The TV-B-Gone is all about freeing people from the attention-sapping hold of omnipresent television programming.

Altman’s key-chain fob was a TV-B-Gone, a new universal remote that turns off almost any television. The device, which looks like an automobile remote, has just one button. When activated, it spends over a minute flashing out 209 different codes to turn off televisions, the most popular brands first.



The device is also providing hours of entertainment for its inventor.



At a Laundromat and cafe down the street, a lone man sorted clothes in the glow of larger-than-life bikini babes on a 60-inch Sony HDTV. A punch of the button and the screen instantly went dark. He went on folding his T-shirts, seemingly unaware of the change.



“It’s always like that,” Altman said. “It’s so much part of the environment in the U.S. that people don’t even notice when it disappears.”



It is different in Hong Kong, Altman said. There, when he clicked off store TVs, everyone looked around to see who did it.



At Best Buy, neither customers nor staff responded as one set after another turned off — Sony TVs first, then a JVC and an Apex, all from a single click. The interview was easier without competition from Pirates of the Caribbean.



Improved conversation was the motivation behind TV-B-Gone, and it’s why Altman calls it the most helpful tool he’s worked on. He said it compares well to the Apple video game he wrote in 1977 (which became a military training module), virtual-reality systems he helped build at VPL in 1986 (used for military research despite his and the company’s explicit pacifist policies), and the hard-drive controllers he patented after starting up 3ware.



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