It seems everything at CES is connected to the Internet. Not just the obvious stuff like TVs and speakers and washing machines, either. Little things. Light bulbs. Fans. The sorts of things you might grab on a whim at Home Depot or Best Buy or one-click at Amazon because, hey, that might be neat. If a clear trend has emerged from CES, it’s this: The next great wave of devices is packed with chips and transmitters and sensors that enable everything to communicate with everything else.
So now what?
Now people must reckon with what happens when, bit by bit, the Internet takes over every object in the house. What the world needs is a smart gadget to control it all. A Swiss army knife that will replace the apps and screens and interfaces that threaten to fill our homes. In other words, a universal remote.
The universal remote has been around almost as long as the non-universal one; something about putting one clicker down and picking another up flashes dollar signs in the eyes of VCs. They’ve never been good enough to handle TV, Blu-ray, and Netflix, though, and forget about everything that comes next. Don’t say “We’ve got a remote—the smartphone.” The smartphone won’t cut it. Touchscreen controllers aren’t as immediate or convenient as those with clicky buttons. Frankly, they suck. What we need is a universal remote that can talk to everything, a universal remote far more powerful than anything we’ve had before. A remote with buttons, an easily understood UI, and dead-simple operation that requires nothing more than pointing and clicking.
If that sounds a bit old-school, it is. And it isn’t. And there are a few here at CES that may help us all navigate our increasingly connected homes without going utterly mad.
Point and Click
Down the strip from the frenzied scrum of the CES expo hall, in the relative quiet of a suite on the 31st floor of the Venetian, Neeo CEO Raphael Oberholzer taps through the home screen of his universal remote. Years ago, he was in the home-automation business, customizing setups for rich people in Switzerland. “The needs were always quite basic,” he says. “I want to watch television, I want to watch movies, I want it to be simple.” He found that people were blown away by his highly automated systems. He also found that they couldn’t figure out how to use them. He’d hand them a sexy remote with a touchscreen, and eventually upgraded to iPads, but found they all wanted the same thing: Something they could point and click. It didn’t matter how elaborate the setup he built; without a good remote, a remote people could use, the whole system sucked. So, Oberholzer decided to build a better remote.
Neeo has built a remote that’s half screen, half buttons
That remote, the Neeo, was announced a year ago, launching a wildly successful Kickstarter that gave the company more than $1.5 million to pursue its wildest ideas. Now it’s built a remote that’s half screen, half buttons. It can control your TV, your set-top box, your game console, your lights, and more than 50,000 other devices. The remote features a “brain” that uses Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, infrared, and a handful of other sensors and radios to connect to everything in your house.
The remote is handsome and simple, an aluminum candy bar that feels heavy but impressive. The interface is clean, fast, and almost comically obvious. It’s hard to not know what to do with buttons like “TV” and “Lights,” but just in case, there are icons too. For every complex action, there’s a button or slider on the screen, and for all the simple stuff there’s an up and a down and an OK button. The screen makes the Neeo extensible and future-proof; the buttons make it work.
The idea is to create a remote so smart you don’t have to know what’s compatible with it. Every device can map its basic functions to the Neeo’s buttons, and everything else happens on the screen. You get one interface for your TV, another for your lights, and something like an iPod UI when you’re picking songs for your Sonos.
Let’s be clear: this is not a new idea. Such devices have never been intuitive or awesome, and building a good one only gets harder as you add more devices to the list of things it must control. Do you add buttons for dimming lights, even though people might not have dimming lights? Do you do everything on a touchscreen? If so, aren’t you just making an app?
People want physical buttons, and they want to point and click. You just can’t do that with a smartphone.
Neeo makes an app for Android and iOS that has a lot of the same functionality, but “we don’t see that as the right interface,” Oberholser says. “It’s not as immediate.” Every universal remote has tried to sell people on the appeal of not having a hundred clickers on the coffee table, and he says the same thing is true of apps. “For every little device, you have apps—that’s the part we want to fix, of course.” People want physical buttons, and they want to point and click. You just can’t do that with a smartphone.
Savant, another startup, has similar ideas. Its remote even looks like Neeo—iPod Nano-size screen up top, a few buttons on the bottom. Savant’s remote uses voice commands for a lot of things, though, and has a few more buttons. Like everyone else, it’s toeing the line of an impossible balance: how to control everything without tipping over into complete, user-infuriating chaos.
Savant and Neeo are working with companies around the world to integrate their products and interface into its remote. So is Logitech, whose latest Harmony remote is the most versatile of its long line of universal controllers. (It, too, has embraced the split mentality between buttons and screens.) The goal is to make linking any gadget to the remote as easy as clicking a few buttons. Samsung wants to do all that setup automatically.
This week, the company introduced a Samsung Smart Control remote designed to consolidate all of your devices into a single clicker and, along with the new Smart Hub, bring all of your content onto a single screen. If you buy a new Samsung TV in 2016 and plug in a Blu-ray player or Xbox, the TV recognizes the new gadget and programs it into the remote. SmartThings integration (also coming to all Samsung TVs) lets you control everything in your house by pointing your remote at the TV.
A Universal Solution
There are still so many more questions than answers. Like, how do you pick which device to control, when you have 100 of them on the remote? Neeo and Savant lean heavily on macros, so you can say “watch TV” and the remote will dim the lights, turn on the TV, and, who knows, make you popcorn? SevenHugs, the most bizarrely-named of all the universal remote companies here, has a neat system for geolocating individual devices so you can control whatever you want just by pointing at it. Its remote is a bare rectangle of black glass, which animates with the interface of whatever device it sees. It looks less like a capital-R Remote, but it still does the job.
Samsung, on the other hand, wants you to do basically everything through menus on the TV. For most people, there’s never been anything terribly compelling about a universal remote. Here, replace the four remotes you know how to use with one clunky brick you can’t possibly figure out! These devices were always a matter of convenience, a slightly better take on something that’s not that hard anyway. But as the number of devices in our living room jumps from three to 30 to 300, we can’t have a remote—or an app—for everything. The transition from a few gadgets to universal gadgets makes hard work for remote makers, who are essentially building dams without truly knowing the size of the flood. Still, they’re on to something: the best way to make a system feel complete and integrated is to have a remote that obscures all the complicated setup and compatibility, and just lets you do what you want and find what you’re looking for.
CES feels disjointed this year, like all the tiny pieces of a huge puzzle strewn throughout the many square miles of the Las Vegas Convention Center. There are so many places technology touches now, so many ideas and use cases and things that are made simply because they can be. What we really need are the connections, the ways we as people make the technology move. Maybe someday that system will look like Iron Man’s Jarvis, or the earbud from Her. Before we get there, it’s going to look like a remote control. The future has buttons.