Electronics for old people

As our population ages, here’s one feature that consumer electronics makers really have to start thinking about: lock-down modes for old people.

I need a way to set up my Mom’s TV, cable box and DVD player in such a way that she can’t possibly screw it up.

Walking her through troubleshooting exercises over the phone is getting more and more frustrating.  When it comes to electronics, she has the mind of a three-year old.  She doesn’t understand anything.  Even with her glasses, her eyesight is bad, so she can’t even read the buttons on the remotes.

I think the thing that really confuses her are modes.  TV’s used to have just two modes: on and off.

There are so many modes now.  The TV has four different inputs… the right one must be selected, or I get a phone call.  Her cable-box remote is also a universal remote, and can control other devices.  It has buttons to select which device to control.  If the wrong device is selected, I get a phone call.

I should record and transcribe one of these calls someday.  They usually have bits like this:

Me: Ok… Press channel up on the cable-box remote.  There’s a row of lights on the top of the remote, and one of them should flash when you press channel up.  Can you tell me which light is flashing?

Mom: I don’t see any lights on the top.  Wait… there is a light flashing at the bottom.

She’s holding it backwards.  Fuck me.  What button did she press?

Mom: Now the screen is all black on the top half, and yellow, green and blue on the bottom half.

God, please take me now.  Make the pain stop.

The thing that really terrifies me, though: In another 30 years, will my son be getting frustrating calls from his insufferably slow-witted and senile dad, having trouble with his synth-food taste-o-mat again?

The manufacturers need to start designing electronics with the all the complicated controls locked-down, and hidden away.  She needs a single remote, with big fat buttons, and no more than 7 of them: watch TV, play DVD, channel up/down, volume up/down, and off.

The following buttons are hereby banned from old-people remotes:

  • input
  • menu
  • setup
  • tv/video
  • subtitles
  • buttons to select one particular device to control (TV, Cable, VCR, DVD)

On-screen program guide: banned.  It’s another mode, and it confuses her.

A partial solution: the Harmony remote

In theory, I could get much of what I wish for using something like a Harmony remote, with its activity-based programming, which I love.  But those remotes have to track so much state, and sometimes they get out-of-sync.  Sometimes an infrared message is lost because the remote was pointing the wrong direction.  Sometimes one of the devices gets manipulated using its own remote or front panel, instead of the Harmony remote.

I have a Harmony remote at my place.  When my Mom visits my place and tries to use it, it’s always getting messed up.  The cable box is off, when the Harmony thinks it’s on.  And I get a phone call… I mean, I get called to the living room.

One simple thing the manufacturers could do to make the Harmony thing work out better is just to make sure all infrared command codes are idempotent.  That’s a math term that means if you do something twice, it has the same effect as if you did it once.  In practical terms, it means there have to be separate IR codes for Off and On.  That way if the Harmony remote wants the cable-box on, it can just send the On code.  It doesn’t matter whether the box was on or off before, it will still be on after.  A non-idempotent version would be a single On/Off command that toggles the state.  That’s no good.  The Harmony very easily gets out of sync when an On/Off toggle command is the only thing it has to work with.

Similarly with other commands like Input select.  Having a single command that cycles circularly through the inputs is no good.  You need a separate command for each input, you can’t go wrong.  That’s the idea of idempotence.

My Sony TV at home has both idempotent and non-idempotent IR commands.  The non-idempotent ones are used by the remote that came with TV, so it has fewer buttons (power on/off, instead of separate on and off buttons).  But it also has idempotent On and Off commands, and separate Video 1, Video 2, etc, commands.  These commands aren’t on the Sony remote, but the TV understands them.  The Harmony uses them.  It works out great.  I never have a problem with the Harmony getting out-of-sync with the TV.

But my Scientific Atlanta cable box has many non-idempotent commands.  So does my iPod dock.   They’re always getting out of sync with the Harmony.  It’s so annoying that I actually changed the Harmony programming so it never shuts off the cable box at all.  I just leave it on all the time.  I even set it so that it turns itself on automatically after a power-failure.

If the manufacturers could just commit to supporting idempotent IR commands in all devices, we’d be much farther ahead.  Then the activity-based programmable remote would be a very practical solution to the old-people electronics quagmire.  We’d just need Harmony to build us  a version with just 7 or 8 big-ass buttons.

3 Responses to “Electronics for old people”


  • My sympathies. I don’t get TV entertainment centre type calls (my Dad keeps things low tech – which works for me in cases like this) but I do get computer calls. Fortunately O/S manufacturers are getting better at not letting the user do anything useful. :/ That’s great until you need to fix something that’s already broken.

    The upside is likely that, in the future, you’ll likely be able to connect into your TV/PVR/taste-o-mat remotely. So you could pull up the https connection that is your Mom’s TV, etc. and manually switch things to a good setting… and probably even view what she’s viewing via a web applet. That’ll be nice… but obviously we’re not there yet. Hopefully soon, though.

  • I still get entertainment system support calls from my wife. I’ve also stopped using my Harmony remote because of the exact reason you mentioned. One possible solution is use RF vs. IR for all remotes. Do they make any IR-to-IF dongles that you can attached to the IR eye on components?

  • Thanks for sharing this ‘rant’.

    I was laughing so hard – I was crying! Had to stop reading twice for fear of peeing my pants… or hyperventilating!

    Believe it or not, you’ll miss those calls some day. (:

    The walk down memory lane was enjoyable…

    The ‘electronically challenged old person’ in my life was my grandmother. Whenever she had problems with her TV/cable box/DVD player/VCR setup, she would call my uncle that lived in Florida. We lived in Ohio.

    I remember thinking:
    What is Uncle Rod in Florida gonna do to fix your problem???
    — He lives over a thousand miles away…
    — He’s never seen or touched your setup before…
    — He’s usually at work when you are having problems…
    — You are legally blind and can’t answer most of the questions he’s bound to ask while troubleshooting or follow most of his directions to try to solve the problem… (due to blindness, she didn’t really watch TV – she mostly ‘listened’ to the shows)
    — You never ask for help until you have already tried to ‘fix it’ by yourself… (translation: You never ask for help until you have already ‘screwed it up beyond understanding’ by yourself…)
    — You always wait to call for help until you are completely frustrated, in tears, and your favorite show is about to start… (While sobbing, “If I don’t get to watch {listen to} Larry King, my night will be plain awful!”)
    — ETC…

    Dear old Uncle Rodney’s solution was to call me and ask that I make a quick trip to grandma’s house for ‘technical assistance’. I would drop everything, make a quick 15 minute drive across town to grandma’s house, fix the problem, re-hide all of the ‘other’ remotes, walk her through the what to do if this happens again scenerio, ask her to just call me next time, etc.

    She would thank me, promise to call me directly the next time she had a TV problem, and then tune me out as she watched her blessed TV show…

    Later in the week she’d tell EVERYONE how wonderful her SON was for ‘fixing’ her TV… Did she forget who showed up and actually ‘fixed’ it? (The granddaughter fixed it – Where are my kudos!?)

    She never did call me directly… the call always came from my ‘dispatcher’ in Florida! 🙂
    R.I.P. Nana and Uncle Rod

    (We need a seven button remote for our babysitter to use too! I’ve gotten plenty of frustrating calls from her with our toddler sobbing in the background because they can’t get their DVD to play.)

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