It was about 30 years ago. Our father, whose legs were always killing him, sat in his favorite chair, held the Space Commander in his hand, pointed it at the new Zenith TV, and smiled: Zap, the channel changed and our lives would never be the same again.
In the years since, that early wireless remote control has become the key player in a power struggle that most American households experience every day.
Observation No. 1: Whoever controls the remote control, controls the family's viewing destinies, wielding enormous power over everyone else in the home environment as he or she flips around the dial (and what a dial it is today with cable television). Psychologists claim the person who controls the remote control controls the family. It rivals the checkbook in the fight for dominance between husband and wife. And in the parents' absence, the children battle for control.
Observation No. 2: For anyone except the one holding the remote control, the constant changing of the channels is deadly torture, the TV set constantly spewing out video and audio fragments of a dozen shows infuriating even the most benign viewer.
Observation No. 3: Is there a middle-class American household that doesn't boast at least three remotes lying around the room? There's one for the TV set, another for the cable stations, one for the VCR, and one for the CD (and laser video disc in some families), and lately, one for that new audio-video receiver.
Observation No. 4: While that Zenith Space Commander was simple to use, the new generation of wireless remotes looks as complex as the controls of a jetliner. Fisher has a 120-button controller to run its Videotech system. Sony has a full-sized liquid crystal display touch-sensitive screen to handle all of its remotes (you touch the VCR pad and only those controls that operate that component appear on the LCD). RCA's Dimensia control looks like something out of "Star Trek."
How does a remote control work? Simply put, when you press the button or keypad, a small integrated circuit turns on a penlight of infrared radiation. The piece of equipment receives the message and executes the command.
The best way out of this remote morass is to buy any one company's integrated audio-video system (ranging in price from $3,000 to $8,000). Each remote control takes care of every component in that system. But it's expensive starting from scratch. Most manufacturers of high-end audio-video equipment now offer some universal remote control features on their remote control units. Yamaha, for example, has a special section on its DSP-A700 digital sound processor unit to program other manufacturers' devices. After being properly programmed, it makes for a nifty audio-video control center.
Another solution is to buy a "smart" universal remote-one that can learn and remember the codes from any of those wireless remotes lying on the sofa. General Electric was one of the first to produce such a product. Its original Control Center memorized the commands from other remotes and reproduced them. The first model was difficult to operate, but the second model, the "RC500, was less expensive (about $100) and easier to use. It handled the functions of three remotes.
Radio Shack has come up with the Realistic 8-in-1 Universal Remote (Model 15-1903, under $100) that replaces up to eight separate hand-held remote controls by learning the commands of the other remotes. This Universal Remote Control (affectionately called URC by its creators) can store up to 38 sequences of up to 14 commands each; so fairly complex operations can be handled by this one remote controller. There are other helpful features: 10 built-in weekly timers that can activate components at preset times so you can turn on the cable box, select channels, and turn on the VCR to begin recording while you're away from home. The unit is battery-operated, easy to use and convenient.
Harmon Kardon's "The Mastermind) (under $120) contains preprogrammed remote codes for everything from televisions to digital audiotape recorders made by a variety of manufacturers. All you have to do is punch in a three-digit code to use the remote with a particular component. The model has a computer port allowing the remote to be updated to operate audio and video products not included in its memory. The 49-button Philips LCD/Learn Uniremote also can handle any VCR, TV, cable converter box or audio component in the house.
Practically every audio-video component manufacturer is including a universal remote control feature in its own remote units. Some of them can be purchased separately.
Mitsubishi's remote control is a typical example. It operates all of its Home Theater System components, but also can be programmed to control other manufacturers' devices. An LCD keeps you posted on control status, and a pushbutton edge light illuminates what specific unit is being used. It's included with Mitsubishi audio-video receivers, but you can buy it as a separate component.
If you are hearing-impaired, there is the National Captioning Institute's Closed-Caption Decoder (Model TeleCaption 4000, under $180) that adds subtitles of narration and dialogue. A wireless remote is included.
In the very near future, you'll be buying the best and easiest kind of remote control - just your voice will activate and run any video and audio component in your house. Matsushita demonstrated its Voice Interactive Programming VCR in Japan in which a voice-synthesizer-equipped remote asks questions about the desired channel, date and time for recording. The remote converts your answers into specific programming instructions.