An Odd Omission

Let’s start with a common use case…

"I have a television / hi-fi / home cinema system which has several components from different manufacturers. I would like to control all of them with a single remote control. I would like that remote control to be configurable, so that I can decide which functions are prioritised, and so that I can control multiple devices without having to switch "modes". (For example, the primary channel controls should change the TV channel, but at the same time and without changing modes the volume controls should change the amplifier volume.) As not all of my devices are controllable via Wi-Fi, Infrared is the required primary carrier/protocol. The ideal solution would be a remote control with a configurable touch screen, probably about 6" x 3" which would suit one-handed operation."

I can’t believe I’m the first person to articulate such a use case. In fact I know I’m not, for two reasons. When I set up the first iteration of my home cinema system in about 2004, I read a lot of magazines and they said similar things.

And then I managed to buy a dedicated device which actually did this job remarkably well. It was called a Sunwave Universal Remote, and had a programmable LCD touchscreen. It had the ability to choose which device functions appeared where, and to record commands from existing remotes or define macros (sequences of commands). This provided some, limited, "mixed device" capability, although the primary approach was modal (select the target device, and then use controls for that device). A set of batteries lasted about a year.

There were only two problems. First, as successive TVs became smarter than in 2004 it became an increasing challenge to find appropriate buttons for all the functions from within the fixed option list. Then, after 13 or so years of sterling service the LCD started to die. I still own the control, but it’s now effectively unusable.

My first approach was to try and get a direct replacement. However it’s clear that these devices haven’t been manufactured for years. The few similar items on eBay are either later poor copies, with very limited functionality, or high-end solutions based on old PDAs at ridiculous prices.

But hang on. "a configurable touch screen, probably about 6" x 3"". Didn’t I see such a device quite recently? I think someone was using one to make a phone call, or surf the internet, or check Facebook, or play Angry Birds, or some such. In fact we all use smartphones for much of our technology interaction, so why not this use case?

Achtung! Rabbit hole! Dive! Dive! :)

Why not, indeed? Actually I knew it was theoretically possible, because my old Samsung 10" tablet which was about to go on eBay had some software called "Peel Remote" installed as standard, and I’d played with controlling hotel TVs with it. I rescued it from the eBay pile and had an experiment. The first discovery was that while there’s a lot of "universal remote" software on Google Play, most is rubbish, either with very limited functionality, or crippled by stupid amounts of highly-invasive advertising. There are a few honourable exceptions, and after a couple of false starts I settled on AnyMote developed by Color Tiger. This has good "lookup" support to get you started, a nice editing function within the app, and decent ways to backup and share remote definitions between devices. A bit of fiddling got me set up with a screen which controlled our system much better than before, and it got us through all our Christmas watching.

However picking up a 10" tablet and turning it on every time you want to pause a video is a bit clumsy, so back to the idea of using a phone…

And here’s the problem. Most phones have no infrared support. While I haven’t done any sort of scientific analysis, I’d guess that 70-80% (by model) just don’t have what’s known as an "infrared blaster", the element which actually emits the infrared signals. Given that this is very simple technology, not much more than an infrared LED in the phone’s top edge, it’s an odd omission. We build devices stuffed with every sort of wireless and radio interface, but omit this common one used by much of our other technology.

Fortunately it’s not universal, and there are some viable options. A bit of googling suggested that the LG G2 does have an IR blaster, and I tracked down one for about £50 on eBay. It turns up, the software installs…, and it just doesn’t work. That’s when I find the next problem: several of the phone manufacturers who make both TVs and phones (LG and Sony are the most obvious offenders) lock down their IR capabilities, so they are not accessible to third party software. You can use your LG phone to control your LG TV, but that’s it, and f*** all use to me.

Back on Google and eBay. The HTC One M7 and M8 do have IR and do seem to support third-party software. The M8 is a bit bigger, probably better for my use case, and there’s one on eBay in nice condition for a good price. It turns up, the software installs…, and then refuses to run properly. It can’t access the IR blaster. Back on Google and confirm the next problem. Most phones which have been upgraded from Android 5 or earlier to Android 6 have a changed software interface to the infrared which doesn’t work for a lot of third-party software. Thanks a billon, Google. :-(

OK, last roll of the dice. The HTC One M7 still runs Android 5. I find a nice blue one, a bit more money than the M8 ironically, but still within budget. It turns up, the software installs…, and it works! I have to do a few minor adjustments on the settings copied from my tablet, but otherwise straightforward. I had to install some software to make the phone turn on automatically when it’s picked up, and I may still have to do a bit of fiddling to optimise battery life, but for now it’s looking good…

Third time lucky, but it really didn’t have to be that difficult. For reasons which are impossible to fathom, both Google and most phone manufacturers seem to somewhere between ignoring and actively obstructing this valid and common use case. Ironically, given their usual insularity, things are a bit easier in the Apple world, with good support for third party IR blasters which plug into an iPhone’s headphone socket, but that wouldn’t be a good solution given the rest of my tech portfolio. For now I have a solution, but I’m not impressed.

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