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

6/3/09Follow @wroush

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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  • PixelOz

    Check the following related post I did at Mac Rumors a while ago:

    A Super Universal Remote With a Smart Phone
    By: PixelOz – Angel David Guzmán

    This text is an explanation of why it could be a good idea to add high power infrared capability to smart phones such as the IPhone. I’ve seen some people asking in some forums why would smart phones need such a functionality and this is my answer:

    The IPhone as a remote control a good idea? of course it is. Have anybody seen the Philips Pronto universal remote? http://www.pronto.philips.com/ If you take a good look at a remote control like that you will see that it’s really a great idea and I’ll explain shortly why but the problem with the Philips Pronto is that it is very expensive and frankly I don’t see why a remote control with similar capabilities cannot be produced for far less money. Now why would you want a remote control with all those features? If you have a single remote that replaces all those remotes in your living room or home theater or anywhere else and let me start by emphasizing the ALL THOSE part of that statement, it’s easier to handle a single universal remote like that one and YES for some people that can be quite a large amount of remotes that you have to switch about and that alone becomes tiresome sometimes and a regular universal remote it’s no substitute for a Pronto because a remote like that can emulate the layout of your specific remote control and with that comes all the functions of your original remote and that is something that very few universal remotes can do. Have you seen how universal remotes only emulate through their limited buttons some of the functions of the original remotes that they are trying to replace? That’s one of the problems they have, that they emulate most of the basics functions like volume, channels etc. but the specific functions of your particular device remote control are left out and if you want to access one of those you have to go and pick your original remote and by the way now you are left with many remote controls again that you may not have close to you because they are on a shelf and doesn’t that sometimes look kinda untidy? and that’s when they are organized and well placed, leave alone how many times I have had to rearrange them because the rest of my family members are not as tidy as I am and put them all over the place and even sometimes in another room making you go crazy trying to figure out were the heck is your particular remote, and if you put them all close to you in the sofa or in the seat were you are have you noticed how messy and uncomfortable they are sometimes when they are 4 or 5? So if you move your position on the sofa you have to move them too sometimes, or if you decide to lay down on the sofa you have to put them on the floor or somewhere else and you have to do that with all 4 or 5 of them, and another problem with regular universal remotes is that their layout is different from the layout of the original remote and also labeled differently (except of course for the regular keys like volume, etc.) and high resolution color screen based remotes like the Pronto can emulate the original remote layout graphically so you don’t have to figure out which button is the equivalent in function to the one in your original remote, now the Philips Pronto is more than an universal remote, it’s also a programmable remote and there is a difference between an universal remote and a programmable one and there is even a difference between a programmable remote and a programmable remote with a programmable and skinnable layout such as the Pronto, yes there is, do you see? Do you see why a universal remote like the Philips Pronto is so good? Why it’s so much better than a simple universal remote? You see there are universal remotes and there are universal remotes, because one like this replaces all those other remotes and it can emulate all their functions and even their layout and it’s much easier to learn a remote control whose layout is the same as the one that came with your device that you already know.

    The Pronto is not the only remote of this type, remote controls from home automation system companies come with similar capabilities. There are other remote systems similar to it that like the Pronto come in different sizes and shapes but they tend to be too expensive for the average home user and putting these capabilities in the IPhone would give people an affordable alternative to universal programmable remotes with custom layout and maybe even skinning capabilities. The reason some of these highly programmable and customizable remotes are so expensive is because they are not just a remote control they are almost a computer on their own, you see they have a microprocessor, they have RAM memory, they have ROM memory, a touch sensitive color display, wireless connectivity etc, you see? Does all this sound familiar? Does it sound like the kind of stuff that the IPhone already has? EXACTLY. So why does a universal remote with this capabilities has to be that expensive when you already have a full Phone PDA with capabilities for spare. To say that the IPhone and other similar smart phones have enough power to do this is an understatement, the ONLY thing that they need to be able to do all this is a high power remote control type infrared port and software. And how much do you think that adding such a port would add to the cost of an IPhone? Why do you think that some universal remotes can get to be so cheap these days? Because the technology is already very inexpensive. And how much space do you think it would take on a smart phone? It can be done and it would open a lot of possibilities to the IPhone or to any other smart phone.

    Now how does all that relates to the IPhone? Because the IPhone have already a very good high quality touch sensitive screen and processing power to spare for a high quality universal remote application that could do most of the functionality of an universal remote like the Pronto again at a much lower price and with the added convenience of having all that IN ONE SINGLE DEVICE that you carry with you wherever you go which is something that the Pronto can’t do, now don’t you think that this would be nice? and some people may not know that the Pronto was originally in essence a souped up PDA with high power infrared and remote control software capabilities and some additional buttons and I have to clear that because high power infrared is NOT the same type as low power only communications infrared that some PDAs have had in the past except for a few exceptions like for example some Sony CLIE models that included high power infrared in addition to the low power (low range) communications one precisely with the purpose of adding universal remote capabilities to their PDAs and all that the IPhone needs for such an application is a high power infrared port but there may be other ways of adding such functionality to the IPhone as it is and I will explain how. Imagine a small device like those pyramidal remote control extenders that you buy in Radio Shack that allows you to extend the power of a regular remote to another room. So imagine a small pyramid like that (or a device with any other appropriate shape) but for this example let’s say a small pyramid like that (a single one) with a high power infrared emitter/receiver only connected to a power supply physically and connected to the IPhone wirelessly via either Bluetooth or wifi. Now the key here would be the application software which would allow the IPhone to present the user with different remote layouts that you could download from a database of remote layouts from the device manufacturer website and the user should be able to pick easily one of those virtual remotes in their IPhone and when the user pressed a button it would send a Bluetooth signal that would be converted to infrared in that little pyramid that was sitting on a corner table or anywhere convenient and then be sent to your home theater or stereo or whatever setup you have as an infrared signal, do you see?

    There were other attempts to add this high power infrared capability to PDAs such as the Visor PDAs that had the cartridge expansion functionality, you could buy an infrared emitter that plugged into the cartridge slot with some software. This was done by the the Pacific Neotek people (I’ll give the web address further ahead). But unfortunately the Visor company (Handspring) didn’t live enough and these good capabilities were lost with it. I was happy to see Sony adding these capabilities of high power infrared to some of their CLIE PDAs, and by the way some of those CLIE PDAs were even better than the original Palms. Too bad Sony stopped producing them, the concept of the smart phone was a better idea an started to win at the long run but the smart phone is basically a PDA integrated with a cell phone, but even more than the sum of their separate parts because together they can do even more, together they have synergy. Now it was sad to see that few companies added this high power infrared to their PDAs and only had the low power communication ones. I don’t think that many people realized what could have been done with those extra capabilities, I don’t think that most people knew or realized that with it and good software their PDAs could have become such a super remote control with all those capabilities, and I think that most people were not even aware that some of those PDAs had high power infrared in them, too bad, I believe that such capabilities should have become standard in PDAs and smart phones by now but unfortunately they didn’t live enough or were done well enough for people to see what could have been done with them. The fact that those products were withdrawn from the market not necessarily means that they were bad or even less that some of their functions were bad, the Amiga and other computers like the Atari St and the Apple IIGS were very good and powerful computers and they were highly praised by the computer community of the time, they were just not marketed well, they were marketed at the home market in a time when the home market was not ready yet for personal computers and there were other reasons but they were more capable than the IBM PCs of the time overall. The fact that these PDAs had this extra infrared capabilities doesn’t have anything to do with their withdrawal of course, too bad that some of the PDAs that were capable of doing this were retired, yes too bad cause with the Pacifik Neotek software those CLIEs were able to do many of the things that a product like the Pronto was able to do and they were able to do it for a very low price. In the case of the CLIEs or other PDAs with high power infrared it only needed their software which costs only $25.00 and in the case of the Visor it needed the cartridge and the software which was less than a hundred dollars. Now compare that with the price of a Pronto or a similarly capable super remote control from home automation companies and see the difference in price, you might think that for the Visor together with the cartridge and the software it starts to get close to the price of the Pronto, no, not even close, the Pronto was always above the $300.00 mark and it did not include all the functions of those Sony or Handspring Visor PDAs and if such a port is added to the IPhone or to a smart phone they only need the software part which is far less expensive and those CLIEs and Visors with these capabilities demonstrated in my opinion beyond a shadow of a doubt that these can be done affordably with a smart phone.

    As for those people that say that remote controls get broken because people mishandle them and that the same can happen to their IPhone remember that you can buy protective gear for your IPhone chassis and screen (my sister has an IPhone and she does that) that would deal with most of those problems and remember that this remote control functionality would be a privilege for those home users that have an IPhone, it’s not like you are going to leave your IPhone in the living room for the sole purpose of working as a remote control, you have to take it with you don’t you?, what it will do is to give you the extra convenience of using it as a remote control wherever you are and that’s very good. If the IPhone belongs to a guy and he has a wife she may have an IPhone too and hers may be programmed differently or layed out differently in the remote control functions than his. If the application is sophisticated enough it would allow this, so ideally the device would have an application for the PC that would even allow him/her to create his/her own buttons and/or skins so either of them could create their own custom remote layout if they wanted to, and even the assignment of macros to activate several things at the same time with one single button press such as turning on the stereo, the DVD/Blu-Ray player and the TV at the same time when you want to watch movies, that’s the ideal universal remote, I mean some piece of software residing in the user PC that would allow them to create a completely custom remote layout with custom background graphics and custom buttons to which you could assign programmable remote control codes that you could either download from a website or capture from the pyramidal device or by the built in infrared by using your original remote control or both and then take that custom layout and load it into the IPhone so that the applet residing in the IPhone sends the commands to the high power infrared station or built in infrared port. Ideally again people could post custom remote control layouts on the website so other people could download the layouts from the device manufacturer and those from other people. Now this might be possible from Apple only, for any other company it might be possible for them to include only most codes and layouts in the applet that you downloaded. I don’t know if it would be possible to add additional codes and layouts to your IPhone except for those already in the applet unless the applet itself allowed programmability and layout arrangement within the IPhone and then you would use the learning capabilities of the hardware part of the system to input your remotes infrared codes and create additional layouts right there on the IPhone itself. Now this is an an idea for a product, any company out there interested? How about you guys from Pacific Neotek? Check out what they did with some PDAs some time ago:

    http://www.pacificneotek.com

    Now the device I’ve just described might be a solution for the lack of a high power infrared port on the IPhone but it’s not a complete one because if you have another music/video setup in let’s say your master bedroom you would have to buy another pyramid receiver/emitter and of course this device would have to be designed so there can be multiple ones in a house and buying a few of them may be doable but it wouldn’t be a substitute for having an on board infrared port in the IPhone because as the example that somebody gave in another post you wouldn’t be able to change the channels in a sports bar TV or any other place that you go and if there was a built-in infrared port you would be able to use it for other things, you know some hobbyists use learning/programmable remote controls to control Lego Mindstorms robots, yes they do that, but that’s just one of several conveniences that you would have with such a powerful infrared remote in the IPhone. Some people have two or more homes or a mobile home in addition to their house which in turn have other devices with infrared control capabilities and what about those people that are moving between two places all the time like somebody living some time with their aunt and some time with their parents? and also how about people that visit a close relative or a close friend all the time and spend a lot of time in their house? with a remote control like this that you would carry with you wherever you go as you of course do with your IPhone you would have a single remote to control all your infrared devices not only in a single place but in many places too cause you could program your universal remote application with the remote control functions of your place but also with those of another place and switch between them quickly, do you see? The interface may have something like zones or areas and by clicking in something the remotes could change according to those devices in that other place were you are. There are possibilities of controlling infrared devices through the wireless capabilities of the IPhone with some combination of hardware and software, some people are already doing this but it’s not a substitute for having the infrared capabilities on-board and it’s also not as economic.

    Now another thing you could do with such infrared capability (built-in or added) is to send infrared commands to a infrared X-10 receiver and execute home automation commands with your IPhone. And now you see the capabilities of your IPhone expanding again. Now you would be able to control your home automation system with your IPhone through simple infrared. Now the people that make X-10 devices could in theory create a Bluetooth receiver box/software product of sorts that would allow you to have X-10 home automation control directly from the IPhone. How about that you X-10 guys? Too complex? Too expensive? I don’t know, but this would be cool. Now I heard that some people are already starting to control X-10 through the wifi of the IPhone but with the infrared port on the IPhone itself you have another option and you can do the additional things that I mentioned in the previous paragraph.

    Now infrared may be only one of different ways in which this may be accomplished. It’s possible that future remote controls send Bluetooth signals or wifi signals instead of infrared to home devices but it would still take a lot of time for that to happen and if it did it would be the end of pointing the remote control in the right direction cause you wouldn’t have to worry about that anymore. The thing is that having the high power infrared capabilities in smart phones would allow to use the existing infrared system or devices on an immediate basis. Also, it could be even possible to control Zigbee devices (in case some of you don’t know Zigbee is the new home automation standard that could make home automation much easier to use and implement than any current method because devices that have Zigbee control would be inter operable. Check their website at: http://www.zigbee.org/ it could be possible with an IPhone to interface with Zigbee maybe again through a Bluetooth or Wifi box or future IPhones could even access Zigbee wireless connection directly from the IPhone and if the Zigbee standard gains a foothold in the homes of people it’s very likely that the IPhone will need such a connection anyway, it may be possible that Apple includes it in their future IPhones anyway. I think that they should be starting to think about that already if their are not doing it this very moment cause Zigbee products are already starting to appear in the market and in the not so distant future they may be everywhere.

    It amazes me to see other companies wondering how to make their smart phones better than the IPhone and yet all they do most of the time is to try to copy it and there is nothing wrong with that except that they also copy it’s shortcomings. You want to make a smart phone better than the IPhone? Here is at least one idea right in this text. Are you smart phone developers listening?

    Now for those people that ask why would you want to add an infrared port to an IPhone I hope that this answer their questions. I would definitely want an IPhone that has one and that has such a great universal remote programming capability.