Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Playing Remote Control Roulette

By Dennis D. McDonald

It happened to me again last night. I was working late with my laptop set up in the kitchen. I had the small flatscreen TV tuned to Soma FM via the kitchen Roku which connects to the wireless range extender upstairs. My wife called down from upstairs but I couldn’t hear her with music on. I reached for the remote and pressed the “volume down” button.

No dice. Without paying too much attention I had picked up the kitchen phone which is the general size and weight of the TV remote. Then I reached for the next remote. Again, no dice. I now had the old Roku box’s remote in my hand and it lacks any volume controls and I forgot about just hitting “pause” to stop the music. Finally I picked up the small cable TV remote and pressed the “volume down” button. Of course, nothing happened since it can’t control the extension speakers I use in place of the tinny built in speakers on the flatscreen TV.

Finally I walked over to the TV, reached behind, and found the volume button on the extension speakers.

This is not a big deal, of course; I  just had a case of absentmindedly not paying close attention to what “remote” I was picking up. In years past I had thought that unified remotes were the way to go and repeatedly had gone about “teaching” programmable remotes in the various rooms of the house to handle multiple devices. At the time it had seemed worth the effort as I could avoid calls at the office from family members begging me to tell them “… How do I turn on the damn TV in the living room?”

I don’t do that anymore and  the programmable remotes are gathering dust. Not only was it a hassle to “train” the remotes whenever we got something new but inevitably we’d switch equipment from room to room and have to change controls accordingly. These days we have piles of remotes in different rooms and we’re okay with that.

Given our family’s proliferation of smartphones and tablets and frequent use of laptops and desktops for media access the desire for “one remote to rule them all” seems to have faded. Part of my change of heart about remotes is psychological, I suppose. When I was younger having a single device to control multiple devices was just a higher priority than it is now. Maybe now I just don’t have the same desire for “control.”

Maybe the change in interest for a unified remote control also reflects that the TV and its surrounding peripherals are no longer a permanent or self contained “entertainment center.” In the living room, for example, there’s a flatscreen TV, a Blu-ray player, a surround sound system, and the digital cable box. Theoretically this can all be controlled through single remote. Depending on the time of day there’s also a laptop running Linux, an iPod with the speaker/charger base, an iPhone, an iPad, and a Kindle Fire. As often as not these devices are used for reading ebooks or for web access, not for audio or video. Many of the devices can be hooked into our surround sound system and the controls are diversified enough to make questionable the value of a similar remote. Once we get an Apple TV the issue of having a single remote might even become even more — excuse the expression — remote.

What I would really like to see is a single voice controlled interface to all the devices. Using Siri and voice controls with my iPhone is beginning to spoil me. Not only that, but I also regularly use the iPhone’s software to dictate and create text from voice input. I guess I would just like to walk into a room, tell my smart watch the name of a device — which may or may not be permanently there — and tell it to begin playing; the other devices connected to it will come along for the ride and not require separate adjustments.

Meanwhile, the remotes proliferate.

Copyright (c) 2013 by Dennis D. McDonald. Dennis is a Washington DC area consultant specializing in project management, digital strategy, and technology adoption. He has been involved with data collection, management, and analysis for almost three decades and has worked with survey and statistical data, demographics, text and image retrieval, database conversion and consolidation, customer support and call centers, controlled vocabularies and full text, financial data systems, industrial & manufacturing systems, and social media metrics. His clients have included General Electric, Ford, American International Group, Whirlpool, the US Department of Veterans Affairs, the US Environmental Protection Agency, Jive Software, the National Library of Medicine, the National Academy of Engineering, Social Media Today and Oracle, and the World Bank Group. Contact Dennis via email at or by phone at 703-402-7382. His website is here:

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