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The remote control of the 21st century

What would you rather do, navigate through the on-demand and TV listings offered up by your cable provider with a standard remote, or snap out your four front teeth with a pair of Vise-Grips?

Hillcrest Labs has come up with FreeSpace, a way to visually search music, movie and photo menus. The company's technology consists of two parts: a four-button remote shaped like a ring that lets you move a cursor around by pointing, and software that turns reams of TV listings into thumbnail menus. The company sells software, but makes the prototypes to encourage potential customers.

So instead of linearly scrolling through seven pages of offerings on Comcast to get to "The Terminal" on channel 555, you point the remote at the "Movies" icon and then click on the thumbnail of the movie poster showing Tom Hanks in an overcoat.

The idea is to provide more information at once, but in a natural, intuitive manner. It is pretty easy to use.

"As soon as we come out of the womb, we point, and after that we see quite a bit," said CEO Daniel Simpkins. "We search with peripheral vision. You can see thumbnails of 125 movies at once."

Simpkins (who years earlier founded a VoIP company called Salix) added that cable, TV and music companies won't have to adapt their current menus to Hillcrest's technology themselves. "We ingest the metadata and convert the XML data into visual data," he said. Nonetheless, Hillcrest does need their permission to hook into the data. It also needs to convince consumer electronics companies to build remotes and make sure the remotes work with their TVs and PCs.

So far, finding partners has been tough. The company was founded in 2001 and has attracted funding from New Enterprise Associates, among others. (NEA partner and Nobel Prize winner Arno Penzias is Hillcrest's technical advisor.) Hillcrest as yet doesn't have a major deal.