Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Replacing the TV Remote

We’ve all tried to use the force. We mostly just looked silly, but soon new technology will let us all feel like Jedi (at least where controlling the TV is concerned.) Ok, admittedly, this is less exciting than choking incompetent underlings or convincing cops that “these are not the joints you’re looking for.” It’s still pretty sweet. If you don’t believe me, imagine this:

You’re loaded down with your favorite snacks, and a delicious beverage (and if you’re me, probably a plethora of electronic devices because I have no attention span). You flop into the recliner. You swivel to attain the optimum viewing angle (in my case this involves securing the recliner with a bungee cord because mine is poorly balanced). You stretch, slide, and shift into the perfect position. You are now ready for some quality TV viewing, but alas, the remote is just out of reach. You try to use the force, but the remote just keeps sitting there (presumably mocking you). You’ll have to get up, surrendering your comfortable position (perhaps even risking forfeiture of the much coveted recliner, depending upon your house rules concerning seat reservation.)

Okay, fine. It’s a minor inconvenience, but protecting us from minor inconveniences is what consumer technology is all about. This year, the focus for TV’s seems to have been remote-free options for changing channels, etc. One option uses a video interface (not unlike Xbox Kinect) to respond to hand gestures. While you may not be able to stretch out your hand, clear your mind, and bring the remote to your hand, you’ll be able to make gestures at your television to change channels, increase the volume and crush the throats of reality TV stars (Ok, none of the manufacturers have perfected that last feature yet).

The other common option (likely to be used in conjunction with the other) is voice command. That sort of technology has been around for a while. It’s steadily improving, but so far it’s almost always a disappointment. My laptop came with a voice control interface, but it’s only effective when my face is closer to the mic than it would be if I was typing. The other downside is that for voice recognition to work, you need to be in a room free of background noise. A friend of mine frequently tries to use the voice-to-text function on his phone in crowded bars while drunk. The texts are always amusing, but never make any sense. To get the best out of any sort of voice recognition thing, you need quiet. You’d definitely want to turn off the TV before . . . oh, yeah. I see the problem here.

In all fairness, they might have solutions to that problem (it might be able to recognize and ignore the sound it’s producing or something). It also allows for effective control from a wider area (you don’t have to sit directly in front of the camera). More importantly, it gives me a great excuse to shout at inanimate objects, which I thoroughly enjoy (and it’s much more satisfying when the object does as it’s told). Voice command has the potential to be nearly as effective as my plan to keep a trained Ewok in my entertainment center and just yell at it to control my TV (added advantage: it could also change DVDs/games, and fetch snacks).

The final option is even more impressive. It’ll make reaching out toward the TV in serene, Jedi-like concentration seem old-fashioned. This new technology will allow you to control your TV without lifting a finger; literally. Don’t get too excited, it’s not a direct brain-computer interface, which would be insanely awesome (Think BrainPal from Old Man’s War by John Scalzi). It’s actually a sensor that tracks eye movement. These sensors, once calibrated to the user, can tell when you look down and open a menu, much like when you move your curser to the bottom of the computer screen to make the start menu appear. You click by blinking.

While all these technologies may seem insignificant when the only problem they solve is saving me from having to get off my ass to find the remote, they have the potential to do amazing things in other areas. Video control interfaces have been used in operating rooms so that surgeons can scroll through medical data without touching anything. The ocular sensor technology has been used to help quadriplegics use computers, but apparently the company (Tobii) realized that there are far more lazy people than quadriplegics. And that’s really why we’re seeing new technologies used for something as trivial as controlling the TV. It’s a good way to test the technology, while making enough money to continue developing it. With any luck, the next version will offer the option to choke inept underlings (or at least the voice recognition might work properly).