Rethinking the Remote Control

Rolling Control, by Mathieu Rohrer of ECAL, takes inspiration from a traditional perpetual calendar. Three of its disks control television channels by defining the hundreds, tens, and single-digit numbers; the smallest disc in the foreground is used to control the volume.
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Anne Laure Weill of ENSCI-Les Ateliers designed Tactilus with a silicone surface covered in flexible points that invite touch. An internal system controls their angle of inclination, causing their endpoints reassemble into knobs for specific functions.
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Joseph Pipal of the RCA designed the Sonic Remote – among the exhibit's more whimsical entries – to control electronic devices with sound. For the less musically inclined, the flute also hides more traditional controls.
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ENSCI-Les Ateliers' Florent Julien designed Platform with a small control platform that slides onto a base; its position identifies the digital device to operate. The simple graphics and tactile qualities make it intuitive to operate.
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Circule, by ENSCI-Les Ateliers' Arthur Siau, endows a single joystick with the ability to control all the electronic devices in a single room. Five miniature screens display information inside the black disk surrounding the joystick.
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Keiko, by Marisela Riveros, Noa Dolberg, and Frederico Andrade of Parsons, takes its name from the famous orca. The upper surface of the curvaceous device holds a touch pad.
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Christophe Guberan of ECAL created La Télécommande with a hollow well that fits comfortably in the hand. Its four touch-sensitive interior plates are easily navigated by one’s thumb.
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For speedier entry of numbers, ECAL's Lucien Gumy based Boulier on the abacus. Magnetic beads display numbers with the tens column on the left and single digits in the middle; volume is on the right.

In Lazy Bytes, an exhibit opening tomorrow at Parsons in New York, four of the world’s top design schools take a fresh look at the home’s most overlooked device.

As digital devices continue to invade our homes, offering ever-higher levels of sophistication, the television remote control has not kept pace. It fails to meet the needs of a large portion of users, from the elderly to those who are simply unenthusiastic about learning the dozens of functions on yet another device.

In Lausanne, Switzerland, EPFL+ECAL Lab, a unit of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, partnered with ECAL University of art and design to conceive Lazy Bytes – a challenge, conference and exhibition exploring one small facet of our complex relationship with technology.

The initiative’s name takes inspiration from Lazy Bones, the first commercially available remote, released in 1951. Besides merely functional considerations, the program sought to address our relationship with the remote on all levels, including ergonomics, interface accessibility, and even our emotional responses.”Why would a chair, a vase, or a plate become an object loaded with value, emotion, and cultural history, while the remote control, situated at the heart of domestic activity in the living room, is generally devoid of meaning?” asked EPFL+ECAL Lab director Nicholas Henchoz.

The nearly 100 participants came from four schools: ECAL, ENSCI-Les Ateliers in Paris, the Royal College of Art in London and the Design and Technology Department at Parsons The New School for Design in New York. Working in teams, they were allowed to choose the level of complexity, including those for channel and volume changes only, as well as models that integrate a range of functions across multiple devices.

The 63 resulting projects run the gamut from the hyper-minimal – nearly featureless stark-white objects controlled by touch-sensitive surfaces – to systems that completely subvert the typical ways we input information. Eschewing the usual array of buttons, they incorporate an assortment of typologies, including notepads (that rely on the user’s handwriting for input), joysticks and even other household objects. Speaking to the remote’s textural qualities, the teams incorporated such materials as marble, rubbery silicone and wood.

While the teams are applying for intellectual property patents for all the prototypes, the 28 most compelling ones are part of the touring exhibition. Following a run at London Design Festival in September, the show can be seen at Parsons in New York from October 24 to 31. In November, it will be at Swissnex in San Francisco, and in February at Le Lieu du Design en Île-de-France.

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