Monday, September 15, 2008

bluetooth and the science of sloth

I find remote controls fascinating. Some people are riveted by war or beauty or elderporn, but I like remote controls. I grew up in the painfully analog era of direct contact with all my peripherals and home entertainment infrastructure, so when the first remote control landed on my family’s coffee table, I didn’t just use it – I investigated the damn thing. Does it work from behind a magazine? No. Behind the couch? No. From the dining room? No. From the hallway? Yes, if you reach out and poke the business end of the remote into the living room.

I went so far as to visit the bookmobile and look for books on electronics and the principles of remote control technology. The mechanism turned out to be remarkably simple: binary pulses of infrared light, alternating between short and long bursts, like Morse Code for your tv. The design was also simple, if not as fascinating - I recall from childhood that remotes came in two flavours: a square or a bar. The square sat on a coffee table and presented all its options in a neat grid. It seemed to fit with big fancy television sets, the kind that went with a certain level of respectability. The bar was designed to be picked up and pointed at the receiver. There was an element of casual imperiousness in the gesture, as if you had the power to command the invisible end of the spectrum to turn up the volume. You could also manipulate it with one hand, which left the other free to pick out the pretzel rods in the bowl of Bits 'n' Bites. So naturally the bar became the default design for the remote control.

Last month I bought a Playstation 3, which, in addition to allowing you to destroy your enemies on your television screen, also lets you listen to music, watch video files, chat with others (my PS3 network handle is 'Porkchawp', in case you're interested) and generally satisfies all your home entertainment needs. I picked up the Bluetooth remote, mostly because I figured Schmutzie didn't want to flip through playlists with a game controller. All changed, changed utterly: a terrible convenience was born.

The Bluetooth remote looks like a standard remote controller - a bar shape, a grid of buttons, a battery compartment. But it's nothing like the standard remote that needs to "see" a receiver. Instead, it will function anywhere within a certain range. In theory, this means that I can play Grand Theft Auto IV on the toilet, but in practice it means that I don't even need to pick up the device and point it at the machine to make it work. Until now I never knew how much effort was required in the operation of a remote control. All that lifting and pointing. All that unconscious arrangement of the body just to make it possible to click away from CSI Miami to The Hills during commercial breaks. This thing is the apotheosis of laziness.

I'm more curious about the design of the PS3 remote. If you don't need to pick it up or point the business end in the right direction, why does it have the distinctive bar shape? It could be shaped like a sphere, or a xylophone (and wouldn't that be awesome?). Better yet, Sony should have designed it as a little sculpture of a fat man on a couch with a bag of pork rinds upended over his face. At least then you'd know what you were getting into.

Oh yes, and while I was thinking and writing about remote controls, the world economy got half-nelsoned, and David Foster Wallace, in one of his signature bursts of prescience, killed himself. When the apocalypse comes I'll be on hand with a penetrating analysis of false mustaches.


savia said...

Did you ever see that Twitch City where they had the remote control showdown and were bouncing it off toasters and mirrors? I wonder what that character would have done with BlueTooth technology?

lotus07 said...

When I retire, I will go into the business of programming universal / learning remotes, so one remote does the functions of 5. I already have one of these and it took me about 5 months to learn all the tricks and turns. So I figure there has to be a profit in this.

palinode said...

savia - I have a half-memory of that episode. Twitch City was a great show that died too soon.

lotus07 - I can never manage universal remotes. So you would certainly make some money off me.