Sept. 10, 2009 -- TVs are starting to get connected to the Internet, opening up a world of new information about what you're watching or might want to watch.
Yet even some of the most advanced on-screen programming guides continue to cling to the familiar grid format that lays out television in a linear format by time.
To navigate this grid, the standard TV remote uses four buttons for channel up, channel down, previous half-hour, and next half-hour.
This way of thinking about television seems quaint to anyone who has used a digital video recorder such as TiVo, which often presents recorded TV shows regardless of when they aired. And it seems downright ineffective when one takes into account the burgeoning amount of video available online.
TVs and other video devices want to guzzle from this river of entertainment, but the four-way remote feeds us a tablespoon at a time.
Helping to overthrow the tyranny of the grid is Hillcrest Labs' Loop Pointer, which looks more like a miniature spaceship than the bland flat button-bedecked remotes that litter living rooms.
Loop Lets You Control PC From Across the Room
The glossy black Loop is gripped at its fat end like a door handle, leaving the thumb to rest on a small group of controls that include large "select" and "back" buttons surrounding small buttons for power and "hide" (which temporarily turns off the remote).
Between these buttons, Hillcrest Labs has nestled a scroll wheel similar to those on many computer mice and older BlackBerry phones. The Loop comes with a small wireless receiver that plugs into your PC's USB port.
Once it's activated, the Loop allows you to sit across the room from the PC and aim and click on objects on-screen in a manner, similar to the controller from Nintendo's popular Wii video game console, but you don't have to aim it directly at the screen.
The navigation method is not very useful for manipulating words and spreadsheet cells, but it works well for programs intended to provide a TV-like "lean back experience" on the computer.
Navigate Hulu, Zinc and More With the Loop
These include programs such as Hulu Desktop and Zinc (from zeevee.com) for the PC or Mac as well as Windows Media Center on the PC.
The $99 Loop is well-designed and comfortable, although I'd prefer to see the buttons located a bit lower on the device. Also, while the Loop is great for moving across the screen quickly, it can be tricky to aim at buttons on the screen if they're too small.
The Loop is the second PC control device to use Hillcrest's technology; Logitech offers the MX Air air mouse for $50 more than the Loop. For that price, you get a sturdier design that's smaller and sleeker with touch-sensitive controls and a built-in rechargeable battery instead of the Loop's AA batteries.
Hillcrest Labs encourages consumers to hook up PCs to their big-screen TVs to enjoy Internet video, but this is a rare setup, so the company hopes to get its "aim and click" controller method into more consumer electronics.
So far, it's been used in a $200 device that shows photos from Kodak on your TV. Hillcrest notes that that the Loop can also work with Sony's PlayStation 3 as well as with Apple TV devices that use a $50 add-on software product.
By integrating the best of PC user interface control into a mainstream television experience, though, the Loop can bring its technology full circle.