Remote Control
IEEE Spectrum Magazine, March 2006

What is the most ubiquitous, mundane piece of electronic equipment in the home? I think it is the infrared remote control, or “clicker.” There are eight of them sitting on top of my living room television. I don’t even know what some of them control. Probably they work with things that were discarded years ago, but I’m afraid to throw any of them away. I calculate that in 117 years the volume of my house will be completely filled with remote controls for non-existing equipment.

In spite of being a primary source of power in the home, remotes are taken for granted – until, of course, one disappears. Like odd socks in the washer or umbrellas in the closet, these things have a way of slipping into the fourth dimension, causing everyone to go on the dreaded hunt for the lost clicker. Remotes have evolved an ability to burrow under cushions and conceal themselves, surviving unfound for years. Remotes without this ability were not able to survive.

Older engineers can remember dark years in the past when you had to walk to the television to change channels. I don’t know who invented the remote control, but it was a world-changing event. It was one of those inventions like intermittent windshield wipers or one-way tolls where you say to yourself: “What took them so long to think of that?”

I haven’t given remote controls much thought – that is until recently. I was browsing an electronics store when I saw a red-tagged HDTV tuner on sale for a small fraction of its retail price. I enquired and was told that no one wanted to buy it because the store had lost the box and all accompanying parts to go with it, including the instructions, all the connecting and power cords, and the remote control. But I figured – I’m an engineer, I can overcome these small obstacles. Hey, I can even walk to the tuner to change channels if necessary.

The connecting cords were no problem, and I was able to find the instruction manual on the Internet, but the remote was quite another matter. As I quickly discovered, the existence of the remote wasn’t just a question of convenience – this tuner could not be used without it. I was beginning to see that this would be a challenge.

I found a number of companies on the Internet that sold replacement remotes, but none listed a remote for my tuner. Moreover, the manufacturer of my tuner would not sell a replacement remote. Then there were a slew of “universal” remotes, none of which seemed to have a mode that would control my tuner. I stared at my useless tuner. Behind its brushed aluminum exterior it remained obstinately mute, waiting for an infrared language that I didn’t know how to speak.

This was really frustrating. After all, what is inside a remote? Basically nothing. Yet, like everything else, it has a processor, memory, input/output, and communication. I know that I could design one of these things, but hacking one to match an unknown receiver with unknown commands seemed impossible.

This is where the Internet is great. With only a little research I discovered an underworld of people who apparently get their kicks by hacking remotes. There are a number of remote controls made by one manufacturer, but sold under different brand names, that have a secret interface that can be used to reprogram the device. These remotes have a six-wire interface in the battery compartment, apparently intended for use by the manufacturer, which can be connected to a computer by a special cable. Hackers have discovered this interface and have written about a gigabyte of free software for reprogramming these remotes. An Internet discussion group archives these programs, as well as the customized codes for just about any existing piece of electronic equipment.

Reading through Internet discussions, I developed a new appreciation for these mundane remote controls. I suppose they evolved before standardization became prevalent, but there are numerous different communication protocols in use, as well as hundreds or thousands of different code sets. For a small device that costs almost nothing and has almost nothing inside, these things are inordinately complicated.

So in the end I was able to reprogram a remote and talk to my new tuner. Whether or not the tuner proves useful is beside the point. I take pride in my little achievement that no one but another engineer can appreciate. But I’m an engineer, and I’m supposed to be able to do things like that.

Robert Lucky