Forty years after Zenith introduced "The Space Commander" - the first practical television remote - we have become the push-button society, the zap-happy nation, channel-surfin' USA.
We click open garage doors, deactivate car alarms, and fire up videocassette recorders with the press of a button. The Electronic Industries Association reports that there are more TV remotes than there are Americans. In the future, thanks to computer technology, consumers can expect even more.
Already in the houses of the superrich, home-automation systems control lighting, security, music, even window shades. The technology costs a lot because it's not standardized. (Zenith's Space Commander didn't sell well either because it was expensive at the time.) But as the technology matures, home-automation installers expect demand to surge among middle Americans.
Remote control is already commonplace in computing. With off-the-shelf software, a user at one computer can control another machine thousands of miles away. With user-friendly operating systems and ever-faster modems, remote-control computers can do more things more quickly, says Anthony Amundson, president of Avalan Technology Inc. in Holliston, Mass.
For example, a leading dental software company incorporates Amundson's Remotely Possible software into its product. That way, if a dentist has a problem with his machine, the technical-support desk can dial into it and check out the problem remotely. (Wouldn't it be great if all software companies did this?) Other customers have used Remotely Possible to monitor oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and operate a telescope in Alaska. You don't even need special software to search the stars by remote control. Access to the Internet is enough.
For example, the University of Iowa in Iowa City has an automated telescope that the public can control for up to 40 minutes a night. Internet users submit observing requests, and operators relay as many as possible to the telescope, which captures images that can later be downloaded to the user's computer. The telescope's Internet address is http://inferno.physics.uiowa.edu
For something a little more fun in Internet remote control, you might want to move around the Mechanical Maze (http://vive.cs.berkeley.edu/capek), pick up objects with Australia's Telerobot (http://telerobot.mech.uwa.edu.au), or direct a train set at Germany's University of Ulm (http://rr-vs.informatik.uni-ulm.de/RR/RR.html).
Auto manufacturers are also using computer technology to move beyond key fobs that remotely lock and unlock car doors. Buick already offers remote control of the seat, outside mirrors, climate control, and radio. Press the button on the key fob and all these things are automatically adjusted to your liking. When other drivers use their fob, the settings are changed.
Three years from now, the same button that unlocks the door could also tint the windows to a driver's liking, says Mike Doble, concept-vehicle and technology manager for Buick. The suspension and transmission could also be set for a soft, smooth ride or stiff, hot-rod performance. Ten to 12 years away, cars could become sophisticated enough to park themselves, he says.
Arriving at the office, the driver would click a few buttons and the car would direct itself to a designated parking space, lock its doors, and turn itself off.
Of course, cars will have to become much more advanced to detect trouble - an object in the car's path or an unattended child in the back seat. But to a nation weaned on the legacy of "The Space Commander," the future is, must be, only a click or two away.
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