Remote control as an input device for PC

19 05 2008

I am currently working on a project that potentially brings a particular PC-based app/game into the living room. (Apple is doing similar thing with the Front Row + Apple Remote). I find the idea of switching the input device from keyboard&mouse to a simple remote control – with 4 arrow buttons, 1 “select” button, and 1 “back” button – fascinating, because of how much it is affecting the UI design of the app/game.

[+] 10-foot experience vs. 2-foot experience

When users are holding the remote control, more often than not, they are standing/sitting 10 feet away from the monitor; while with keyboard&mouse, users are sitting 2 feet away from the monitor. At 10 feet distance, users are not able to read what they can read from only 2 feet away. So every visual element designed for remote control on the screen needs to be a lot bigger and simpler than which is designed for keyboard&mouse. Here is a typical screen I found online of the main menu for a DVD. All it is asking the user to read is a total of 5 items with less than 5 words per item, which are big and clear from 10-feet away. Well-done. But here is a bad example where in the left column and the right column, the user is asked to read too much information which is written in tiny types against background graphics with too many detail. Bad UI design. (I personally played the game on my Wii yesterday and my eyes started to water after 5 minutes of playing. )

[+] linear experience vs. non-linear experience

There are normally more than a couple of scenarios to browse through a website, which is typically designed for mouse. The current home page of Amazon site has at least 60 different hyperlinks. Users scan through all 60 before they can make a decision which one to click on. However, the number of scenarios to watch a DVD, which is designed for a remote control, is probably very few. The interface decides what options users have in a menu, based on what s/he has selected previously. A website normally provide consistent navigation items on the page as a short cut for the users to go anywhere easily at any given time during the experience. However after a user selects one item in a DVD menu, the menu is gone. S/he has to go back in order to choose another item.

When the user is navigating with directional buttons, there can only be one highlighted item on the screen at any given time. The user is going through one task after another. The user cannot be multi-tasking. Their options are very limited.

[+] Something about the beauty of the Apple Remote

An Apple Remote has 6 buttons on it, which makes it stand out from other typical remote controls with at least 2 dozens of hard-to-remember-which-is-which buttons. One reason is it looks cool and clean but the major benefits are as below:
[A]. Ease of use for a user. A user doesn’t have to dig in a field of 30+ different buttons every time s/he needs to complete a particular task. S/he knows exactly where all the 6 buttons are and what they do after a pretty flat learning curve, without having to look down at the remote control every time.
[B]. Compatibility thus ease of development for developers. The Apple Remote works for iPod, AppleTV, iTunes, QuickTime and many other applications, because of its simplicity in product design. The intelligence, which used to be added into the hardware, the remote controls with 30+ buttons, now lives in the software. It is much easier to modify software than hardware.
[C]. Portability. Because it has less buttons, the Apple Remote is small, light-weight, and, less intimidating to the users who are less tech-savvy. (My 90-year-old grandpa has an iPod shuffle, believe it or not.)

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