By Liz Danzico, contributor
FORTUNE — When Joe Stinziano, senior vice president of Samsung Electronics, took the stage recently at a press event on the future of smart TV, few might have expected him to talk about the quietest device in the living room: the remote control. “Until now, the remote control has basically stayed the same for 50 years,” Stinziano said, before proceeding to unveil a bevy of innovative new features.
Indeed, Stinziano cast a spotlight on a device that may very well be the last piece of home entertainment equipment to undergo broad, fundamental change. Hampered by manufacturing costs, infrastructure, and competing technical standards, the remote control has gotten little attention even though the average household now has four of them, each with its own confusing array of buttons and services. What changes remote controls have gone through have mostly been evolutionary. That may be starting to change.
Why has the remote control been a long-time victim of innovation? “It’s always come secondary to the television or set top box it’s been paired with,” says Michel Alvarez who was lead designer when Boxee TV, a progressive home theater PC software application, developed its flagship set-top box and dual-sided remote. “As manufacturers continued to invest production costs on making sure the main unit delivered on its competitive features, remote control innovation sat on the back burner, ultimately plateauing the relationship between the remote and the television.”
It didn’t start that way. The first wireless remote was a marvel, introduced by Zenith Radio Corporation in 1956 and engineered by Robert Adler. Called the “Zenith Space Command,” it offered a simple interface, consistent with consumer habits for watching television at the time. With its introduction an evolution happened: choice or remotes was granted to consumers for the first time. Findings emerged that began to shape programming: 25% of viewers changed the channel once the credits started rolling since they could change the channel sitting down. Yet by the turn of the century, the remote’s design faltered under the weight of multiple systems. Not only did it multiply by device — while one remote shipped with a TV, another shipped with the cable box — but the separation of labor and service provider caused an unstoppable multiplicity of buttons.
With the introduction of new services to the living room — VCRs, DVRs, DVD and Blu-ray players, game consoles — device infraction emerged on the coffee table because each new box pack its own remote. And while universal remotes intended to unite the confounding multiple experiences, it was often a less usable version of simple versions from manufacturers.
And there wasn’t much incentive to focus on the problem. “Mid- and low-end TV sales are very sensitive to margins, and so many manufacturers effectively gave up trying to own the entire experience and focused on lowering manufacturing cost and on investing in picture quality,” says Jun Lee, a partner at ReD Associates, an innovation and strategy consultancy, “They reduced the price of remote control manufacturing to $1 for the average remote to $3-5 for a ‘premium’ remote, but they also knew the remote was no longer a primary point of contact between their customers and the TV viewing experience.”
There is a chief difference, however, between cable or TV manufacturers (where remote controls are often an afterthought) and the business of making remote controls. Take Logitech (LOGI), who for 30 years has been making personal peripherals. These devices win design awards year after year. “We have customers come in to our office on a weekly basis, says Kevin Simon, director of Product Research. “People often don’t know what they want or what their pain points are.” As part of their process, they do a combination of lab studies at their headquarters, ethnographic studies, and traditional surveys. Even the Harmony Link, one of their remotes on the market, effectively crowdsources live behaviors so that each new addition becomes available for Harmony Link users everywhere.
Things could be turning around. Two non-traditional remotes have recently put better control in front of consumers, effectively raising expectations for gesture and voice. First the Kinect, a Microsoft (MSFT) Xbox remote that supports both voice and gesture input without a device at all. Apple’s (AAPL) Siri, which shipped with the iPhone 4S, recognizes voice commands, and helped result in $46.33 billion in revenue by the end of 2011 just a few months after it was introduced. And if history is any evidence, Siri has already changed consumer expectations and behavior irreversibly. “Apple unified service and product on the iPhone. It may try to make a similar move on TV,” says Lee.
Meantime, Samsung introduced its Smart Interaction technology with face recognition, gesture, and voice control, intended to provide choice for how consumers interact with their TV. And while Samsung still supplies the Smart Touch Remote and traditional remote in the box, the way consumers can interact with them clearly tips a hat to what its voice and gestural predecessors have done well.
But is the advent of voice, gesture, and touch really more control for consumers in a remote? “You don’t even have to pick up a remote control,” says Chris Harrison, a PhD student at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), “You’re sitting in your living room and snap your fingers. It’s like clicking the button for Siri. The computer looks for whatever hand is being held out—that is your remote control. Then you type ‘Channel 52’ or the top five shows you love watching on your DVR and click play. It’s getting away from the paradigm of a remote control. Your whole room is interactive. That’s what’s really exciting.”
Together with Microsoft Research and a CMU colleague, Harrison prototyped a mobile interaction system, OmniTouch, that turns any surface, including the human body, into a screen. Both OmniTouch, and another of his on-body interface projects, Armura, offer a new evolution of control—one where human interaction with our media experience dissolves into something much simpler: the environment itself.
So what this the future of the remote control? “We need to bring great new interaction and interface design to the remote control itself, the compatibility, the crowdsourcing. We absolutely need that because that is what the customer is buying. They demand innovation when they buy our product as opposed to when they buy a cable package,” Simon says. Meanwhile manufacturers will experimenting with voice, gesture, and touch and consumers will play, voting for their choice with gestures and buttons on how to put the control in the remote experience. At least finally this is an evolution, one Joe Stinziano’s audience has been waiting to hear about for more than fifty years.
Liz Danzico is chair and co-founder of the MFA Interaction Design program at the School of Visual Arts. She is part designer, part educator, and part editor, who writes part of her time at Bobulate. Follow @bobulate on Twitter.