Good Question: How Do Remote Controls Work?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – We learned on Tuesday that the inventor of the first wireless TV remote control had died. Eugene Polley’s first remote looked more like a ray gun, but it led to what we use today.

“No offense to Steve Jobs, I seriously think the remote control is more significant than the iPhone,” said Jack Haskovitz, who owns H & H TV and Electronics in St. Louis Park.

In 1955, Polley worked at Zenith in Chicago, and his Flash-Matic remote changed television.

“you would shine a flashlight into one corner for volume, one corner to mute power, one corner for channel,” Haskovitz said.

But the Flash-Matic wasn’t perfect: light from other sources confused the set. Soon after, another Zenith engineer invented a new remote control that used sound to control the television.

Haskovitz said that remote was called the Space Command, and it made a clicking noise –”hence the name ‘the clicker.’”

The Space Command used ultrasonic sound – which drove dogs crazy – and lasted until the 1970s, when cable TV created a need for a more complex remote.

So how do today’s remotes know what to control?

“Basically it works on lights,” Haskovitz said.

Unlike the Flash-Matic, these lights are infrared, you can see the lights flash by using your cell phone camera.

When you press a button a remote, the remote sends out a pulse of light that the TV set knows by frequency, Haskovitz said.

Different manufacturers use different frequencies and pulse lengths for different devices. That’s why universal remotes have pages and pages of codes, to reprogram the remote to match your device.

Each button, each function has a different light code.

Now the infrared remotes are starting to be replaced by Bluetooth devices, and in house wireless systems people are controlling their devices using iPhones and iPads.

Are we nearing the end of the remote?

“The remote is going in so many different directions, it’s amazing,” Haskovitz said. “but I don’t think it’s going away.”