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Sanders Li’s paper plate held nothing but a crumpled napkin. His meal finished, he lingered. His unblinking eyes gazed at Sex and the City on a 15-inch color TV over the counter at Nizario’s Pizza on 18th Street in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood Sunday evening.
In the middle of a scene, the TV turned off.
For 10 seconds, Li kept looking, waiting, not blinking through his glasses. At last, he left his stool, trashed his plate and emerged into the cool autumn night.
Leaving, he passed 48-year-old Mitch Altman, who was twiddling a matte-black plastic fob on his key chain. Altman’s blue and purple hair reflected the pizza shop’s neon, and he was smiling excitedly.
“We just saved him several minutes of his life,” he said.
Li agreed. He said he didn’t care that the TV was gone, even though he had been watching the show.
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.
For Altman, founder of Silicon Valley data-storage maker 3ware, the TV-B-Gone is all about freeing people from the attention-sapping hold of omnipresent television programming. 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.
Since he left 3ware, he has spent most of his time finishing up TV-B-Gone. His equity from that firm provided the capital for the first run of 20,000 remotes.
“I was always squandering my time, energy and creativity on something that was at best benign,” he said, in the suddenly quiet aisle at Best Buy. “I was always trying to get people to do something good. Some people do something for the disabled or something. But that’s not really my thing, so I did this.”
The idea for TV-B-Gone was born at a restaurant in the early 1990s, when Altman and his friends kept paying attention to a TV in the corner, not to one another. They chatted about how to turn off all televisions, and he wondered if it would be possible to string together a series of “power” commands.
After that, the project would have disappeared, but Altman’s friends wanted the tools. He said about 50 people volunteered to help design, package and even name the TV-B-Gone. Cartoonist Nina Paley, he said, has begged for over a decade to work on the packaging.
The devices don’t always work. At a pizza restaurant, a giant Samsung HDTV turned off only after a couple of tries. After a kitchen worker turned it back on, TV-B-Gone had become impotent against the blaring football game. Altman said manufacturers periodically add new codes, though he said he had never seen the device work once and then lose its effect.
Altman said he prefers to ask people to turn off TVs. The problem is places where there’s a captive audience and no one is available to respond to requests, like the Laundromat or the airport. Altman said he has turned off sets at his local laundries and at airports around the Pacific Rim.
The European model, which uses different codes from the American-Asian one, was field-tested atEuroDisney, where anti-TV activist and computer programmer David Burke was waiting with his 6-year-old daughter to get on a ride called Honey I Shrunk the Kids. A wall of TVs in the waiting room showed a loop of constant Kodak ads. Burke had prototypes in his bag and made a bank of screens go off with one click.
“It fills you with naughty laughter to know you did this and other people have no idea what happened,” Burke said. People around him noticed that the screens had turned off, but no one raised a fuss.
Responding to the accusation that it sounded like unaccountable power, Burke said, “You’ve heard about the battle for eyeballs. They’re your eyeballs. You should not have your consciousness constantly invaded. Television people are getting better and better at finding ways of roping us into TV where we can’t get away.”
With the spread of TiVo and downloadable movies, he said, the traditional 30-second spot is dying. Now, advertisers want waiting rooms, elevators and urinals — and they don’t want anyone to be able to turn the screens off.
Representatives from Channel One and CNN’s airport and waiting room networks could not be reached for comment by press time.
Standing on the corner of 18th and Castro, watching people staring past their beers in bars, spacing out behind the wheel at red lights and ignoring one another on the bus, it was clear that it would take more than a gadget to snap people entirely back to reality.
“What I really want,” Altman said, “Is Life-B-Here.”
TV-B-Gone can lead to awkward interactions. At the hipster video rental shop Lost Weekend, a clerk was watching the Yankees play the Red Sox. She faced the screen, glancing away only momentarily to help a customer as she waited for the ads to end and the ninth inning to begin. When the screen turned off, she said, “You’d better turn that back on.” She said she’d like a universal remote that could change the channel at the gym, but didn’t understand why anyone would want to turn a set off entirely. “I love my TV,” she said.
Her co-worker, shelving DVDs in the corner, saw the key chain. A sly smile crept through his goatee. “You got any more of those?” he asked.
At Fenway Park, Derek Jeter warmed up to lead off the ninth. The TV-lover had an angry set in her jaw. And TV-B-Gone served its less-publicized purpose — it also turns on any TV.