Elgan: Your TV remote is obsolete

Smartphones and motion control will replace your remote controls with something better

It seems like everything's got its own remote these days. My TV has two. No, make it three: The new Apple TV I got for Christmas came with one. My heater has one. The lights in my bedroom have a remote control dimmer and on/off switch. My digital camera has a very small remote, but I can't find it. And the fan in my kitchen's got one (something's always setting it off -- probably a neighbor's garage door opener).

Remotes add clutter. They need batteries. They're easy to lose. And most TV remotes are so complex that people tend to ignore most of the features.

There's got to be a better way to remotely control things. And there is. One emerging theme in consumer electronics is the replacement of remote control units with smartphone apps. Another theme is to replace them with a sudden and incredible wave of motion-control devices.

The universal remote in your pocket

Several really good remote-control options have emerged on smartphones, especially on Apple iPhone and Google Android devices. They use a variety of methods to connect to home entertainment systems.

Some, like Qualcomm's Skifta and the Sonos Controller use your existing home Wi-Fi network.

Others, such as the Beacon Universal Remote for iOS devices and AVI Shadow for BlackBerry, use Bluetooth.

And still others, like RedEye from ThinkFlood, do things the old-fashioned way, by connecting via infrared.

There are literally hundreds of options for controlling TVs and stereos via smartphones. But while some companies are replacing remotes, other companies are adding smartphone control to devices that didn't use to have any remote control options at all.

LG launched this week a system called THINQ that enables owners of some LG washers and dryers, refrigerators and ovens to control those appliances via smartphone.

MyFord introduced this week a new app called MyFord Mobile that will enable drivers of the Ford Focus electric car to control things on the car when they're not inside it. For example, the app enables you to start the car and turn on the heater while you're still in the house, as well as monitor the battery charge and find a charging station.

Audiovox announced this week that it's shipping its CarLink smartphone interface module, which enables remote start, keyless entry and, most importantly, the ability to find your car in a parking lot from iPhone, Android and Blackberry phones.

And Samsung this week launched a new camera called the SH100, which lets you remotely control the camera (for self and group shots, presumably) from any Samsung Galaxy S class smartphone.

A company called Splashtop announced this week an Android app for controlling a PC, and for streaming the content on a PC to the phone. (Their iOS version shipped a couple of months ago.)

Nice. But while the control-it-all-from-your-phone revolution is just gaining momentum, another revolution is already threatening it: Technology that eliminates the need for a controller altogether.

Wave hello to motion control

Unless you've been hiding under the couch, you've heard about Microsoft's incredible Kinect system. The Xbox add-on lets you control games with motion. Kinect uses cameras, voice control and other technologies to capture your movement, then the Xbox's powerful process converts that movement into commands to the system.

It turns out Kinect, and other motion-control systems, are great replacements for TV remote controls. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer announced this week that later this year, Kinect will support both Netflix and Hulu. That means couch potatoes with Kinect can navigate and control movies and TV shows using voice and hand gestures -- no remote control required.

A European joint venture called Softkinetic-Optrima launched this week a laser-based motion-control system to do all the basic functions of a TV remote using hand gestures.

These products have some powerful features in common. First, they're connected to home networks, which means that anything in the house could be theoretically controlled by them. Second, they reside on programmable, extensible platforms. That means an ecosystem of third-party support is inevitable.

It won't be long before applications enable you to control your home entertainment, some car functions, appliances and more, simply by waving your hands or making specific hand gestures.

I think both smartphone controllers and gesture controllers will grow rapidly and will co-exist as two types of options for controlling devices from a distance.

New products in both areas will be coming from giants like Microsoft and Apple, gadget makers that want to enable remote control of their devices, and also new startups that will come into existence to create solutions nobody's thought of yet.

So say good-bye to that old remote, and hello to two great new ways to take control.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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