Queen of my Remote Control

This is my remote control for the Digital Satellite Television (DSTV ) Personal Video Recorder (PVR).

It has been tormenting me for twelve long years. I mean, how does one watch TV without a remote? Ask any man that question, and he will tell you that it is IM-POS-SI-BLE.  A man with a remote control in his hand gives new meaning to eye-hand coordination. It must have something to do with a paranormal signal which is transferred magically as the fingertips touch the buttons on the remote control unit activating the eyes and brain which enable one to watch TV. I don’t know. Come on guys, enlighten me. How does it work?

These days, a TV set is like a piece of furniture in most of our homes – something one loves to hate yet cannot seem to do without – equal in status to that of a bed, a couch or a refrigerator. Many will argue that it is simply a necessity.

There was a time in my life when I didn’t have much time for TV. It didn’t bother me. I didn’t feel as if I was missing out on anything. My life was full. Busy. Active. Intense. Joyful. Happy.

Suddenly, and unexpectedly, my world was shattered and I was left sitting in a wheelchair feeling confined – and so trapped.

Then, TV took on a whole new meaning in my life.

The TV was always on – a channel chosen by somebody else. I didn’t care. I wasn’t really watching.

At first, it was mostly mind-numbing – an anesthetic for the terrible shock and emotional pain of being left paralysed from the neck down – an escape from reality. It was like chewing gum for the eyes. I would rather stare blankly at a television screen than face the people whom I loved – or worse – see myself – my uncooperative, pathetic and useless body. I could hide my anger, pain, fear, disgust and desperation behind my TV eyes. I didn’t have to see the pity in anybody else’s eyes. I didn’t have to hear their empty words of sympathy and encouragement. I didn’t have to talk and pretend to be okay. I didn’t have to concentrate and face my truth. I could merely exist.

My heart just kept beating. My lungs kept on breathing. Internally, life was going on as before – my liver, bowel, bladder just kept on working. Oh God why won’t they just stop? Now!

After a while I could no longer deny that my brain was still very much awake – no matter how hard I tried to switch it off. Every now and again I caught myself laughing at the antics on a comedy show, or being fascinated by our remarkable planet on Discovery Channel, being engrossed in a drama, and even cheering for a sports team. I couldn’t help myself from reacting. I couldn’t prevent myself from living. As I healed emotionally I became more interested in what I was watching, and I developed a hunger to learn and and an intense need to be stimulated. Hey, there’s actually life going on inside of this big lump of useless flesh. Oh God, but sitting all day long is freaking boring!

I started becoming more demanding – insisting on watching programs and channels that appealed to me.

If reading a lot of books makes one well read, I guess then that watching a lot of television makes one well viewed. But, it doesn’t give one the status of intelligence that books do. Funny, one is never accused of being addicted to books, and yet one can be addicted to TV. Sorry I can’t stand up, but my name is Tracy and I am a TV addict. Help me, God…

That is when the torment began in earnest. I cannot tell you the amount of tears I have cried and the number of curse words I have screamed in frustration. Oh my God if only I could just press the buttons on the remote control! Surely one finger is not too much to ask? The damn paralysis can keep the other nine.

For twelve years I hated the poor remote control unit, and I resented everybody anybody who could operate it and change the channels on the TV.

Then everything changed – again – but this time it was good.

Fellow quadriplegic, Joel Miller, and a friend, Chris Yelland, changed my life by enabling me to once again change the channels on my TV. Look Ma, no hands!

Here is an explanation of exactly how it all works, courtesy of Chris Yelland, my personal expert in electronics and technical mumbo-jumbo that I will never understand no matter how many “How Does It Work” programs I watch on the Discovery Channel. Sorry, but I have my limitations.

As I have explained in a previous blog post, I use a notebook PC with a Vodacom 3G internet connection for word processing, email, blogging, web browsing, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. Sophisticated voice recognition software (Dragon NaturallySpeaking) enables me to do this entirely by voice, without having to use a mouse or keyboard at all. With this system I can type, control the cursor and click on hyperlinks using my voice, or I can simply “speak” any hyperlinked words to open relevant web-pages.

You may know, a DSTV decoder / PVR is operated by coded infra-red light signals that are sent out when the buttons on the remote unit are pressed by the user, and these are picked up and interpreted by the DSTV decoder / PVR.

Unfortunately (and stupidly in my mind), there is no serial, USB, WiFi or Bluetooth communication port incorporated into the DSTV decoder / PVR. This means that it is impossible to connect a PC directly to the DSTV decoder / PVR by either a data cable or wirelessly, in order perform the remote control functions of the conventional infra-red remote control unit.

It also became clear that to control the DSTV decoder / PVR, I needed a wireless radio-based communication system from my notebook PC to the DSTV decoder / PVR, and not infra-red optical communication. This is because while the DSTV decoder / PVR is situated next to the TV set in my lounge where I work most of the day, I also have a TV set in my bedroom that I watch in bed. My notebook PC follows me to bed so that I can work, communicate and give voice commands from there too, and optical signals cannot go through the walls between my bedroom and lounge!

How on earth could these conflicting radio-based and infra-red optical technologies and problems be married together to provide a working solution?

In the end, the answer proved to be remarkably elegant and economical.

The first step was to set up a home IP network, with an ADSL router next to the DSTV decoder / PVR providing four wired Ethernet ports and a wireless network. Although I had never used it before, my notebook PC has built in WiFi, which enables it to connect wirelessly to the network from anywhere in my house. (Soon I will dispense with the 3G wireless connection I currently use for internet access, and swop over to an ADSL line connected to the router, because this is likely to be cheaper and faster).

Then, Joel Miller, in Cape Town, kindly gave me a compact, intelligent, programmable interface module from a home automation company called Omnisol. This module has an Ethernet port enabling it to be connected to a computer IP network, plus circuitry to drive an external infra-red light emitting diode (LED). This can be wired by a short lead and the LED mounted close to the infra-red light receiver on the DSTV decoder / PVR, so that it can receive coded infra-red light signals from the interface module.

The interface module has its own IP address and programmable web-page, and this web-page can be viewed remotely and the interface module controlled via the IP network and router using the web-browser of my notebook PC. In fact the web-page can actually be viewed and controlled over the internet from anywhere in the world!

A software programmer at Omnisol, Louis Taljaard, kindly set up and programmed the interface module and its web-page with text hyperlinks corresponding to each button on the conventional DSTV remote control unit. When these links are clicked on a remote PC, the interface module is programmed to send correctly coded electrical signals to the external LED, which then converts these to infra-red light signals that are received and interpreted by the DSTV decoder / PVR. In this way, by clicking on the relevant hyperlink displayed on a browser of a remote PC, one can control all the functions of my DSTV decoder / PVR from anywhere!

Chris got his right-hand man, IT specialist Georg Klee, to help him set it all up at his home to iron out any problems before driving to Nelspruit to set it all up in my home.

And through the magic of Dragon NaturallySpeaking, I can simply speak the words of the hyperlinks of the interface module that are displayed on my web browser, thus enabling me to do everything I have ever wanted to do on my DSTV decoder / PVR by voice commands.

What really amazes me is the multitude of sophisticated electronic, computer, information and communications technologies that have been brought together to provide a user-friendly working solution that I will be using every day from now on to solve a problem I have had for twelve years since my accident!

And voila, it all works!

I am ecstatically happy – unashamedly playing like a child again – to the point that you may suspect I am missing a few buttons on my own internal remote control. Now I fear my mind may be paralysed by choice. So much to watch. So little time. But, I would like to challenge any man to a contest of channel surfing. Victory will be sweet – so sweet.

I am Queen of my remote control!

About Tracy Todd

Although I need a wheelchair to get around, it is most certainly NOT what defines my essence as a woman. I am also a mother, teacher, wannabe writer and an inspirational speaker with a positive outlook on life.
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21 Responses to Queen of my Remote Control

  1. Bill Watson says:

    My mind is a whirl trying to grasp all the techie things you were writing about. I am going to have to re-read this one a few time – but – way to go girl – way to go – at least this is a measure of fun.

  2. Pingback: Dear God… Are You There? | Tracy Todd's Blog

  3. JACKi says:

    yet another amazing piece of writing my friend!! you are so talented – even just the title Queen of my remote is awesome!! This really must have made a huge change in your life!! Amazing!!

  4. Giulietta says:

    Hi Tracy,

    Sounds like you’ve got a wonderful group of friends working on ways to give you more choices. Kinda like a life remote. Does that feel marvelous?

    Enjoy. Giulietta

  5. Flutter says:

    Whoohoo! Don’t you just love technology and especially those super smart minds that make it all possible! Congrats Tracy on being the Queen on the remote control! So excited for you!

  6. Ina Bence says:

    Hi Tracy,

    We women alway complain about the men and their electronic toys. But today we must thank them. Keep it up “electronic” boys.

    Love

    Ina

  7. I am always amazed at the solutions that are possible through technology. I love it! The solutions that you have now would have been simply too expensive a few years back.
    What’s next, voice operated curtains, lights, doors…. the possibilities are endless.

    You go girl!

    • Chris Yelland says:

      Yes Mervyn, within a few weeks we will install five voice activated mains power points for appliances at Tracy’s house, including TV set, fan, heater, room lights, bedside light, etc. We will also install a voice controlled light dimmer. All this is relatively low cost stuff. Unfortunately voice activated curtains, blinds, doors, etc., require relatively costly electro-mechanical actuators, although the controls themselves are low cost. Then there are possibilities of automated sprinklers, sprays, etc., for the garden which can be time controlled, voice controlled, or even mosture level controlled! A lot of exciting stuff out there!

  8. Jacs says:

    Hey Trace!
    I was bouncing in my seat as I read … and I’m SO EXCITED for you!
    Admittedly, I hardly ever touch the remote, since either my boys or hubby have their paws on it, but I can imagine how liberating this seemingly small thing must be! Awesome! Enjoy!

  9. Anton says:

    Tracy,
    I should have had you around on Thursday when I was trying to set up my wifi network at home… I only stopped swearing when I saw some wisps of smoke coming from the thatch!

    I’m happy you could take another small step to independence!

  10. Guy McLaren says:

    Thanks Chris and all of those that assisted in making Tracy’s life just a little more awe inspiring and a little more free. Tracy I am very excited by this technology. Who knows, maybe the tech will happen that will allow you even more freedom. We can dream can’t we?

  11. Cat says:

    Your blog makes me so appreciative of what I have, and it also makes me see beauty in little things. Like remotes. I was watching a kid’s show – Spongebob Squarepants, hahaha – while I was reading this, so I wish you lots of childish, bright, yellow happiness. You are the queen of your whole life! Work it!😀

  12. Heidi says:

    Trace, you are an ABSOLUTE treat. Thank u 4 that one, and again the insight into your confined yet exciting world. Hey, u get to experience all kinds of amazing technology that us abled don’t. Take that sports-lovers. Thank you yet again 4 putting a smile on my face + cleansing my eyes. Love u … ENJOY !!!!!!!!!!

  13. Tracy Tames Tech. – I love it.

    (I knew you could.)

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