The Ultimate Remote Means Never Having To Leave the Couch

September 14, 2000
HOME THEATER MASTER MX-1000, left, by Universal Remote Control ($290), controls up to 12 devices. Choices can be archived on a PC. MOSAIC, right, by Universal Electronics (under $200), can operate up to 15 components. It has in-depth Help screens and links with a PC through a serial cable.

WEBREMOTE by Planet Portal ($20), surfs the web and offers email. Windows 98 or 2000 is required.

Naum Kazhdan for The New York Times
TAKE CONTROL TC1000, left, by Harman Kardon ($349), controls up to 15 devices through its touch screen. RM-AV2100, center, by Sony ($180), controls up to 12 components with 22 physical buttons and 34 L.C.D. buttons. PRONTO, right, by Phillips Electronics ($399) can control up to 17 devices. It's the closest in appearance to the Palm.

DAVID ALPERT, president of an Internet startup called MarketingInfo, admits that he is addicted to remote controls. He estimates that the members of his gadget- oriented family have accumulated about 55 remote controls over the years around their house in Old Westbury, N.Y. There was one for the air-conditioning, one for the lights. They needed 5 remote controls to watch a movie and 12 to listen to the stereo, with separate controls for components like the subwoofers and the equalizer.

"At a certain point," Mr. Alpert said, "the extra features stop being convenient and become overwhelming. It's not worth it. Remotes are supposed to simplify things."

In its 50th year, the remote control population outnumbers the human population in the United States. Households often have more remote controls than they have family members. Mr. Alpert's family of four, for example, keeps a basket of a dozen or so old remote controls. "I don't know what they do," Mr. Alpert said. "They're like Gremlins. You get them wet and they multiply."

The average household now has more than four remote controls, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. Most of these operate televisions and stereos, but remote controls have expanded their domain into other areas of the house. They are now available for fireplaces, ceiling fans, air-conditioning, house lights and window blinds. And they have hopped out of the house and into the car, and even onto the Internet. For people who find using a mouse too onerous, PlanetPortal is introducing the WebRemote Control, which browses through Web sites with a touch of a button.

Rising from this landscape awash with remote controls are supergadgets, the universal remote controls that have emerged in the last three years. The latest high-end universal remote controls are sleek. They are chic. They have L.C.D. touch screens. They can talk to personal computers. And they can cost several hundred dollars apiece. In short, they are more akin to personal digital assistants than to the clunky black rubber-button remotes of yore.

These remote controls can take one to two hours to set up, often with software on a PC. They can also learn directly from other remotes by reading their infrared signals.

Mr. Alpert found his salvation in a touch- screen universal remote control. Sleek and black, it put all his controls in one place. "It was awesome," Mr. Alpert said. "There was everything right in front of you, including lights, air-conditioning, TV, VCR - everything in just one touch of the screen. Life was good."

Among the off-the-shelf universal remotes with touch-screen L.C.D. displays on the market are the Pronto from Philips Electronics, the Take Control TC1000 from Harman Kardon and the RM-AV2100 control from Sony. Universal Remote Control says its Home Theater Master MX-1000 will be on the market by the end of this month. The Pronto and the Take Control let users use their PC software to design L.C.D. interfaces with their own virtual buttons.

While the hefty price tags - about $130 to $400 - may raise eyebrows, buyers who have spent thousands of dollars on home entertainment systems may not balk at paying that much for a single device that can run everything.

Rob Trueman, who runs a software consulting firm outside Philadelphia, recently paid $300 for a Philips Pronto touch-screen universal remote to replace the 10 remote controls he had in his house. "It definitely makes it much, much easier," he said. "I'm not constantly searching for the right remote." The old remote controls are now relegated to a drawer under the couch. "They are pretty much happy because they are under the sofa, where they tend to go anyway," he said.

His new universal control has been programmed to start DVD movies at a touch of a button. "It's even less of a reason to get up," Mr. Trueman said. "If the remote control could bring me a beer, that would be it." The remote control might not be able to deliver beer quite yet, but it can fetch pizza. In Honolulu, viewers can use the remote control to order from Pizza Hut through a service provided by PowerTV.

If the remote control visionaries are to be believed, these touch-screen remote controls may one day be integrated with P.D.A.'s. (Is there anything that the P.D.A. isn't going to merge with?) Each person could carry around a personalized remote control that could be updated with software from the Internet.

Perhaps the convergence is already starting. People can use software to transform Palm and Visor P.D.A.'s with infrared transmitters into short-range remote controls. On, a Web site devoted to remote control, users have posted games, calendar programs and even musical selections for remote controls.

Marc Harmsen, marketing manager for the Philips Pronto, said, "There are theme songs for `The Simpsons,' `Indiana Jones' and `Star Wars.' "

But for all their increasing complexity, these high-end remote controls cannot avoid the problems that plague their lower-end brethren. They still break, and they still sink behind couch cushions. Mr. Alpert's new all- in-one remote control broke seven months ago, so he had to lug his basket of old controls out of storage.

"Now the innocence is gone," he said. "We know what life is like if the remote breaks. We know the chaos." Mr. Alpert's family, he said, just stopped watching television. "TV is supposed to be relaxing," he said. "Just to turn on the TV took five steps. It was too stressful."

The Zenith Radio Corporation, which became Zenith Electronics, did the early work in remote controls. Zenith was awarded an Emmy in 1997 for that work. The first television remote control, aptly dubbed Lazy Bones, was introduced in 1950 and was connected by a wire to the television set. The original purpose of the remote was to let viewers mute the sound of television commercials, because the president of Zenith, Eugene F. McDonald Jr., detested commercials.

Since then, the remote control has become a cultural icon, a bane of television advertisers, a focus of household power struggles and an enduring symbol of American life.

"We are in a remote-controlled world," said Dan Williard, president of Replacement Remotes. "People are lost without it." The most frantic calls to his company come from people who need replacements sent overnight before "the big game," he said.

In theory, users manipulate their remote controls. But in reality, remotes often seem to manipulate their users, creating a kind of behavior that might appear peculiar to the generations that grew up without them.

"I won't get up from the couch to turn on the TV," said Mike Jaeggi, a recruiter in Atlanta who finds applicants for technology jobs. "Instead I'll spend 10 minutes looking for the remote."

Remotes have not simply propagated - they have become mobile. The first wireless remote, which used, in effect, tightly aimed flashlight beams, was introduced by Zenith in 1955. After remote controls won their freedom, they exercised it fully. Their preferred habitat is the small dark environs under couches and between seat cushions. "The smallest possible spot they can fit into, they can get into," said Scott Scheider, a software consultant outside Philadelphia.

Remotes also scurry to other areas of the house, turning up in refrigerators, under kitchen sinks and in bathrooms. Once Mr. Jaeggi's Sony universal remote was misplaced by his brother. "We were looking for over an hour," Mr. Jaeggi said. "I kept saying he was going to owe me a hundred bucks." They finally found it in the garage.

Craig Nabat, president of Ambitious Ideas, a company that makes a remote control locator called Findit, says that most Americans lose remote controls at least once a week, then waste time looking for them.

Where do runaway remote controls go? Mr. Williard said that dogs and children were common remote-nappers. And people often throw them away accidentally when they are cleaning up, he added.

Sometimes remote controls escape the house altogether. Mr. Scheider was confounded when he found a remote control that did not belong to him in his living room a few weeks ago.

"There has to be someone out there looking for the remote," Mr. Scheider said. He suspects that it might have accidentally dropped when his sister's family visited, but he has hesitated to ask her.

"What if I find out it's not theirs?" he said. "What is the alternative? What if there is someone breaking into my place and leaving a remote there?"

Remotes and televisions are sometimes forcibly separated from one another. "We had our house broken into a few years ago," said Michael Kearl, a sociology professor at Trinity University in San Antonio. "They stole the equipment but left the remotes. So in memory of things that once were, we still have the remotes."

But sometimes the remotes are the desired commodity in burglaries, said Linda Tranchetti, a service representative for Replacement Remotes. "When people get robbed," she said, "sometimes they don't take the TV or stereo, but they take the remote controls. I don't know why. I've heard that many, many times."

While it is tempting to resort to restraining measures to keep remote controls from meandering, that seems to undermine the essence of the technology. "We all acknowledge the remote's need to wander and hide under things," said Mr. Trueman, who replaced his 10 remote controls with a Pronto. "How awful is it to see a remote control nailed or screwed into the nightstand of most hotels?"

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