The fight to gain remote control

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Dan Simpkins has seen the future of television, and it is doughnut-shaped. His company, Hillcrest Labs, has designed a circular TV controller that can sense its position in space. It moves a pointer on a screen, selecting channels or films to play.

It is doughnut-shaped because “that is the optimal shape for pointing”, says Chad Lucien, vice president of Hillcrest.

But what was wrong with the old remote control?

“There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions of different pieces of content out there. Consumers need a way to navigate these vast content offerings. That is where the old remotes and programme guides fall down,” he says.

With just a handful of channels, a remote control with a few buttons is enough. And it can just about cope with the couple of hundred channels provided by digital, satellite and cable operators.

But if the plans of TV and telecoms companies come to fruition, television will become far more complex.

BT, France Telecom, Deutsche Telekom and Verizon are just some of the companies working on Internet protocol television (IPTV) services. These will use the technology that underlies the internet to carry a massive number of television channels, and bring viewers thousands of on-demand entertainment choices, such as TV programmes and movies.

Viewers will also (the plan goes) be able to play games, including multiplayer games over the internet, make phone calls, send e-mail, view and share their own pictures and videos, and participate in shows. Even the most sophisticated remote controls on the market will struggle to handle all this.

“The interface is absolutely critical,” says Dan Marks, chief executive of BT Vision, the IPTV arm of BT. “One of the reasons that interactive TV and even pay-per-view haven’t become big business is that the interface is too clumsy to allow for easy impulse activity.”

IPTV will make the television experience resemble the experience of using a computer.

But does the average television viewer want a PC in the living room? Watching television, sitting on a sofa, often in a group, is very different from sitting alone at a desk, using a keyboard.

Ventures to introduce the PC into the living room have generally proved disappointing.

For example, Microsoft’s Media Center, a computer designed to double as a video and music player for the living room, has met with a very cool response since its 2002 launch.

Computers go wrong more often than DVD players or videos, and for lots of reasons.

However, one class of computing devices is already well established in the living room – games consoles – and some IPTV companies are looking to borrow ideas from them. Their controllers and interfaces have been honed over two decades to help players pilot starships or control a soccer team.

Another interesting possibility is the mobile phone as an interface. There are already examples of cellphones and TV working well together – witness the success of voting by text message on reality television shows. And helpfully, many of the IPTV providers will also be mobile phone operators.

But the most effective way of choosing between hundreds of thousands of content items is text-based search, a business dominated by Google, a newcomer to the TV world. It has not announced a TV search product yet, but it would be a logical market for it to explore: “We are always looking for new ways to see if we can make content searchable and discoverable,” says Patrick Walker, Google’s head of content partnerships.

Many commentators agree that eventually, the solution might be some form of speech controller. Technologically, it is a long way off and it raises some interesting questions.

For instance, how do you prevent it from responding to words spoken by people on the television?

Or what happens when two children want to watch different things? Instead of a brief tussle to win possession of the remote control, the shouting match might never end.

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