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Control Your Computer with Your Voice, Alexa, and FLIRC

Thursday, December 10th, 2020

In a recent Youtube video, Paul Hibbert showed off a novel use of the FLIRC USB receiver. For most of us, FLIRC is great for controlling a media center or a Pi, or maybe expanding control on an Android box with a more powerful remote.

But for Paul, that simply wasn’t enough. His channel focuses on automation and voice control, and he wanted to turn his PC into a full fledged Echo Show, and just like on a Fire TV, he wanted to be able to launch apps with his voice.

The first part of this process was simple enough: Alexa is actually an installable app for your Windows 10 PC, and it can respond to the Alexa wake-word just like any Echo device. This works great for tasks like playing Amazon music, using Alexa smart skills, or maybe controlling lights around the house.

But why stop there? This is a fully fledged PC. Why not control the rest of it with your voice too? Oh, sure, a person could shut down Alexa and go back to controlling things the old fashioned way with a mouse, but what if this PC is in the living room? Old fashioned controls are so awkward from the couch!

Enter FLIRC.

Or more correctly, enter FLIRC, the Broadlink RM Blackbean, and EventGhost. Here’s where things get WILD. With Alexa, you can tell the Blackbean to send IR blasts of any kind. And with FLIRC, you can translate those blasts into any standard keyboard command or keyboard combination, like control+shift+5. Then, with the app EventGhost, whenever the FLIRC USB dongle sends that special key command, you can launch any app of your choice, like Steam, or Minecraft, or anything else! You can even navigate those apps, if they’re something like Plex.

To see how it works, check out Paul’s video:

Paul and super voice control!

We were so impressed with this idea that we sat down with Paul to talk about how he came up with it all.

What came first, the idea or the FLIRC? More broadly, how long have you had your FLIRCs and when did you get the idea to use them this way?

A year or so ago I started looking into ways of controlling my NVIDIA Shield with Alexa, but was sorely disappointed at the lack of functionality, so I figured I would start looking for a way to control the shield with infrared so that I could marry it up with a Broadlink RM pro.  Initially I just wanted to be able to control the shield for navigation and Alexa didn’t have a way to do this natively.  I knew the RM pro could send infrared using Alexa so I did a quick google search to see if there was any way to convert the Nvidia shield to Infrared.  I thought it would be a lost cause, but I was amazed when I found FLIRC!  I then realised I could create keyboard shortcuts on the Shield to do all sorts of things using button remapper, and if I paired this process with the Aberto Sonorus skill I could open individual apps too and have total control!  I made a video about that here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mjDMfY348rU

Had you used Eventghost before?

I actually cut my teeth on two pieces of Windows software when I first started my home automation journey.  One was Vox Commando, which is an incredibly powerful piece of voice software, and Eventghost.  I linked the two together before Alexa even existed so that I would be able to control Kodi (which back in those days was called XBMC).  Vox Commando was incredible for that, but it couldn’t control my lights.  That’s where Eventghost came in; I had a USB dongle called a Tellstick that could blast RF frequencies to turn my RF light switch on and off.  I used Vox commando to broadcast a request to Eventghost which then sent the Tellstick request using an eventghost plugin, I was probably literally the only person in the world using their voice to control an RF switch because at that point everyone was using X10, which was way too nerdy and expensive for me.  Very few of us were using our voice at that point.  
I was lucky enough to witness the birth of the modern smart home and it was a really exciting time.  I did some pretty crazy things with Eventghost considering I have no clue how to code!

Have you ever used Flirc for any other kind of home automation tasks?

Just the Nvidia shield project at this point.  I have two Flircs now, one connected to my PC, and one connected to the Shield.  I have recommended them to people for their Playstations though.  It really is a remarkable little stick.  The simplicity of it really appeals to me as a non-coder.  I’m always looking for ways to cheat myself out of learning how to code hahaha.

When interacting with Alexa or other voice agents, are there some things you find yourself preferring to do by voice and other things you prefer to do using physical controls like a keyboard, mouse, or remote?

Definitely.  When Neesha is asleep she would kick my ass if I even whispered to Alexa!  I have a button by the side of the bed from a company called Xiaomi, and that links to a Homey hub which in turn sends a http request to my Nvidia shield which is listening using a piece of software called the RM plugin which in turns tells my Broadlink RM pro to turn my plug sockets off.  Insanely convoluted, but it’s flawless!  It’s actually one of very few ways to control a Broadlink RM pro locally without connecting to Broadlink’s server, at least without a raspberry Pi.

I also use a button by a company called Flic in my studio to turn my studio lights on and change the main lights from warm white to cool white for filming.  The button is preferable to voice simply because it’s mindless, I don’t have to think of a phrase I just mash a button next to my camera.

From your videos, it’s pretty clear you’re a big fan of home automation and gadgets that can be used in that way. Any especially great suggestions for home media center users this holiday?

Without trying to desperately plug my own videos I would definitely suggest checking out the Nvidia shield video if you’re an Alexa fan, it’s the cheekiest of hacks and yet it’s so simple.  I’m a bit of a rebel at heart, and I love anything that breaks the rules.  Somebody somewhere doesn’t want you to have proper control of your Nvidia shield with Alexa (probably google) and this is just a little rebellion on my part.  I love that it’s just a little hole in their plan that anyone can crawl into without having to part with hardly any cash.

Thanks to Paul for agreeing to chat with us, and if you’d like to roll your own version if this trick, see the links below to pick up the necessary tools!

Broadlink RM mini:
UK: https://amzn.to/3515cNm
US: https://amzn.to/3lKFyCd

FLIRC infrared receiver for PC:
UK: https://amzn.to/35cDbCv
US: https://amzn.to/2R4bvrf