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Inventor of Wireless Remote Dies: Clunky Technology Lives On

By DAVID CARR

An ad for Zenith’s Flash-Matic. Zenith sold 30,000 televisions with the remote control.

An ad for Zenith’s Flash-Matic. It can seem as if we haven’t come very far.

When I read Margilit Fox’s gorgeous obituary of Eugene Polley, the creator of the wireless television remote, I was struck by the vision he displayed when he invented the so-called Flash-Matic back in 1955. I was also struck by the fact that more than half a century later, the technology he invented, which managed to be convenient and clunky at the same time, has yet to be really improved upon. The troubles in the system — which worked with TV sets built with a photo cell in each corner of the screen — were there right from the start.

Because the system was light-activated, sunlight hitting the TV screen could cause the channels to change in spontaneous roulette. Viewers also had trouble remembering which corner of the screen controlled which function.

Sound familiar? The television the remote now controls isn’t even a television anymore, but a multiplatform entertainment device that is increasingly hooked up not only to a cable system and a DVD player, but also a digital video recorder and the Web itself. Yet there we sit in front of it, holding a big dumb remote that doesn’t look or act much differently than the one that Mr. Polley and his buddies came up with decades ago.

Between the database of programming on the set-top box and all of the unfolding riches of Web programming, there is an almost infinite array of programming available, allegedly at the push of a button.

But which button? And which button after that. And good luck if you actually have to enter text so that the television can search for what you are looking for. The experience, as I have written, is like hitting your big, flat panel with a stick in the hope that something juicy pops out. It makes something that should be fun and relaxing seem a lot like work rather than downtime.

There are current or nascent technologies for apps, gestures and smartphones to control television, but none of them seem fully baked or all that easy to use. Our question to you, dear reader, is what have you found that works in navigating your televisions, and what do you think the remote of the future is going to look like? And when will the future get here?

Inventor of Wireless Remote Dies: Clunky Technology Lives On

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