Retrotechtacular: How Old is the Remote?

A few weeks ago we covered a (probably) bogus post about controlling a TV with the IR from a flame. That got us thinking about what the real origin of the remote control was. We knew a story about the 38 kHz frequency commonly used to modulate the IR. We’ve heard that it was from sonar crystals used in earlier sonic versions of remotes. Was that true? Or just an urban myth? We set out to find out.

Surprise! Remotes are Old!

If you are a younger reader, you might assume TVs have always had remotes. But for many of us, remotes seem like a new invention. If you grew up in the middle part of the last century it is a good bet you were your dad’s idea of a remote control: “Get up and turn the channel!” Turns out remotes have been around for a long time, though. They just weren’t common for a long time.

If you really want to stretch back, [Oliver Lodge] used a radio to move a beam of light in 1894. In 1896, [Marconi] and some others made a bell ring by remote control. [Tesla] famously showed a radio-controlled boat in 1898. But none of these were really remote controls like we think of for a television.

mysteryOf course, TV wouldn’t be around for a while, but by the 1930’s many radio manufacturers had wired remotes for radios. People didn’t like the wires, so Philco introduced the Mystery Control in 1939. This used digital pulse coding and a radio transmitter. That’s a fancy way of saying it had a dial like an old telephone. As far as we can tell, this was the first wireless remote for a piece of consumer equipment.

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The Smartest Smart Watch is the One You Make Yourself

If you’re building a smart watch these days (yawn!), you’ve got to have some special sauce to impress the jaded Hackaday community. [Dominic]’s NeoPixel SmartWatch delivers, with his own take on what’s important to have on your wrist, and just as importantly, what isn’t.

There’s no fancy screen. Instead, the watch gets by with a ring of NeoPixels for all its notification needs. But notification is what it does right. It tells [Dominic] when he’s got an incoming call of course, but also has different flashing color modes for SMS, Snapchat, and e-mail. Oh yeah, and it tells time and even has a flashlight mode. Great functionality for a minimalistic display.

But that’s not all! It’s also got a light sensor that works from the UV all the way down to IR. At the moment, it’s being used to automatically adjust the LED brightness and to display current UV levels. (We imagine turning this into a sunburn alarm mode.) Also planned is a TV-B-Gone style IR transmitter.

The hardware is the tough part of this build, and [Dominic] ended up using a custom PCB to help in cramming so many off-the-shelf modules into a tiny space. Making it look good is icing on the cake.

Thanks [Marcello] for the tip!

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Putting Pi In Infrared Doohickies

The Raspberry Pi Zero W is a tiny, cheap Linux computer with WiFi. It’s perfect for Internet of Things things such as controlling ceiling fans, window blinds, LED strips, and judgmental toasters. This leads to an obvious question: how do you attach your ceiling fan and LED strips to a Pi Zero? A lot of these things already have infrared remotes, so why not build an infrared hat for the Pi? That’s what [Leon] did, and it’s Open Hardware with documentation.

[Leon]’s Anavi Infrared Pi Hat does exactly what you think it should do. There’s an IR receiver, two IR LEDs, and UART pins for debugging. That’s all you need to control infrared doohickies over the Internet, and [Leon] wrapped it up in a nice neat package that’s the same size as a Raspberry Pi Zero. Add on some documentation and you have something we rarely see: a project meant to be used by other people.

This focus on allowing people to actually use what [Leon] created can lead to only one cynical conclusion: he’s probably selling these things somewhere. The cynic is never surprised. [Leon] has a crowdfunding campaign going, that’s over 400% funded with a month to go. That’s okay, though: all the design files are available so if you want to build your own without supporting people who build useful devices, have at it.

Own the Night with this Open Source Night Vision Monocular

If you’ve always wanted to see in the dark but haven’t been able to score those perfect Soviet-era military surplus night vision goggles, you may be in luck. Now there’s an open-source night vision monocular that you can build to keep tabs on the nighttime goings-on in your yard.

Where this project stands out is not so much the electronics — it’s really just a simple CCD camera module with the IR pass filter removed, an LCD screen to display the image, and a big fat IR LED to throw some light around. [MattGyver92] seemed to put most of his effort into designing a great case for the monocular, at the price of 25 hours of 3D printer time. The main body of the case is nicely contoured, the eyepiece has a comfortable eyecup printed in NinjaFlex, and the camera is mounted on a ball-and-socket gimbal to allow fine off-axis angle adjustments. That comes in handy to eliminate parallax errors while using the monocular for nighttime walks with both eyes open. One quibble: the faux mil-surp look is achieved with a green filter over the TFT LCD panel. We wonder if somehow eliminating the red and blue channels from the camera might not have been slightly more elegant.

Overall, though, we like the way this project came out, and we also like the way [MattGyver92] bucked the Fusion 360 trend and used SketchUp to design the case. But if walking around at night with a monocular at your face isn’t appealing, you can always try biohacking yourself to achieve night vision.

ESP8266 BASIC Sets Up a Web Remote in No Time

One of the sticking points for us with our own Internet of Things is, ironically, the Internet part. We build hardware happily, but when it comes time to code up web frontends to drive it all, the thrill is gone and the project is only half-done.

Including some simple web-based scripting functionality along with the microcontroller basics is one of the cleverest tricks up ESP8266 BASIC’s sleeves. BASIC author [mmiscool] puts it to good use in this short demo: a complete learning IR remote control that’s driven through a web interface, written in just a few lines of BASIC.

Note that everything happens inside the ESP8266 here, from hosting the web page to interpreting and then blinking back out the IR LED codes to control the remote. This is a sophisticated “hello world”, the bare minimum to get you started. The interface could look slicker and the IR remote could increase its range with more current to the LED, but that would involve adding a transistor and some resistors, doubling the parts count.

For something like $10 in parts, though, this is a fun introduction to the ESP and BASIC. Other examples are simpler, but we think that this project has an awesome/effort ratio that’s hard to beat.

Shmoocon 2017: Software Defined Radio for Terahertz Frequencies

Before Bluetooth, before the Internet of Things, and before network-connected everything, infrared was king. In the 90s, personal organizers, keyboards, Furbys, and critical infrastructure was built on infrared. Some of these devices are still around, hiding in plain sight. This means there’s a lot of opportunities for some very fun exploits. This was the focus of [Mike Ossmann] and [Dominic Spill]’s talk at this year’s Shmoocon, Exploring The Infrared World. What’s the hook? Using software-defined radio with terahertz frequencies.

[Dominic]’s infrared detector
Infrared communication hasn’t improved since the days of IrDA ports on laptops, and this means the hardware required to talk to these devices is exceptionally simple. The only thing you need is an IR phototransistor and a 4.7k resistor. This is enough to read signals, but overkill is the name of the game here leading to the development of the Gladiolus GreatFET neighbor. This add-on board for the GreatFET is effectively a software defined IR transceiver capable of playing with IrDA, 20 to 60 kHz IR remote control systems, and other less wholesome applications.

Demos are a necessity, but the world seems to have passed over IR in the last decade. That doesn’t mean there still aren’t interesting targets. A week before Shmoocon, [Mike Ossmann] put out the call on Twitter for a traffic light and the associated hardware. Yes, police cars and ambulances use infrared signaling to turn traffic lights green. You shouldn’t. You can, but you shouldn’t.

What was the takeaway from this talk? IR still exists, apparently. Yes, you can use it to send documents directly from your PalmPilot to a laser printer without any wires whatsoever. One of the more interesting applications for IR is an in-car wireless headphone unit that sends something almost, but not quite, like pulse coded audio over infrared. The demo that drew the most applause was an infrared device that changed traffic lights to green. The information to do that is freely available on the web, but you seriously don’t want to attempt that in the wild.

Light Dimmer Shows How to Steal Power from AC Line

We see a lot of traffic on the tips line with projects that cover old ground but do so in an instructive way, giving us insight into the basics of electronics. Sure, commercial versions of this IR-controlled light dimmer have been available for decades. But seeing how one works might just help you design your Next Big Thing.

Like many electronic controls, the previous version of this hack required a connection to a neutral in addition to the hot. This version of the circuit relies on passing a small current through the light bulb the dimmer controls to avoid that extra connection. This design limits application to resistive loads like incandescent bulbs. But it’s still a cool circuit, and [Muris] goes into great detail explaining how it works.

We think the neatest bit is the power supply that actually shorts itself out to turn on the load. A PIC controls a triac connected across the supply by monitoring power line zero-crossing. The PIC controls dimming by delaying the time the triac fires, which trims the peaks off of the AC waveform. The PIC is powered by a large capacitor while the triac is conducting, preventing it from resetting until the circuit can start stealing power again. Pretty clever stuff, and a nice PCB design to boot.

Given the pace of technological and cultural change, it might be that [Muris]’ dimmer is already largely obsolete since it won’t work with CFLs or LEDs. But we can see other applications for non-switched mode transformerless power supplies. And then again, we reported on [Muris]’s original dimmer back in 2009, so the basic design has staying power.