Remote possibilities

Design

There are not many products we have not even troubled to name. But the television remote control unit, a functional description, became "the remote", and there we left it. Like mobile, remote is an adjective that has become a noun.

A year or two ago, Radio 4's Word of Mouth brought this omission to the attention of its listeners. They responded in fine form. There was the Flat Controller, the Frank (Zapper), the Yentob (the BBC controller). There were a number of onomatopoeic suggestions, strange for a device which is silent in operation. In our house, we use "blipverter" in homage to Max Headroom and, when my wife says turn it up a tad (a tad being the unit of volume denoted by one of those little green bars that appear on the screen), it seems only right to call it the "tadcaster".

Perhaps remotes remain unnamed because they are so ill-formed.Their anonymous existence continues in the shops. Because they get stolen, they are hardly seen on display, even though they will be the user's only point of physical contact with the tele-visions and video recorders and audio equipment they are buying.

Over the years since we gave up actually walking to the television to change channels, designs have gradually departed from the basic flat elongated rectangle. Now they are shaped like wands, fans, blades, wedges. Sometimes the stem ends are fashioned into a convex shape in order to rest in the palm of the hand, a trick picked up, no doubt, from the computer mouse, a device which has received far more attention from designers.

Remotes are held in the hand like - like what? Like none of these things, for a start. Not only is the remote a product without a proper name, it is one that demands to be held and used in an unfamiliar manner, either with wrist twisted and palm cupped and the thumb doing all the work, or with the hand laid over the top and the forefinger pressing the buttons.

Despite this cack-handed action, fitter designs have failed to win over consumers. There is a Sony remote like an egg. But, generally, there is none of the trend to miniaturisation so evident in mobile phones, for example. My friend Matt Black reckons it would be wrong to expect it. The remote is a different class of device, he says. It instructs, it exerts control, and yet is disconnected. It is this that makes it so weapon-like.

A Sony advertisement promises "complete control", and shows a kid pointing his finger first at his Minidisc player, then out of a window to zap a passing motorcycle from underneath its rider. The ad would be preposterous with a girl. Like any weapon, the remote is a male appurtenance. It is Darth Vader's light sabre, Excalibur, Nothung. Despite its physical disconnection, we know instinctively how to use one as we would know how to fire a ray gun in a sci-fi movie. Bang & Olufsen of Denmark clearly senses the presence of northern mythologies. Rejecting the plastic used unquestioningly by other manufacturers in favour of cast metal, its remote is cool to the touch and balances heavily in the hand.

But the remote is not a dumb weapon. For Black it's a dream. It's got buttons, too. In the hands of a virtuoso, it becomes a postmodern conductor's baton, switching between narratives, constructing its own telly text.

As home electronics grew more complex, it was easier to keep on adding buttons than to simplify the user interface. Most remotes have 30 or 40 of them. A few models ostentatiously take the opposite tack with just a couple of enormous buttons the size of butter beans. The Sony egg has just one button; all the choices are flashed up on the television screen.

Once the television remote was accepted, so every electronic gadget not worth getting up for had to have one, too - the video, satellite and cable receivers, the hi-fi. Soon, no doubt, it will be the washing machine, the oven, the bath taps and the alarm clock. The logical consequence was the so-called universal remote, one tool that could control a range of equipment. The clever ones "learn" to recognise which models you possess from your existing remotes - all very well unless you are buying one to replace an original remote that has been lost. And, of course, if you lose the universal remote then you're really stuck. Philips, bless them, have thought of this, and have arranged matters so that your television can be used to call attention to its own lost remote.

For £150 or so, there is a remote that not only learns but reproduces the appearance of each of your now obsolete control units on a liquid crystal display screen with all the buttons in their old familiar places. A bit of an ergonomic own-goal this, since you would think that the great advantage of a universal remote would be to save even your fingers having to do much walking. Still, you might want one for Christmas. I know you wouldn't want to miss a second of the season's viewing.

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition