Technical Question on Hard Button Remotes

What are the technical limitations that prevent bluetooth media remotes being used to control the corresponding controls in Roomie?

Obviously there are tons of options. […]

I continue to look for a good hard button remote solution. Any news on exposing play / pause current activity through the API?

Hardbutton remotes are just not my thing. I do try to appreciate users that want it though by adding features related to it from time to time to help gauge continuing interest.

For instance in V6, we added support for PS4 and Xbox controllers as remotes. They are Bluetooth and pair directly with iOS, quite reliable. If I felt more pull from the users around these features, I would invest the time to add activity selection to the left stick of those controllers which would really complete the picture there (I believe I discussed this in another thread, possibly in the beta forums).

But really, I can count the number of users who have submitted support queries on hard button remote topics in the past ~3 years on one hand. Perhaps I pay too much attention to it because it occasionally gets posted (like this) on the forum and also people (who likely do not use the product much) tend to bring it up when I meet them in person at expos probably because they used Harmony for so many years that they just haven’t upgraded their mental patterns yet.

So, if you care about this feature, comment on it, more importantly get other people to comment on it, to request it, and to request specific technical features related to it. From my perspective, it’s never been better, we just added 2 awesome controllers, and we also support a number of integrator-friendly solutions like LaunchPort, etc. Adding some no-brand Bluetooth remote has no apparent value whatsoever to the user base. Need a compelling case to spend time here.

Personally, I would never use any of these things because if I really perceived an ergonomic issue with control in some specific aspect, I would solve it on-screen – we’ve taken into account and designed for many issues in this area in the past. Making people use a hard button remote seems backwards.

But again, make a specific and compelling case to me, including why the many options we already provide do not meet that need. We’ve spent time here in the past, I’m certainly open to further improvements.

For my immediate purposes, I have a very specific technical feature request:

  • Expose basic controls for any activity via the API. My idea of basic controls are: shuttle controls and volume controls. Play, pause, vol up, vol down, mute would be a great start. Skip, back, FF, RW would be okay too, but not as useful. Then I can find a way to interact with it using a device of my choice. Since play / pause are already exposed to the Alexa integration I have a hunch this wouldn’t be much investment to make available to everybody by the API. This would solve my basic pain points.

Here are some of my use cases where I have a, in my view, a need for hard button remotes:

  1. This just happened the other night. In the theater watching a movie. I have a dedicated iPad for Roomie in the theater. I prefer a totally dark room, so I tend to turn off the iPad when watching certain movies. The volume is on 80dB reference level. My wife says she has to go to the bathroom. I tell Alexa to tell Simple Control to pause. She doesn’t hear me. I try again. She doesn’t hear me. So I use my thumbprint to unlock the iPad. Doesn’t recognize it right away. Try again. Finally in and hit pause. During all this the movie is going on and I lose 30 seconds of dialog, which now I have to go back. It’s on AppleTV so rewind is a bit of a guessing game. I can think of lots of ways I could make this situation better. I could have less fat fingers. I could listen at lower volumes. I could just have the iPad on all the time. In my mind easier solution is pick up a tactile device that my brain and muscles have memorized and hit pause in 1-2 seconds.

  2. I don’t always have my phone physically on my body. I am working in my basement woodworking shop. Music is on. I want to skip a song. I usually yell at Alexa to do this, but again, it’s a shop to she might not hear me because of the size of the space, tools making tool sounds, or because of the music playing. So I have to walk to my desk to pick up my phone to skip. I have other situations like this as well. Some I do have solved with a physical remote like the one I linked. When I am on the first floor I have an iPad mounted in the wall that I use to play Amazon Music. I have that remote paired to the iPad. Anywhere on the first floor I can control music.

  3. When I have guests over who stay in my guest room I can’t expect them to install Roomie. I have a complex set up. Basically you can play any source device in the house on any display in the house. So my options are to dedicate an iOS device with Roomie on it and give them a tutorial, or just limit what they can watch to DirecTV and give them a DirecTV remote.

As for the other options you provide.

For me, I suppose the Xbox controller would work in certain situations like the theater. But this has low WAF and my dad would look at me like I had a screw loose if I said to use it to control the TV. And I am unlikely to have an Xbox controller with me at the table saw.

I did look into LauncPort. I think that would be a decent solution for the theater. Actually, more than that. I thought it was elegant. Unfortunately, they push you to integration partners for the 10 button device. I have a good relationship with Abt Electronics - a LauncPort partner - and I talked to them about it. It was pricey, and they hadn’t sold a lot. They even thought it was discontinued until I showed them it wasn’t. I could find another partner I suppose that had more experience, but the whole point of Roomie is no hassles have to deal with vendor lock-in, integration people, etc. BTW - I just looked at their site and they now sell the 10 button directly. That’s nice. I still argue that $650 for hard buttons is a bit pricey.

Lutron. I have a bunch of Lutron in the house, but not their lighting automation stuff. I went with ISY and Insteon. This was mainly because of the open nature of the ISY. Of the options Roomie supports I suspect this would be the one that I could most easily make work. Buy the remote(s), buy the minimum supported hub.

I really was just curious if there was a technical reason why BT media remotes aren’t supported by Roomie. Most media apps on iOS seem compatible as I think they are just seeing the remotes as keyboards. I read somewhere that they work with any “native media app.” I wasn’t sure if that phrase had specific technical meaning and maybe Roomie wasn’t a “native media app.”

The nice thing about BT remotes is they are ubiquitous, relatively low cost, completely stand-alone, and - if you don’t totally cheap out - are reliable.

I think if you see the benefit of supporting the game controllers that it shouldn’t be much of a stretch to see similar benefits of a controller that is specifically dedicated to controlling media. I agree that the game controllers are very high quality, so the integration experience is probably top notch. That said, there are some good “no name” BT media remotes out there. Nothing magical about BT. Either someone does a good implementation or they don’t. You can rely on Amazon reviews to help flush out who does it well and who doesn’t.

In the end, my requests are:

  1. expose play, pause, vol up, vol down, and mute for an activity by the API. I think this probably also requires you to expose some ability to select a room via the API in case >1 activities are active.

  2. explore integrating hard button BT media remotes like the one I linked. That one is pretty decent quality and works well across a 1700 sq ft floor. But if you can find a better one then that’s great too. But my guess is since BT is a standard that once you support one they will all work to one degree or another.

I’ve got the same hard button needs as @bjs. Volume and Play/Pause being the front runners. I could never bring myself to use a game controller for this. I’ve created my own solution using ISY/Polyglot and a Harmony remote. I use ISY/Polyglot to sync my Harmony and Roomie activities. I can start or stop activities from either devices, and I have all the hard buttons I need on the Harmony. I would love to see the harmony devices added to Roomie so I could eliminate my kludgy ISY code. What I have works, and it’s fast and stable, so I’m content for now, but it could always be better.

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Yes Will, I still need a traditional Hard-Button remote for the wife, kids, and most of the things that BJS mentions.
So far, I have purchased an Ethernet-Blaster, a Hub-License, and paid the subscription for over a year (really, to just get Alexa functionality) . All the programming and testing… and hardly any family members use it .

We all have iPhones, iPads, and even an Apple-TV-Gen4. But they would rather pickup the Harmony-650 remote to control the Home Theater (and use those Apple device for their traditional uses). And since Simple-Control and Harmony are un-aware of each other … when they do use it, everything gets out of sync.

It’s 2020 and we still can’t get a Harmony or URC to emulate “just another Simple-Control device on the network” ? Obviously, we don’t mind doing all the extra Harmony programming (or even linking the various matching-functions together).

Please consider it.

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Responding to a few use cases here that seem broken to me:

@bjs wrote:

This just happened the other night. In the theater watching a movie. I have a dedicated iPad for Roomie in the theater. I prefer a totally dark room, so I tend to turn off the iPad when watching certain movies. The volume is on 80dB reference level. My wife says she has to go to the bathroom. I tell Alexa to tell Simple Control to pause. She doesn’t hear me. I try again. She doesn’t hear me. So I use my thumbprint to unlock the iPad. Doesn’t recognize it right away. Try again. Finally in and hit pause. During all this the movie is going on and I lose 30 seconds of dialog

The model is that Roomie is on a dedicated iOS device and Guided Access is engaged. Especially in a room called “Theater”. The iPad would never be locked, it is incapable of locking.

I usually yell at Alexa to do this, but again, it’s a shop to she might not hear me because of the size of the space, tools making tool sounds, or because of the music playing. So I have to walk to my desk to pick up my phone to skip.

Seems like an argument for asking us to add a feature to become the iOS media player so you have a set of media controls accessible without unlocking your device right on your lock screen. Adding a hard button remote to that use case seems confusing and wasted.

When I have guests over who stay in my guest room I can’t expect them to install Roomie. I have a complex set up.

This is a known issue we’ve tried to deal with over time. By retaining iOS 12 support, hopefully there are enough spare devices out there to help people dedicate devices. But in the end, the app is only $10 and sharing is now super easy and subscriptions are shared as well, so the cost of adding “guests” is pretty easy. The cost of adding frequent guests like nannies or in-laws is basically solved. Regardless, adding a hard-button remote seems like a very poor solution to this.

@bjs wrote exactly what I requested tho, so that’s good feedback. I just don’t see a path through those use cases that ends up with hard buttons. The best (unstated) argument was to takeover as iOS media controller on the lock screen.

Generically interpreting Bluetooth is not something you can reasonably do on iOS. Certainly, we could create a custom hard button ourselves, it could use Bluetooth, and we could engineer the Bluetooth on that hardware to do what iOS needs, but the reverse is not true. Bluetooth is essentially an OS service that developers only have high level access to. If the OS didn’t imagine a particular use case, it’s going to be a mess. This is why the supported controllers are controllers that iOS is designed to support natively. Adding any old Bluetooth thing is not generally an option. Your note about adding command support via a REST API is certainly doable and we’d consider that if there were a user product that would complete the picture using that solution.

@CalPolyME wrote:

I use ISY/Polyglot to sync my Harmony and Roomie activities.

ISY is extremely technical and probably not a piece of a generalized solution to something here, but this is a great addition showing that users with sufficient dedication to this topic can integrate something here.

@Tesla1856 wrote:

they would rather pickup the Harmony-650 remote to control the Home Theater

What happens when you take away the hard button and instead use a dedicated iOS device in guided access for that room? After a week, when they see what Media Guides can do, it’s hard to imagine them going back. Certainly, my family would laugh at a Harmony and throw it out as there are so many things it does not do.

It’s 2020 and we still can’t get a Harmony or URC to emulate […] Please consider it.

You’re phrasing that as if there’s some specific feature we haven’t added. The reason my last post says to " request specific technical features related to it" is that the use cases for this appear to be well-handled by things like dedicated iOS devices, much better handled than using a hard button. So given the remaining hard button use cases, which I would propose is essentially AirBNB style guest access where you can’t provide any real instructions to the guest and they are definitively short-term, I still think the best solution is a dedicated iOS device.

I’m open to realistic features here that are specific. Based on the replies so far though, it has mostly reinforced my belief that the several users strongly interested in this topic have not deployed a dedicated iOS device in Guided Access as the system is envisioned to work.

Thanks, Will, for engaging.

The model is that Roomie is on a dedicated iOS device and Guided Access is engaged. Especially in a room called “Theater”. The iPad would never be locked, it is incapable of locking.

I was not precise with my language. Though, I think it misses the point. I absolutely have a “dedicated” iOS device in the strong technical sense. It is in my media closet. It is always on. It is in guided access mode. It never shuts off. It never locks. It never dims. This primarily exists for Alexa support. I also have the iOS device I mentioned earlier in the theater. It is “dedicated” in the non-technical sense in that is that it is permanently affixed in the room. The point that is missed is that having it in guided access mode doesn’t allow me to turn it off and get the room dark, which is my preference. It also forces me to not be able to use others apps. For example, I prefer MobiLink for controlling my ISY installation. I also don’t comply with the model in that I occasionally use my iPad in the theater for browsing the web.

Exposing the controls via the API as I proposed isn’t perfect, but for those of us who have an ISY (me, someone else in this thread) it gives us options. My wife currently uses the 8 button Insteon remote to control lighting (4 scenes), and to switch Roomie activities and to power off the room. The remote talks to ISY over RF, which triggers an ISY program, which makes a call to the Roomie API to switch activities. The next iteration of this is to pause / play activities as I outlined.

Seems like an argument for asking us to add a feature to become the iOS media player so you have a set of media controls accessible without unlocking your device right on your lock screen

Sorry, no, I was not asking for that. I don’t oppose that, but it doesn’t solve my use case. I am at the table saw. I don’t have my phone with me. I want to skip songs or pause. I’d like to be able to push a button on a small remote in my pocket to do this. Controls on the lock screen still force me to walk to my desk, pick up my phone, etc. I just want to pause or skip a song without my phone. I also have this use case on the first floor when I am reading and listening to music. I just want to skip a song. I have this problem solved already by using a BT remote. It is connected to an iPad in the wall. The app running on the iPad is Amazon Music. Amazon Music is streaming to HEOS. Whether the iPad is locked or not (not guided access) I can hit pause, skip, etc. on the BT remote and Amazon Music does what I ask it to do. This is the model I would like to see in Roomie.

By retaining iOS 12 support, hopefully there are enough spare devices out there to help people dedicate devices. But in the end, the app is only $10 and sharing is now super easy and subscriptions are shared as well, so the cost of adding “guests” is pretty easy

My parents both use Android, so Roomie is not an option for them. That said I do have an old iPhone 6S laying about, so I have considered this as an option for the guest room. I guess in my mind it still isn’t friendly for infrequent guests. You hand a first world person a hard-button remote and they immediately understand it. As simple as it is to use Roomie, it requires explanation.

So, to summarize:

  1. Consider expanding the API as previously indicated ($)
    • From an outside perspective seems this is lowest effort on your side. You already expose this to the Alexa interface.
    • This is not a universal solution for all users as it requires a user to add on programming and some form of “controller” such as an ISY. But for the DIYers, it provides an option.
    • This isn’t the best user experience since the DIY controllers like the 8 button Insteon remote are hardly well-designed, but again it is an option.
  2. Consider expanding Roomie to respond to a physical BT media remote the way that, for example, Amazon Music, responds to the same physical BT media remote. ($$)
    • Sounds like this is harder and maybe the OS doesn’t give you all the access you need to make this work nicely. But, again, Amazon Music does it, so it seems that at least for certain categories of apps it is possible and works well. I defer to you if it means that behaving the way a music app behaves would interfere with other Roomie capabilities.
    • This is a universal solution for all users. They just need to buy a BT media remote of their choosing, of which there are dozens of choices that all work with iOS.
    • This user experience is pretty good for those who want a hard button experience. Remotes are available in different sizes, have good ergonomics, and have the appropriate function-specific buttons like play, pause, skip, vol up, vol down, etc.
  3. Consider a custom-built application specific hard-button remote for Roomie, similar to how Control4 has a dedicated solution-specific remote. ($$$)
    • I understand this involves a lot of R&D, contracting with a electronics design firm, contract manufacturing, etc. I also understand there is a limited market for this right now, so not likely to be profitable. But I view it as something that might drive adoption. I might be interested in partnering on this.
    • The way I view this working is to expose all the desired capabilities of Roomie through the API, and then the remote communicates with Roomie over WiFi and each button press is nothing more than an HTTP call to the API. This will make it very reliable. So it is both a universal solution for all users plus a great integrated experience.

I absolutely have a “dedicated” iOS device in the strong technical sense. It is in my media closet. It is always on.

In the idealized model (as documented and described here for some years), these are the same device. Putting an iPad in your closet is an underutilized device running on a model that was only suggested for a “Simple Hub” that had no head and lived in a closet. The current ideal model is that there is one master dedicated iOS device, it is in the living room/theater, it is in guided access mode, it is used as a control device, and it is also your Primary. This saves you a device, and reflects that these devices replace hard button remotes. Your family members migrate their mental patterns from the old physical remote to the new remote that happens to be running on an iPad/iPod Touch/iPhone. One note in favor of using old iPhones is that Haptics go a long way with new users, and those aren’t on iPads. The contrary point is that iPads have superior media guides.

In the fully realized environment comparable to a Control4/Savant install, you would have further dedicated devices in each major room of the house. Many, many users have deployed this way successfully. Following the model obviously provides the best user experience and eliminates the friction experienced by those users who have not been willing to remove the hard button and upgrade their family to media guides, etc. If you leave the old physical remotes in place, certain kinds of people will not ever migrate their patterns because there is no need to do so, and thus they will have no appreciation for whatever additions the new model may provide to help them.

Of course, that still leaves the AirBNB style guests scenario as valid, but as that is not the issue at hand, you may want to swap some locations/setup.

First you say:

Seems like an argument for asking us to add a feature to become the iOS media player so you have a set of media controls accessible without unlocking your device right on your lock screen

Sorry, no, I was not asking for that. I don’t oppose that, but it doesn’t solve my use case.

Then you say:

Consider expanding Roomie to respond to a physical BT media remote the way that, for example, Amazon Music, responds to the same

These statements are directly contradictory, though likely you were not aware of that. If we take pole position and trick iOS into thinking we are an on-device media player (Sonos app does this for instance), we inherit support for that remote you want automatically. As previously described, that is all an OS service. So again, the way I interpret your comments, you would then doubly want us to do that which is a good feature request.

There are downsides to tricking iOS in that way. Indeed, Sonos even removed it, and then their users staged a revolution and they put it back, but it is still problematic for them. But regardless, it is a fact.

Your #1 and #2 requests are reasonable (when rephrased per above), but I will say we have no plans for #3. That is its own company and begins with at least $15MM in financing. (We explored that direction in 2015 briefly.)

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Sounds absolutely fantastic. Thank you.

And I get what you are saying with your rephrasing. Effectively to get BT hard button remote you have to become a on-device media player which is going to also bring the possibility of lock screen controls.

Quickly: have been following this thread since the beginning and feel the urge to chime in and say:

  1. Roomie is absolutely superior to any hard button remote once you and your family rewire your thinking to use a touch screen remote with haptics. Media guides, live camera views, HomeKit integration, Siri control to start… There is nothing nearly this polished in the DIY space (if you invest the time in programming and rewiring your brain).

  2. I wholeheartedly endorse the idea of Roomie taking over the iOS lock screen media controls as a quick way to speed up volume adjustments and transport control. Yes, it’s not completely bulletproof (didn’t Sonos have an issue with AirPlay 2 devices on the same network disabling the lock screen media controls?), but what a great feature to add for quick adjustments from non-dedicated devices. And if this means hard button remotes are a bit easier, I’d probably add a few in the guest rooms too!

Keep up the great work, Will!

J.

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@chobo,

Absolutely no question that Roomie is the best app on the market for DIY home automation control. My subscription expired on Sunday and I bought the $149 perpetual app. I would have paid more.

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I agree with the subjective viewpoint that Roomie is superior to a hard button remote in all the cases listed above. Rich media guides, access to discrete device settings, device feedback, etc. It’s all great and the primary reason I use Roomie. Perhaps Roomie has even done some focus group testing to put some quantitative value behind their philosophy and and to inform their model. Again, I’m totally behind it. All that said, the one place I think the touch screen vs. hard button superiority flips is with Play/Pause, Vol+/Vol-, and mute commands. For casual viewing, those are the commands I use most frequently, and I think my tactile memory of those commands on a hard button remote cannot be rewired to achieve the same level of convenience on guided mode, dedicated room, touch screen. Even if it is sitting on it’s LaunchPort stand right next to me.

So, my request to Will and Roomie is to add the Harmony Hub as a device to Roomie Remote. In one sense, I feel kind of awkward asking for it, maybe like asking Ford to add some Chevy parts to their trucks. But I also see the Harmony Hub as a device that is already integrated with many smart home and control products, and it really doesn’t take anything away from Roomie, except maybe from the philosophy that hard buttons are the old way.

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After looking at HomeSeer in 2007, I decided to let the Home-Automation scene mature a bit. I started looking again in 2016. I heard the DMZ Home-On #79 podcast that you were a guest speaker on. Everything you said “just clicked” with me. This is what I had been waiting for.

  • You mentioned 2 future Hard-button remote solutions (in addition to game-controllers and iPort). A real hard-button remote has always been a “required feature” for my final system.
  • You basically called the HomeBridge (hack) the nonsense that it is.
  • No cross-platform (Android) client. Just Apple’s various OSes, on their machines . Fits right into Apple ecosystem.
  • You said “put and Amazon Echo in every room”. I have done that.

I know your background Will. You are like this genius software developer and programmer. Roomie/Simple-Control works with all these different machines and devices, but Logitech Remotes are still excluded from the party.

2 other platforms support Harmony Remotes. Even if it has to be a hub-based/IP-model, that would be understandable and fine (we all really want wireless-radio remotes anyway).

Please don’t let my ramblings dissuade you. The others here know more about all this. At this point, I would welcome anything.

We added Harmony integration in the latest beta. The current Activity synchronizes in both directions so that whether you start an activity from Roomie or Harmony, both will engage correctly. Keep your Activity names the same between the two. Just add your Harmony Hub via auto-discovery to the appropriate room in Roomie that corresponds to the room in which it is used and for which the Activities will match. From there, the synchronization is automatic.

There is also an .ACTIVITY START command to launch specific Harmony activities that you specify.

Beta is semi-public, but access requires contacting support if you have not previously been part of it.

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This is awesome news. Thanks for the update Will. I’ll give it a try in the beta.

So I am in the beta and trying out the remote. Just bought the elite model and hub. I currently have an itach that I use for the IR components in this room. Is the integration process to remove the itach from simple control, install the hub, create the activities in the harmony remote and then sync with roomie remote? I am really excited to test this out, but realize that I need some direction before I go off breaking things.

Thanks,

Nick

I don’t know why you’d remove the iTach. The procedure is really just to make sure your Activities are named the same thing per my post 2 up. Certainly you could choose to use the Harmony as your IR transmitter though if you like, but removing the iTach only reduces your options.

Wow! This is great news. Thanks.

This is just great! Will join the beta. Is the integration intended to work for Express or just Elite?
I most need the up/down/left/right/enter cluster plus a few control functions and the microphone as opposed to the ability to launch activities from buttons. So Express would be the preferred choice.

No idea. It probably requires a Harmony Hub. The Express looks like an economy model. But it might work. Let us know in beta feedback.