Look Ma, No Mice

It's Sunday, my home desk looks like it was involved in an industrial accident at a book printer's, and I'm now gleefully clicking an Apple remote at my iMac G5.

There's something about making things happen from a distance that appeals to us, as if remote controls were the perfect assertion of our mind's power over electronics. Me, I believe that they are an insidious subversion planted by soon-to-be-invading aliens in order to turn most of the Earth's population into couch potatoes, helpless to do anything besides frantically click our remotes at their starships in the futile hope of turning their anti-gravity off and forcing them to crash.

And yeah, the opening paragraph doesn't quite add up - but it's true, I'm clicking an Apple remote at my iMac G5, which observant readers might know to be utterly lacking in any sort of IR sensor. And yet, iTunes does my bidding.

How is it so? Well, Bruno Fernandes of MIra (Twisted Melon) fame was kind enough to drop me one of their Manta USB/IR transceivers in the mail soon before my birthday, and despite the delay in my MacBook order (yeah, it's still hard to get Apple gear in Portugal), Pedro Pinheiro was kind enough to kick over an Apple Remote he wasn't using.

The Computer Eye

The Manta USB IR Sensor

As you can see in the picture above, the Manta is roughly 4.5cm on a side and less than 2cm tall at the top of its sensor face. There's a little red LED (mounted almost dead center) that provides visual feedback when you click the remote, and the matte black color (which bucks the trend of all-white Mac peripherals) makes the little box fairly unobtrusive.

But there's no real need to worry about placement - the Manta sensor works well enough for me without direct line of sight or even when stuck completely behind my G5. I have white walls (think whitewashed stucco, and you're close enough), and it manages to pick up the remote from pretty far away (I can point the remote at the far wall and it works, and that's at least an 8m round-trip).


Having written about Mira before (and there being plenty of rave reviews out there), I won't bother you with the details other than say that it works like Mac software ought to. You plug in the sensor, and it works. You try using it with an application, and it does the right thing - it has sensible defaults for the most common media applications, from iTunes to VideoLan, and the same goes for slideshows (on iLife/iWork apps, PowerPoint, or plain old Preview).

Plus you can customize it to deal with any application - and that's where the neat twists come in, like the ability to distinguish between single and "long" clicks on any button (the resulting actions for which can be made context-sensitive), a launch menu that will let you fast-track to your favorite applications by hitting the MENU button on the remote, Expose and task switcher actions, and my personal favorite, AppleScripting.

Took me no time at all to get a "news reading" profile up and running, letting me control Mail.app remotely via AppleScript and have Mac OS X's speech synthesizer read me the news. Navigating messages is a little hairy, but that's Mail.app's fault, not the remote's.

What Next?

Since the most likely use of the Manta IR sensor will be to convert old PowerPC Macs into media centers (as I'm seriously considering doing with my mini one day), I'll be looking at Front Row replacements for a while - MediaCentral, in particular, seems to have evolved in leaps and bounds, and has TV tuner support. Until the iTV pops up, it might be a nice thing to play around with.

And after we figure out exactly what formats the iTV can cope with, it might still be a better option, so...

But Mira itself makes for more than half the fun, and I'm likely to come up with a bunch of Rube Goldberg-like scripting contraptions to use it in the coming weeks.