Is The Remote Control Becoming Obsolete?

All Tech Considered

Melissa Block talks to All Tech Considered regular Omar Gallaga about the death of the remote control. Gallaga, the technology-culture reporter for the Austin American-Statesman, says the proliferation of wireless devices is making the remote control as we know it obsolete.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And staying with your TV for another few moments now.

(Soundbite of film, "The Cable Guy")

Mr. JIM CARREY (Actor): (As The Cable Guy) By the way, you might want to put on a bathing suit, 'cause you'll be channel surfing in no time.

BLOCK: That's Jim Carrey from the 1996 comedy "The Cable Guy." But channel surfing with a traditional remote might be going the way of the 8-track. I'm joined now by our tech expert Omar Gallaga. He covers technology culture for the Austin American-Statesman.

And, Omar, you are issuing another warning. You warned us when smartphones began replacing stand-alone GPS units. And now you think the remote control might also be headed towards the endangered gadgets list. Why is that?

OMAR GALLAGA: This one people might be a little bit happier about losing when you've got four or five remotes in the living room cluttering up everything. Yeah, I think as smartphones are becoming more ubiquitous and we're walking around with these touch-screen devices with us wherever we go, I'm thinking that that's probably where remote control technology is going to go. You've got this with you all the time and that you're now able to use apps to control lots of devices in your living room.

BLOCK: Okay, well, let's assume that we do have a DVD player, a TV, a cable box, maybe a game console, how would a smartphone communicate with all of those pieces of equipment?

GALLAGA: Well, there have been quite a few apps that have come out in the last year not just for the iPhone and the iPod Touch, but also for the Android phones and for BlackBerry and Palm that allow you to connect over Wi-fi with either a computer that's hooked up to the TV, say you want to view Hulu videos or Netflix.

Now, where things get a little bit trickier is when there's no computer involved and you're just controlling the TV and the other devices and you need something like a universal remote. There's starting to be some hardware devices that are sort of the go-between, between your phone and those devices that either beam an IR signal to them or find some other way to do it if your devices are Internet-enabled.

BLOCK: IR meaning infrared?

GALLAGA: Absolutely. And there's one device that I've been trying out lately called the Red Eye, which is an app and a hardware device that beams a signal to these devices and kind of doubles as a remote control. There's still some things about it that don't quite work, but I definitely see that that's where things are going. You're going to have your smartphone with you all the time. It allows multiple people in the house to control all the same devices, that they have all the same app installed. And you're much less likely to lose your smartphone, I think, than to lose, you know, four or five remotes that you might have around.

BLOCK: But if you're thinking about setting this up and operating it, Omar, how foolproof is it? How easy it is for those of us who are not too technically adept?

GALLAGA: That's the problem that I encountered is I'm used to a Logitec Harmony remote which is kind of real remote control with a little screen on it that tells you what the activities are, like, watch TV or listen to a CD. And that required quite a bit of setup. These apps work in somewhat the same way. You have to tell it what devices you own. You have to kind of go in and configure the buttons that you want on it. And that can be a really long painstaking procedure.

And with the Red Eye device that I tried, which is a little kind of an iPod dock that also beams those signals, you also have to set it up on a Wi-Fi network and that involves a whole kind of rigmarole as well. As these databases get bigger with the names of more devices and the IR codes, it's going to get a little bit easier. But, definitely, this is kind of an all-day, weekend project to get all this set up the way you want it and to turn on the devices the way you want. And it's not quite there yet but definitely something to look at in the future.

BLOCK: Okay, Omar, thanks so much, good to talk to you.

GALLAGA: Thanks for having me. And we will have links to a lot of these products and apps on the All Tech Considered blog at NPR.org/alltech.

BLOCK: That's Omar Gallaga. He covers technology culture for the Austin American-Statesman and joins us most Mondays on All Tech.

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