A TIME before remote controls seems positively prehistoric today - yet until the mid-Seventies, they were unheard of in Britain. Even then, the first ones were capable of doing nothing more than muting the volume and clicking between the three available channels.
Yet, the age of the zapper may already be drawing to a close. Google’s line of Chromecast streaming sticks for video and audio has jettisoned them in favour of an app on your phone or tablet, and Amazon’s latest piece of hardware goes another step better.
The Echo Dot is a loudspeaker that sits discreetly on a shelf and listens out for your voice commands from across the room, whereupon it leaps into action and, in theory, does whatever you ask.
It manages this by using voice recognition software. Since Apple invented its “virtual assistant” Siri, imaginary humans have been all the thing. Google and Microsoft both have them, and here, Amazon introduces us to someone called Alexa. You say, “Alexa, play the Karelia Suite by Sibelius”, and she will let go with Opus 11. That’s it: no buttons to press and no remote to lose beneath the sofa cushions.
It doesn’t even matter whether you own the music you’ve chosen, because the Echo Dot is hooked up to Spotify and Amazon Music, whose library includes pretty much everything.
It’s not just for music, either: the Dot connects to other smart devices you may have around your home - a central heating thermostat, remote light switch or security camera, for instance - and to web-enabled services provided by third parties. In this way, you can, without lifting a finger, order a pizza from Domino’s or a taxi from Uber. (This last option will require you to actually get up and open the door when it arrives.)
The Echo Dot is hardly any bigger than a drinks coaster, which means its inbuilt speaker is unlikely to provide the same high fidelity you’d expect from a proper amplifier. However, it can connect to bigger speakers using Bluetooth or a standard stereo cable, effectively adding voice control to your existing system.
It isn’t completely button-free: there are four on the top for volume, actions and muting the microphone. But in practice, once you’ve placed the device where you want it, you can leave it plugged into the mains and forget about it.
Amazon is banking on the fact that you will find the Echo Dot so useful that you’ll feel bereft when you move into a room without one. For this reason, it is selling them in whole-house packs as well as individually; buy five at £50 each and get one free. You can also buy one bundled with a smart thermostat for your boiler.
All the devices and services with which the Echo Dot communicates are linked by the hub that is your household broadband router - the same little box that undermines the future usefulness of the old-fashioned zapper. That’s because every device which connects to the internet - your smart TV, set-top box and many others - are capable of being controlled by a single app or voice-activated unit like the Amazon Dot. The era of device-specific zappers that radiate only line-of-sight infrared signals will soon be as arcane as those clickers from the Seventies.