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Smartphone as a universal remote

Smartphone as a universal remote
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First Published: Tue, Mar 24 2009. 11 41 PM IST

Updated: Tue, Mar 24 2009. 11 41 PM IST
While the universal remote has served humanity with distinction, its days are numbered, and your smartphone is to blame. In the beginning, a universal remote had to control two or three things (typically, a television, cable box and VCR or DVD player). And for a handful of devices, a remote with all the buttons in one place worked just fine.
Over time, the universal remote expanded its jurisdiction as there were new devices to control: audio receivers, streaming-video boxes, digital video recorders and other home entertainment components.
The universal remote did only what it could: It grew more buttons. But that was a stopgap at best. With so many devices to manage—and so many buttons to use—universal remotes started to become ridiculously complex.
There was a solution, of course: touch screens. Devices using these interactive displays can change their layouts depending on the remote being mimicked. Several manufacturers put touch screens into their high-end remotes. But touch-screen remotes were—and are—expensive. A traditional universal remote costs $20 (around Rs1010) or so. Touch-screen models often cost in the hundreds. Some engineers got thinking: With a growing number of touch screens in the world in the form of smartphones, and with more and more entertainment devices being Internet-enabled—including smartphones— the latter wouldn’t even need infrared transmitters; they could control equipment using Wi-Fi.
Hence, we now have a bounty of applications and accessories that let us use the technology we already have to control the technology we already have.
This is not only frugal, but upgradeable and flexible. Whether you want to control your music, television or PowerPoint presentation, it’s possible to find a solution in your phone.
Music and video
Plenty of people use iTunes. And many of them use their computers to play music over their home stereo speakers. Knowing this, Apple makes a slim remote to work with most of its PCs. However, this remote has no screen and can perform only a few basic functions.
But a free iPhone application called Remote uses Wi-Fi to control the computer as if you were sitting in front of an iTunes window. You can browse and sort through entire music and video libraries, select playlists and adjust volume.
IPhone users who are also fans of Sonos, the multi-room audio system that works with all kinds of music files—not just Apple-approved—can download a free application called Sonos Controller for the iPhone. It works over Wi-Fi and mimics the hardware-based controllers Sonos makes. A similar free program, VersaZones Mobile (Versagroup.net), lets users control Sonos devices on a Windows Mobile handset.
There are other options as well. Melloware’s Intelliphone remote (Melloware.com) works with an iPhone to control Windows Media Center PCs. You can move the cursor on the PC’s display by using the iPhone’s touch screen, and a Qwerty keyboard obviates the need for a separate wireless keyboard. Intelliphone is one part of a two-application suite. The other component, Intelliremote, is loaded on to the Media Center PC and costs $24. After that, Intelliphone is free.
Users of all but the earliest BlackBerry models can also stream music from their phones to any sound system connected to the company’s Remote Stereo Gateway, which sells for $90. The matchbook-size device plugs into a stereo and receives streaming audio via Bluetooth from a paired BlackBerry. This isn’t really a remote control because the music is being streamed from the BlackBerry’s memory card. But the overall effect is the same, and BlackBerry remote programs for music are thin (for now).
Television
Controlling your television is a bit harder than controlling your digital music library. Most TVs aren’t part of a home’s wireless network, and therefore they rely on infrared signals. The Unify4Life AVShadow (Unify4life.com) is a $99 kit that works with BlackBerrys to mimic infrared remote controls on most TVs and set-top boxes.
The Shadow is both phone software as well as a piece of hardware that converts a BlackBerry’s Bluetooth transmission into an infrared signal your TV can understand. The company also makes the Garage Shadow, a device that operates garage doors via a BlackBerry. IPhone-toting TiVo lovers can control their Series 3 or high-definition (HD) DVRs with Derek Stutsman’s DVR Remote (www.stutsmansoft.com), a $3 application that mimics the well-known TiVo remote, complete with thumbs up and thumbs down buttons. It works over Wi-Fi.
For the more adventurous, a group of engineering students at the University of Toronto, US, have created an infrared transmitter for iPhones and iPod Touches. UiRemote (Uiremote.wordpress.com) has created a working prototype and will release a commercial version this year.
Presentations
PowerPoint presentations and the like are a bit easier to control using a remote because, presumably, they are being viewed through a laptop. The benefits are considerable. No longer tethered to your laptop, you can move around the room while still holding in your hand an image of what’s on the screen behind you. No more of that weird over-the-shoulder karaoke move while checking to see where you are in the presentation.
Senstic (www.senstic.com) makes a $9.99 PowerPoint remote application for the iPhone called i-Clickr. The application connects to PowerPoint on a PC and displays the current slide and control buttons on the iPhone’s screen. For users of Apple’s KeyNote software, there is the 99-cent Keynote Remote. It shows a large, easy-to-read representation of your current slide along with any notes added in the presentation file running on a Mac.
A hardware solution for Windows Mobile and BlackBerrys is the Impatica Showmate (www.impatica. com/showmate). This small device connects to any VGA-compatible projector and receives PowerPoint slides over Bluetooth. Users can then control the playback of the slide deck from the handset. It costs $250 for the hardware and software bundle.
This is probably the beginning of the end of the stand-alone universal remote. Since Apple opened its App Store, all the other big players in mobile technology have either begun or announced application stores. And opening software development to the public only means more of these applications are likely to be created.
1. Derek Stutsman’s DVR Remote for an iPhone uses Wi-Fi.
2. IPhone software called i-Clickr connects to PowerPoint on a PC and displays the current slide and control buttons.
3. A group called UiRemote has created an infrared transmitter for iPhones and iPod Touches. It will be released later this year.
4. Melloware’s free Intelliphone remote works with an iPhone to control Windows Media Center PCs, with a $24 program for the PC itself.
©2009/ THE NEW YORK TIMES
Write to us at businessoflife@livemint.com
CONNECT
SAVE
Flash drives are particularly susceptible to loss. LaCie’s iamaKey USB flash drive (Lacie.com) offers a convenient solution. The iamaKey is shaped so you can hook it on to your key ring with your house and car keys. It comes in 4 GB ($18) and 8 GB ($28) models and is compatible with both Macs and PCs. It is water- and scratch-resistant, durable and has decent transfer rates of up to 30 megabytes a second in read mode and up to 10 megabytes a second in write mode. You just have to make sure you don’t lose your keys.©2009/ THE NEW YORK TIMES
WORK
It’s a conundrum but the better the laptop, the more the heat it generates. The catch is that more heat can make your computer unstable. Logitech’s Cooling Pad N100 ($30) is a curvaceous gizmo that uses the computer’s USB power to activate a fan that draws air from the rear and circulates it around the bottom. Microsoft too has introduced the Notebook Cooling Base ($30). Its base lifts the notebook off a flat surface for more bottom exposure and angles it for easier typing. There’s also a USB plug to power the fan at the base.©2009/ THE NEW YORK TIMES
KNOW
The chances of your computer being hacked go up if it constantly stays connected. It’s very much like fishing—the longer the bait is in the water, the more chance there is of catching a fish. That said, there are ways to make things reasonably safe. If your computer stays on all day, make sure that the Windows firewall is active (to check, type “firewall” into the Windows Help search box. You’ll also get instructions on turning on the firewall). Using a router offers additional protection. Is all this foolproof? No, but it should be sufficient. ©2009/ THE NEW YORK TIMES
SHOOT
A $1.99 app called Cam3D lets you create 3-D photos using your iPhone. Getting good results, though, isn’t easy. Stereoscopic photos work by taking two photos, one from the perspective of each eye. This was earlier done by joining two identical cameras at the base, setting the lenses eye’s width apart. Cam3D takes two photos, moving the camera 2-3 inches between shots. It is harder to keep angles and consistently aim that way. It also means no action shots. Cam3D then processes the images, adding red and blue shadows that give the picture dimension when you view it through a pair of 3-D red and blue anaglyph glasses. ©2009/ THE NEW YORK TIMES
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First Published: Tue, Mar 24 2009. 11 41 PM IST