In the first part of this series of posts, I described the Apple infrared (IR) Remote system and some software which allows you to use the IR signals for controlling apps on the Mac.
In this post I take a closer look at the Remote controller itself, and describe the way I modified mine.
I must say that I’m not familiar with the silver aluminium remote, although I have no reason to believe it’s substantially different on the inside from the original white remote. This is the one I have experience of.
What’s good about the white remote is also what’s bad about it – it’s very tiny. This is great if you just want to tuck it away somewhere and not have a bulky TV/DVD player-type remote to lug about, but not so good from the point of view of it easily being overlooked or mislaid.
So, one reason you might want to modify the remote is to make it larger and more suitable for the human hand.
Frankly, the most cunning solution to his problem is the one described here by Brad Moon. I hope he won’t mind me using his picture:
Yes, what Brad has done is simply to glue his Apple remote to a hand-sized piece of wood. Job done! As he says in his blog post: ‘Too big to lose, too big to slip behind a cushion or slip into a pocket . . . The Apple TV remote hack has been in place for roughly a month. In that time, the remote has been lost exactly zero times.’
This certainly takes care of the problem of the unit itself being rather small, but to address the problem of the size of the buttons themselves and their awkward layout, the unit has to be taken apart. At the time of writing, you can still get hold of these white remotes on eBay for about £3, so if you want to try this, there’s no need to sacrifice the one that came with your Mac.
This is how it’s done:
The picture above shows the unit and the tool (or maybe one of the two tools) you need to open the remote unit. This is a small Philips or crosshead screwdriver.
As well as being used in a moment for taking out screws, the first thing you can do with it is poke the small depression on the right-hand side of the base of the remote unit. This releases the battery tray, which pops out on a spring:
Next, you have to undo a screw which is right down inside, next to the release button:
Undo the screw and take it out:
The next bit is the most difficult. On the opposite side – the lower side in these pictures – is the spring which pushes the battery compartment out. The spring is firmly attached to the bottom of a small piece of plastic, and you have somehow to grab this piece of plastic and pull it out, with the spring on the bottom of it.
The next picture shows what the spring and the plastic piece look like. You might reach in and grab it with tweezers or narrow long-nosed pliers, but it’s right up against the edge of the case, and hard to get hold of:
If you look at the full-size version of the picture, you can see that the piece of plastic has tags on it, so I was able to poke the screwdriver under a tag and drag the plastic and spring out.
Underneath where the spring was is another small screw. Unscrew this and take it out:
You can then pull the battery compartment out. I did this with a pair of narrow pliers, gripping the white release button, which you can see in this photograph.
Then you can push out the remaining parts left inside the case. I did that by inserting the screwdriver here:
The circuit board, with the springy battery connectors behind, slid out very easily:
You can carefully detach the end piece from the circuit board, clicking it off the tabs which hold it in place over the end of the board and the IR LED:
This an exploded view of the remote, with all the parts visible:
Putting it back together, of course, is the reverse of this procedure. The trickiest part is undoubtedly getting the spring and its plastic top back in. This video by Andrew Williams, to which I’m greatly indebted: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vuP6CH770NM shows a remote being put back together, and explains the direction in which the tabs must face – front and back – for the plastic piece to go back in the correct position.
I wasn’t interested in putting it back together again, so I looked more closely at the circuit board:
You can see in the top part of the picture the infra-red LED and the 6 buttons. You can also see 4 screws which attach the circuit board the the plastic fitting.
The first thing to do was take off the six silver ‘domes’ which make the contacts when the buttons are pressed, and see what connections they made. These are often, in my experience, attached together to a transparent sticky sheet which peels off, and so it was in this case.
As you can see from this photograph – taken after I’d removed the four small screws holding the PCB to the plastic fitting – each button makes a contact between an outer ring and a centre spot. All the outer rings were connected together, to what looked like +V, while the six centre spots were separate. What I wanted to do was transplant the board into a larger unit, so I needed to solder seven wires to the board, and connect them to buttons in the new unit.
The larger unit I’d chosen was this one:
This is a vtech Tiny Touch Phone: it’s powered by two AA batteries – 3v, same as the Apple Remote; has 12 buttons – exactly twice as many as the Remote, which could be handy for dissociating short, long or double presses; and has flashing lights – which is always good. It also makes sounds, and under normal circumstances I would be looking to ‘bend’ these, but in this instance making noises wasn’t what the project was all about, so I decided I’d remove the sounds completely by taking out the speaker.
The Phone also has a hollow plastic ‘antenna’, which was perfectly placed for installing the IR LED.
This is what it looked like inside. In this picture the large mechanical unit, which looks like the film sprockets in an old 35mm film camera is obscuring the speaker housing. With the speaker removed there looked as though there’d be plenty of room for the small Apple Remote PCB there. The wires for the LED could easily pass from there up into the antenna.
The general idea would be to rewire the button connections on the Apple Remote PCB to the Tiny Touch Phone buttons. The Phone buttons (visible in the first picture above) are, however, hollow, and make connections with a membrane, rather like QWERTY keyboard, via their edges .
I wanted to leave the membrane intact, to operate the flashing lights, so I decided to add small tactile switches with longish 3.5mm actuators which would be glued in the hollows with the actuators sticking out through a hole in the top of the Tiny Touch buttons. It was these switches which would actually operate the IR remote.
Gluing these in without gluing them together so they wouldn’t function proved difficult. Letting superglue anywhere near them – even the gel type which I usually use – could prove fatal, as it has a habit of running everywhere. In the end I used epoxy, which is stickier and less runny, and tiny pieces of tissue paper soaked in epoxy to keep the switches in place. The moon and star buttons aren’t hollow, so I stuck tactile switches with short 1mm actuators to the top of them, on the outside, with wires running in through a small hole.
In the end I only connected up the star: it would have been difficult to make the hole in exactly the right place in the moon and route the wires inside without disturbing the membrane too much. The star operates the ‘Menu’ button, which is less important than the others and doesn’t require more buttons to distinguish types of presses.
In the event, all but one of the tactile switches worked after this treatment, which was OK, as there were two new buttons for each button on the original remote, so all functions would still be available.
To modify the new unit, I first removed the speaker and replaced it with a resistor (two 22Ω resistors in parallel, actually, as I had these lying about. I didn’t have any 8Ω resistors to match the speaker, but 11Ω, I reasoned, was close enough).
This created enough space in the top of the unit for the small Apple remote PCB.
I reinstalled the buttons in their places and connected the tactile switches together. One side of each switch was connected to +3v, the other sides of the switches were connected together in pairs (except the moon, as explained above). This made 7 extra wires running down to the bottom of the unit. The presence of the wires might have an effect on the operation of the TouchPhone’s original buttons, but this wasn’t important as their only function now was to light up LEDs when the remote was operated, a feature which Apple neglected to provide in the original.
As can be seen in the above picture, there was just about enough room for a 9-way D socket in the base of the unit. I put this in partly because it would allow for external operation of the 6 remote buttons – perhaps by means of a footswitch – and partly because it provided a handy link point between the tactile switches and the Apple remote PCB.
To attach the remote PCB, wires were connected to the centres of the 6 switch points, and one of the outer rings, which were all connected together on the board. 3v and 0v power cables were connected to the springy metal pieces which formerly connected to the coin-battery in the original remote housing. These connectors were shortened in order to fit the PCB neatly in the space where the speaker had been.
At the same time I detached the infrared LED and put it on the end of a longer lead, so it would reach to the front of the unit when in operation.
At this point everything was connected up, although not back in place, so I made a quick check, using iChat and the laptop camera in the way described before. I pressed all the buttons in turn, pointed the unit at the camera, and watched for the infrared LED to come on.
When I was satisfied that it did so, I replaced the membrane and the TouchPhone PCB, as this would make pressing and testing the buttons a great deal easier.
For the next step I needed a way of thoroughly testing if the remote worked as intended. I did this by creating a Tester program, using iRedLite.
It takes quite a few steps to create a ‘Layer’ – a set of instructions for each remote button – in iRedLite, but this is how I created a ‘Remote Tester’.
The ‘Menu’ button has special functions in iRedLite, but the other 5 buttons respond to short presses, long presses and double presses, so 15 separate instructions would be required. What I decided to do was use Text Edit, and simply have it print the numbers 1 – 15, according to which remote button was activated.
Step 1 was to open iRedLite. You can set it up in various ways in the preferences, but I have it set so it just opens an icon in the menu bar:
The first step is to select the Editor from the drop-down menu:
This brings up the Editor screen. The top half of the window is a copy of what iRedLite calls the OnScreen Display (OSD). The bottom half allows you to edit Layers and Buttons, and select the actions the buttons perform. I began by creating a new Layer for my Text Edit actions:
Then I entered the details of this Layer:
I typed a name for my Layer into the ‘Title’ box, and then made choices about what would happen when the Layer was selected. I chose not to have the Layer activated when I switched to Text Edit, in case I wanted to type some text while using iRedLite with another application; but I did choose to have Text Edit activated when I switched to this Layer, because the actions all required text to be typed in it. I have several remotes, so to be certain which remote was being tested, I set it to respond only to a particular one: in this case, the one with the ID No. 214.
Having finished creating the Layer, I clicked on the small arrow in the bottom right-hand corner of the Editor window. I believe they call this the ‘Expert’ button, but it’s simply for accessing the section where actions are created and organised.
Clicking this button opens the right-hand side of the Editor. In here, if you look in the ‘Application’ column and can’t find the application you intend to use the remote with, click the ‘+’ button at the bottom of the column to add it to the list:
Type the application name in the box which appears. The program will be recognised if its name is written the same as it would appear if you moved your mouse over it in the Dock. Text Edit is actually written ‘TextEdit’, so that’s what I typed in the box:
Next you have to create a ‘Group’ – not for any special reason, I don’t think: it just works that way. If you create a lot of actions for one particular application, this allows you to put different types of actions together, i.e. Keystrokes in one Group, AppleScripts in another, and so on.
I just wanted keystrokes, so I created a group called ‘Keys’. Group names are your personal choice. Once again, I clicked the ‘+’ sign under the ‘Groups’ column, and typed ‘Keys’ in the box which appeared.
Then it was time to create some actions. Each action is entered individually, so I had to click on the ‘+’ sign at the bottom of the ‘Actions’ column 15 times, name the actions in the boxes which appeared, and specify what was to be done.
They were all more or less the same, and this is an example:
Click the ‘+’ sign; name the action – again, this is entirely your choice: I just called them ‘1’ to ’15’; type the name of the application, or choose it if it appears in the drop-down list; check the box if you need the application to come to the front – which I did, because I wanted to read what it had printed; and type in what keystroke or keystrokes should be made.
Allocating the actions to the buttons is just a matter of dragging and dropping the action onto the appropriate button, and clicking ‘Assign Action’:
The button will be given the name of the action – in this case ‘1’, which is the name I had given to the first action, which was to print the number 1.
You can rename the button, and I did, calling it ‘1/2’. This is the reason why:
iRedLite shows the pattern of buttons in the way that it does to indicate that the button nearest the centre performs the short press action (which they call ‘Action on click’), while the button on the outside performs the double press action. In reality, of course, these actions are performed by pressing exactly the same button on the remote, but it makes it clearer to see which number of presses produces which action.
So the ‘short press’ and the ‘double press’ are specified, but the ‘long press’ action (which they call ‘Action when holding’) remains to be allocated.
I decided to add the long press action to the instructions for the inner buttons, so in the example below I selected the appropriate inner button (Action 4, the ‘+’ button on the remote) and the ‘Advanced’ tab. This allowed me to drag and drop the action I wanted to be performed as the long press action, printing the number ‘5’.
I added a long press action to buttons 1 (the ‘Left’ button on the remote), 4 (the ‘+’ button), 7 (‘Right’), 10 (‘-‘) and 13 (the centre button) and renamed the buttons in iRedLite accordingly (‘1/2’, with ‘3’ being the double press action for that button on the remote; ‘4/5’, with ‘6’ as the double press, and so on).
When I’d finished, the set-up looked like this:
Note the button in the top right-hand corner, marked ’15’. There are 12 more places in the grey area of the button window where you can drag and drop actions, 6 on the left and 6 on the right. If you drag and drop an action somewhere in the grey space, a new button will be created there. This might come in handy if you had a modified control with differently positioned buttons. In this case, I used one of the spare places for the double press action associated with the centre button.
Removing buttons, should this be necessary, is one of the functions on the drop-down menu where I chose ‘New Layer’ at the beginning.
I opened Text Edit and pressed all the buttons in order, single press first, then long press, then double press, hoping to see the numbers 1 to 15 displayed. This what I saw:
The numbers were all printed out in order, so the combinations of short press, long press and double press all worked as predicted – but the long presses produced a continuous stream of outputs, even though I tried to take my finger off the button as quickly as possible. The exception was the Centre button, which produced a single output of the number ’14’, no matter how long I held the button down.
This behaviour might not be what you require if, instead of printing numbers, you want a single specific action to be performed. You might find the action repeated many times unless you’re able to take other steps to avoid this.
However, for testing purposes, this was fine, and I had established that the remote should, with iRedLite, be able to distinguish between 15 separate actions, despite only having 6 buttons.
The final stage of the project was to try out the new Tiny Touch Apple IR Remote to see if it would function correctly, using the iRedLite TextEdit Tester.
I quickly opened Joystick and Gamepad Tester to check the ID number of the new remote, which was 211. I then opened iRedLite, went to the correct Layer for my Tester, and changed the remote number to which it would respond from 214 – the remote I had originally use to create the Layer – to 211.
The TouchPhone has a Power switch, but in fact the IR Remote worked even when it was in the ‘off’ position; in the ‘on’ position it worked with added lights. As before, I pressed each button in turn with a short press, a long press and a double press, checking to see that the correct numbers were printed in Text Edit.
They were, so now it was safe to put the unit back together. I glued the IR LED into the ‘antenna’:
fixed the 9-way socket in place:
and wrote the ID number on the back. Now I had the world’s most colourful Apple IR remote! It could have been the world’s noisiest, had I not removed the speaker, but I felt this would be gilding the lily – and would probably have been a distraction, given that I had conceived of the remote as being part of a sound-modifying system, not a sound-producing system.
I was a little upset as, just as I was putting it back together, I broke the plastic link behind the ‘telephone’ button that mechanically ‘winds the film’ and changes the picture on the screen. However, this only deprived me of more ways of turning LEDs on, and didn’t in any way affect the IR controls, so ultimately I was satisfied with my achievement. I didn’t want to spend more time on it at this stage as I wanted to move onto the next part of the IR project.
[Edit: I’ve since managed to get hold of another Tiny Touch Phone and replace the broken film winder, although I haven’t yet had time to change the tactile switch that got glued together].
For this, see Part 3: Additions.