This article originally appeared in TidBITS on 2000-01-31 at 12:00 p.m.
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Better than Flying by Wire

by Adam C. Engst

My family has always liked remote controls. Many years ago - long before every television came with a remote - my parents had a device they called a bleeper. It was a little electric switch that let them mute the television whenever an ad came on. It turned out to be irreplaceable when it finally broke, and my father's solution was somewhat twisted. He bought a choke cable (generally used for manually adjusting the fuel/air mixture for engines), then drilled a hole through the television's volume knob, inserted a nail into the knob, and attached the nail to the choke cable. When he was finished, you could push or pull the choke cable handle - conveniently attached the wall next to the couch - and the cable would lengthen or shorten, thus moving the nail and changing the television volume. It was weird, but it worked. We didn't need to move the TV often or change the volume from anywhere but the couch - and we couldn't exactly lose track of our homemade remote control.

Although remotes are now standard for televisions, for years we never thought of them in the computer world. After all, you only used a personal computer when you were in front of it, so there was little need for any sort of remote control device. Infrared mice have existed for some time, and long-time Macintosh writer Andy Ihnatko has described his Frankenstein-like approaches to making robotic toys into remote control devices. Nonetheless, I had no interest in remote control of a computer until we became addicted to playing our CD collection as MP3 files on the kitchen Mac. Suddenly, we had to pause or mute music when the phone rang, or lower the volume after sitting down to dinner.


Insert Keyspan, Turnkey Solution -- The ideal solution to our dilemma might be MacSpeech's ListenDo, which I've installed but haven't yet had time to configure to perform the kinds of tasks I want. And there's no telling if speech recognition will work well with several people talking and kitchen noises interfering with the clarity of speech directed at the computer.


But what is here and does work, right out of the box, is Keyspan's $79 Digital Media Remote, generally referred to as the DMR. The USB-based DMR has two parts, a receiver that plugs into the USB port and includes an indent for the second part, a half-inch-thick, credit-card sized remote. The remote has 15 buttons, 8 of which are labelled with icons indicating start, stop, skip forward or backward, and raise and lower the volume. Another four arrow buttons sit in a diamond layout with a Select button in the middle. The final two buttons are a Menu button and a button with an asterisk on it called the Cycle button.


From a hardware standpoint, the DMR operates flawlessly. Like all infrared remotes, it requires line of sight to work, although you can usually bounce the beam off an opposing wall as well. I tested it at the greatest distance easily possible at home (about 35 to 40 feet) and the receiver had no trouble picking up the signal. I could imagine trouble in a large lecture hall, but I suspect it will work in almost all situations.

Since I was testing the DMR on an iBook, I didn't want to leave the receiver plugged in all the time, but Keyspan's software had no problem with our plugging in or removing the receiver on the fly.

Pretend It's a Keyboard -- The software that comes with the Keyspan DMR is functional, but not impressive. Essentially, the DMR emulates a keyboard - anything you could type, you can map to one of the keys on the remote. By default, the DMR includes key mappings for a number of applications, plus a default mapping that's active whenever an unknown application is in front. Along with the Finder and Microsoft PowerPoint, the applications recognized by the DMR are primarily multimedia applications like QuickTime Player, SoundJam MP, and AppleCD Audio Player. You can define your own mappings for these and other applications, which is handy if you use a different MP3 player or presentation program.

In the initial release, Keyspan installed two items in your Control Panels folder, a Keyspan DMR Assistant that helped with status and diagnostics and a Keyspan DMR Manager that let you define key mappings. In the recently released 1.2 version of the software, available for free, Keyspan moved the Manager application to the Preferences folder and added a Configure button to the Assistant. Keyspan also changed the key mapping interface by relegating it to a separate dialog box, rather than keeping it all in the main Manager window.

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Unfortunately, these changes, although helpful, don't address basic interface issues with the software. For instance, the Assistant's main window status information, which merely tells you which driver and mapper are currently active, could be relegated to a status dialog box. Also, the Manager lists the available buttons on the remote that you can define by name, ignoring the fact that only two of the 15 have names on them. The others are labeled solely with icons, so it's difficult to make the connection between the name "Cycle" and the button with an asterisk on it. A graphical representation of the remote for mapping keys to the buttons would make the software easier to use. And finally, there's a question of why the software is split into two utilities at all when, from a user standpoint, they could easily be bundled into a single control panel.

Go West, About 35 Feet -- What I see as the hidden utility of the DMR is its possible combination with macro programs like OneClick, QuicKeys, or KeyQuencer. For instance, although you could press the Cycle button repeatedly to bring SoundJam to the front (by default, Cycle switches between applications by emulating Command-Tab), then press the Menu button (which the Keyspan software maps to Command-M or Mute by default), wouldn't it be more elegant to create a macro that switched to SoundJam and typed Command-M with a single command? And although you're limited to 15 buttons on the remote, that's 15 commands per application. So you could easily attach a macro that switches to the Finder to one of the buttons, then define 15 macros that could be activated from the buttons when in the Finder. The sky is the limit once you make that connection with a macro program - point the remote at your Mac from across the room and press a button and the Mac could tell you the time, tell you your next appointment (perhaps with help from AppleScript), or launch a specific set of applications. Nearly anything you want to do but don't need to do while sitting in front of the computer becomes feasible.

Even if the software for the Keyspan DMR isn't perfect, it's hard to complain too much, since the device works fine and you're unlikely to define your own mappings all that often. If you can imagine a need for an infrared remote control device that can control any application on your Mac (or in Windows - it works with USB-equipped PCs running Windows 98 as well), you won't go wrong with Keyspan's Digital Media Remote.