RIP: The Remote Control

Chris Morris, |Special to CNBC.com

The life span of the the couch potato's magic wand may be drawing to a close.

Xbox 360's Project Natal sensor.

For years, the remote control has been a beloved friend, letting a person make a variety of entertainment programming changes without getting up from his seat.

But more devices has meant more remotes and the inevitable clutter. Multi-function remotes can eliminate that but are overly-complicated.

The manufacturers of 3D gesture-recognition devices, which will be on display at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, are hoping to change that.

Microsoft alreadyappears to be on its way. It'sProject Natal for the Xbox 360, which debuted to wide praise at E3 last summer, lets players control video games with movements and words.

And gesture recognition companies hope that the gaming-industry buzz generated by Natal will extend into the wider consumer electronics world.

“The momentum they have created around [Natal] has created a lot of momentum in this industry,” says Michel Tombroff, CEO of Softkinetic, a 3D-gesture recognition middleware provider that recently struck a partnership with Texas Instruments . “They have validated you can use 3D cameras to build consumer products. … This has applicability in many areas and people don’t yet understand how far it can go.”

Microsoft has made it clear that its ambitions aren’t restricted to gaming. At the Streaming Media West trade show in November 2009, Marc Whitten, the general manager responsible for the Xbox Live service, said he could envision a future where Natal would recognize users by voice – and know the content they’re interested in.

“I believe that this will be the largest leap of TV experience since the remote control,” he said.

U.K. communications company Orange is hoping to beat Microsoft to the punch. The company plans to unveil a new set top box at CES during the Intel keynote that will combine TV technology with a 3D interface and other media applications.

Designed solely for the European market, the device will reportedly use a 3D camera to allow people to both control their TV and physically participate in interactive content, such as casual games.

Cyberlink, meanwhile, plans to begin using gesture interaction as a way for people to interact with their digital media applications. (Think flipping through digital photos as you would a physical photo album or controlling digital home movies with a flick of the wrist.)

Not all of the alternative controls on display at CES will require you to wave your arms in the air. Zyxio, a media interaction company, will demonstrate its new breath-enabled technology at the show as well.

Dubbed SensaWaft, the company says the technology allows people to control devices including digital media players, video game controllers, computers and mobile phones simply by breathing on them. (Zyxio, it’s worth noting, has not integrated SensaWaft into any products yet, but it will showcase potential uses at CES.)

Of course, gesture recognition isn’t something that’s going to become the standard interface—for TV or anything else—in the immediate future.

The last two years have been about getting the technology honed and whipping up excitement among early adopters. The first products, with the possible exception of Microsoft’s Project Natal and Sony’s motion controller for the PlayStation 3, won’t hit the market until late 2010.

In three to five years, though, they’ll be more widespread—perhaps integrated into televisions and laptops. And the ubiquitous nature of the devices could help them begin to grow an audience.

“As good and as big as the video game market is, it’s still only a few tens of millions of units,” says Softkinetic’s Tombroff. “That’s exciting, but if you are starting to talk about things like appliances or TVs or set top boxes, then you are talking about a much bigger market – and that is very exciting.”