Turning the iPhone Into a Universal Remote, ThinkFlood Shows Off New Gadget

The great thing about the Apple iPhone is that it’s a powerful miniature computer, with a screen that can be retasked to look like almost anything and do almost any job—it can switch in a moment from being a scientific calculator to simulating an airplane cockpit ti acting like the slide of a trombone. One obvious way to employ such a versatile information device would be to turn it into a universal remote control for home appliances. There’s only one problem—the iPhone doesn’t have an infrared port, so it can’t communicate in the only language known to most home appliances, including TVs, DVRs, stereo systems, and cable boxes.

A Waltham, MA, startup called ThinkFlood has set out to correct that flaw. It’s built an accessory for the iPhone and iPod Touch called RedEye that translates one of the wireless languages these devices do know—Wi-Fi—into the infrared signals that make sense to an appliance. The name may be unfortunate, seeing as it calls to mind two unpleasant things at once—exhausting overnight jet flights and those beady devil-eyes that show up on people in flash photographs. But the idea itself is cool, and seems likely to appeal to gadget hounds like me who enjoy seeing how many different things they can do with their iPhones.

ThinkFlood launched the device as a “beta” product yesterday, meaning it’s available at a reduced introductory price ($119, going up to $149 later) to a limited number of customers. As the beta tag suggests, the software that drives it is still a work in progress.

ThinkFlood's RedEye, with iPhone charging in cradle position“Bringing universal remote control capabilities to the iPhone has been the goal of many in the industry since the device first became available,” ThinkFlood founder and president Matthew Eagar said in an announcement yesterday. “Beta participants will find that RedEye delivers the design and functionality of a high-end remote control at a fraction of the cost.”

Specifically, the RedEye device (and the iPhone software app that goes with it) let you do things like changing the channel on your TV or the volume on your stereo. It’s not an accessory in the usual sense of an attachment; while you can sit your iPhone in it like a cradle if you want, you can mainly just leave it on a table, as long as it has a line of sight to your appliances. It communicates with your iPhone by radio, which means you no longer need to near your audio/video equipment to relay commands—in fact, you can be in another room or on a different floor.

From watching a demo video at the ThinkFlood site, it appears that the RedEye software allows you to use flicking and multitouch gestures. So the device could make channel surfing as easy as flipping through albums using the iPod CoverFlow feature.

That “fraction of the cost” thing that Eager mentions depends on how you look at it, of course. An 8-gigabyte iPhone 3G costs $199, not counting a wireless calling plan, so if you add the cost of the phone to the cost of the RedEye, you get $318. That’s more than even the slickest universal remotes such as the Logitech Harmony 880, which retails for $249. On the other hand, ThinkFlood plans to upgrade the RedEye software regularly, meaning you’re really buying a device that will evolve into something more powerful over time. And hey—it doubles as a charging stand for your iPhone or iPod Touch.

ThinkFlood was founded in 2007 and RedEye is its first product. According to the company’s history page, the firm first set out to create an easier way to share and display digital photos, but switched gears after discovering that a standalone photo viewer would be too expensive to make and market. The company then settled on the idea of building iPhone accessories—specifically, accessories that would use hardware to amplify the power of the iPhone’s user interface. And that led to the idea of a combined hardware-software product that would turn the phenomenally popular Apple device into a substitute for the pile of remote controls laying on most people’s sofas.

With a bit of help, the ThinkFlood founders realized, the iPhone could become “the only [remote control] you will ever need, one that you will carry with you wherever you go, customized for each activity. And since the iPhone is missing the ability to record and send infrared signals, there was our opportunity to complete the picture with hardware.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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