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The Future of TV Tech: Control


In this article in the series, I’m looking at the future of television remote control. Note, this is not about TV remote control devices, as I don’t believe the future will involve dedicated handheld devices, So the headline picture is wrong. I believe the future of TV control will be voice (which will be obvious to most readers) and micro-gestures (maybe not so obvious).

A little bit of history

Zenith_Space_Commander_600It is always fun to look at a bit of history. It was well into the 90’s before I had a TV with a remote control, but they are much older than that. The first TV remote control dates back to 1950 when Zenith developed appropriately named “Lazy Bones” remote control. This was a wired remote. Wireless remote controls followed this, one of my favourites is the four button Zenith Space Commander. This used ultrasound to change channel and volume. When the user pushed a button on the remote control, it clicked and struck a bar, hence the term "clicker". Each bar emitted a different frequency and circuits in the television detected this sound. One great feature of this is the remote did not require batteries. 

Over the years, transistor replaced manual actions and utlrasonics were replaced with infrared.


Most TVs today use infrared (AKA IR) remote controls, these are cheap to produce and have a long battery life. The number of keys as grown from four to many tens. Though there is a real trend to strip to key back the number of keys to the bare essentials. Though this often sacrifices accessibility for aesthetics. There are now Bluetooth remote controls also referred to as RF controls. These do not require line of site to operate,  allow for more complex two way communication between the remote and the TV, supporting the likes of touch pads and microphones.

But what is the future of these devices?

One thing is clear, that voice will be an important part of this. I probably got my first pitch about how the future of TV control was voice back 2002. Back then the technology was limited, with all voice processing needing to be done on the device. These solutions were limited to volume control, channel change with the hope of title based search of the guide.

Back then the microphone had to be mounted in the remote control. I always had a problem with the need to pick up a remote, press a key and then speak a command to perform an action that was quicker and easy (less cognitive load) to perform with a standard TV remote.

I also think at that time we were just not ready to speak to our devices. When Siri was integrated into Apple iOS in October 2011, I thought that this would quickly change with all of Apples marketing muscle, but apart from the usual early adopters, people were still slow to adopt Siri and voice control in general. 

For me the big change has been the appearance of far-field microphones, the most successful products to date being the Amazon Echo suite of products with the Alexa voice assistant. Far field does not require any physical interaction (searching for a remote, finding and pressing a microphone button). We just needs you to call out a key word (e.g. Alexa, Google, Siri) and you have the full attention of the device even in a noisy environment. 

With my Echo, my radio consumption has now become very much hands free and voice controlled. Though changing the volume is still not an ideal experience, “Hey Alexa, turn the volume up” is a bit of a mouth full. “Hey Alexa, turn the volume up on the living room TV” is even more of a mouth full, though my home TV set-up is still too dumb to enable this interaction.

Sky has had success with their own voice control system for the Sky Q. The technology is from Tivo and Nuance based. Though today Sky Q uses a microphone within the remote, no far-field ones yet.

Voice comes into its own when it comes to search. Voice has massively increased the flexibility of search and I believe its usage. TV search is a rarely used feature of non-voice systems. Vendors and operator usually tell me search is popular, but the accurately measured systems I’ve look has search used in less that 1 in 1000 viewing sessions. With an average of two viewing session a day, that once a year.

I don’t believe microphones in TV remote controls, like SkyQ, will be a lasting trend, instead I believe that far-field microphones will become common place in our living-room devices. The question is will there be a different microphone and key word on each device or will there be a single microphone controlling all the devices in a room. This question comes down to ecosystems. It is clear that, Amazon, Google and Apple are all aiming to create dominant living-room ecosystems.  Another winner takes all battle between the tech giants which will impact the reigional operators.

There today some collaboration, a good example is the YouView Alexa integration here in the UK. 

But, for me, voice struggles to support visual interfaces and TV is primarily a visual interface. It is great if I can use voice to find a video to watch in a single command, but not so great when the results require paging through a list. Something else is needed.

It’s not all about Voice

In the introduction, I mentioned that the future of TV control was not all about voice. I also believe the future includes micro-gesture. Using your hands to control your TV as you do today just without a remote in it.

One of the main deployment of device free gesture control was the now-defunct Xbox Kinect. The system let you plays games with gestures, albeit large scale gestures. Microsoft originally saw Kinect as "an essential and integrated" part of the Xbox. That failed as the technology was a bit cluncky and the gamers that the Xbox targeted generally have a gaming controlled welded to their hands.

If you haven’t seen how gestures were used to control the user interface rather than play a game, check out this video.

Micro-gestures are real

The best example of real micro-gestures based development is Project Soli by Google’s Advanced Technologies and Product Group (ATAP). Soli uses low-powered radar to detect, track and recognize dynamic gestures expressed by fine motions of the fingers and hand gestures. Check out the Soli video here.

“The hand is the ultimate input device. It is extremely precise, it’s extremely fast and is very natural for us to use.” Ivan Poupyrev, Project Soli Founder, Google ATAP

Soli can detect a hand turning a virtual dial for volume control on pressing a button for zapping. Our own hands providing the haptic feedback require for a great experience.

“The hand can both embody a virtual tool and act on that tool at the same time.” Carsten Schwesig, Design Lead, Project Soli,

Soli and other projects like it are looking at providing gesture control for personal devices and wearables. In these use cases the radar is detecting gestures over a short distance and within in a small space. My view is, much like far-field microphones have accelerate voice usage, gesture control will be accerlated by the equivalent of a far-field radar. Now radar already works over large distances, certainly it can easily cope with your livingroom, it is more about the processing power to detect and focus on signals in a wide area.

I’m interested in the combination of voice and micro-gestures can achieve. Voice might be used to activate an interface and gestures to control it. Imagine starting a search with voice, but then using gestures to scroll through and select from a list of results.

A far-field microphone array could help a radar know where to look for gestures. 


Most people would agree that the future of TV control is voice, but to really achieve an efficient and effective remote control free world we also need finessed gesture control.

Matthew Huntington




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