one woman said. "It drives me crazy because you can't tell what's on, because he just goes through and goes through and goes through."

The next generation

But the day of liberation may be at hand. Industry experts agree that the all-powerful remote, and the complex pas de deux between thumb and button, faces obsolescence. David Mercer, a television analyst at Strategy Analytics, a research and consulting firm, has called the remote "the dinosaur of the consumer electronics industry."

Voice-recognition and motion sensors are already being incorporated into new remotes like the Samsung Magic Touch, the LG Magic Motion and the Ident Gesture Remote. And for as little as $50, viewers can buy a small device that plugs into a smartphone and turns it into a remote control.

"At the moment, the candy-bar remote is still popular, but over the next few years you'll see mobile devices replacing it," said Dave Pedigo, the senior director of technology for the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association, whose members install home theaters. And "in a decade, people will look at them as quaint. My daughter's child will say, 'What's a remote control?' "

GOING BEYOND THE WAND TO THE BRAIN

Zenith's Flash-Matic, the original wireless TV remote invented by Eugene Polley, looked like an intergalactic weapon, and no wonder. It was born at the same time as the "Flash Gordon" TV series, which ran from 1954 to 1955.

Flash-Matic took its cues from more down-to-earth influences as well. Rama Chorpash, director of product design at Parsons, the New School for Design, said that in the '50s there was "a whole typology" of devices that looked like guns. The 1954 radar speed gun is another example.

"It's all about control," Chorpash said.

Eventually, of course, Flash-Matic gave way to the elongated rectangle familiar to decades of TV viewers. But the marksman's action of pointing a beam at a hapless object didn't change. At least, not until recently.

Today, remotes are packaged in a number of novelty shapes and operate through a variety of gestures. You can wave a stick like a wizard, cradle a soccer ball whose hexagons are studded with wireless commands, or merely think deep thoughts and your TV screen will respond.

The Magic Wand, for instance, is a tapered plastic rod with a quilted pattern on the handle and a motion sensor that can be trained to manipulate most remote-controllable devices. Users change TV channels or increase volume with a twist of the wrist or a fencer's thrust.

But the wand is mere Hobbit's play compared with the Haier Brain Wave TV. As demonstrated at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, viewers slip on a headset developed by the company NeuroSky, specialists in "brain-computer interface technologies," and work to translate bursts of cerebral electricity into operating commands.

It was no surprise to Chorpash that couch potatoes, long befuddled by the science of broadcasting (not to mention by the traditional plastic brick that controls it) are literally throwing up their hands and rolling their eyes.

About our transactions with our TVs, he said, "We would prefer it to be magic."

— JULIE LASKY, The New York Times

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