We should all hit the pause button for a second for Eugene Polley, a tech innovator often called the czar of zapping, father of the couch potato and first beach boy of channel surfing.
Polley, who died of natural causes on Sunday at age 96, was best known as the inventor of the first wireless remote control for television, during his long stint working for Zenith Radio Corporation (now called Zenith Electronics and a subsidary of LG Electronics).
His brainstorm was a space age styled zap gun that sent light signals to four photo cells placed in the corners of the TV screen. "A flash of magic light across the room (no wires, no cords) turns the set on, off or changes channels . . . and you remain in your easy chair," touted an advertisement for the device, a feature of Zenith sets from 1956 forward priced at $149.95 and up.
Oh, and there was another feature built-in, on orders from Commander Eugene F. McDonald Jr., the founder/president of Zenith. McDonald believed TV viewers would not tolerate commercials and tried to promote the concept of commercial-free television (this decades before ad-free PBS became a force and subscription channels like HBO were born)
So in the interim, the Zenith CEO had Polley build a mute function into the Flash-Matic, touted separately and in red ink in the ads with the declaration "You can also shut off long, annoying commercials while pictures remain on screen!"
Then and Now: Tech followers have to be chuckling about that tout. The latest and most controversial new thing in television is the automatic commercial skip feature (think a cloud-based remote control) built into DISH Network's new multi-room Hopper DVR system. This ad zapper (formally called Auto Hop) also eliminates, with surgical precision, all local cutaways ("We've got weather, at 11!") and works with the last 8 nights of prime time network programming (on ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC) which are automatically recorded and stored on the Hopper. According to several reports, the networks are now looking for legal means to squash the feature, though previous efforts to ban remote control operations like fast-forwarding and 30 second spot skipping were ultimately rejected by the courts.
Moving the Bar: Polley's original remote control was not long lived, even at Zenith. There had to be signal interference issues with the light-based technology, because the next big thing in remote control, also from Zenith, was Dr. Robert Adler's Space Command, which touted "ultrasonic technology." In practice, a user was pushing down on buttons which activated hidden tuning forks (the mechanical task took some effort). The metal tongs then "boinged" (resonated) at specific frequencies, sending high pitched cues to the TV set.
How far we've come!: Today's wireless remote controls use a variety of technologies - from the now old-reliable infrared light to various radio frequency signaling methods, including Bluetooth and Wi-Fi wireless networking (how your smart phone or tablet becomes a remote.) Then there's the next wave of motion, voice and face recognition remote control tech, using sonar and image capturing cameras, as found in current generation game systems and the latest high-end TV sets. A lot of these "breakthroughs" are a joke. But, no surprise, Zenith's parent LG offers "Magic Motion," one of the most practical of wireless-mouse style remotes, to wave at and activate its newest line of Smart TVs.