Leveraging Technology in an Information Session

One of the things that I have the opportunity to do on a regular basis is manage technology needs in an Informational session on a weekly basis.  This was the kind of thing that involved a lot of learning along the way, and needing to find solutions quickly, on-the-fly.  What I want to do with this particular post is to share how I’m able to leverage technology to do what I do.

If you’ve read my About page, you will already know that I primarily use Apple products.  Many of the things that I will describe can be done with a Windows PC or other devices, but I personally don’t think that it’s as easy to do so.  I have a MacBook Pro 17″ from late 2006, and an iPhone 3G, as well as an Airport Express.

Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first.  One of the first things that I had to be able to do was display pictures and video, and play audio.  This is very easy to do, but it does require the right equipment.  This is also something that can be done with any computer (even a netbook).  For audio, I use iTunes, but any media player will work just as well.  What’s really key are speakers that are sufficiently loud to fill an entire room.  For a small room, it may be possible to use a small, semi-portable stereo system (such as a “boombox” or large CD player), as long as it has an Aux (short for Auxiliary) mode to accept external input.  For video display, a projector is most common, but it is also possible to use a flatscreen TV, as they are commonly able to accept standard input from computers, such as VGA.

Now here’s the more unique situation that I find is quite uncommon: in the informational session where I run technology, we have an enclosed cabinet on one side of the room, where an amplifier is connected to the speaker system that is installed in the room.  For the audio portions of the presentation, it makes the most sense to keep the computer in the cabinet, so it is out of sight and out of the way.  But computers generally don’t read and respond to your thoughts, so you need some way to interact with it in order to get it to play what you want it to play when you want it played.  How in the world is it possible to do this?

My most natural thought was to see what options there were to control my computer from my iPhone.  There are plenty of applications that let you login to your computer remotely through a VNC connection (if you’re wondering, VNC stands for Virtual Network Computing).  However, the problem with many of those applications is that they require you to “click” your mouse by tapping your iPhone screen, and they expect you to use this as your primary interface with your remote computer.  This is not inherently a bad thing, but as you can imagine, an iPhone isn’t the best thing for exact clicking on a much larger computer screen.  So I kept searching around, and I found one really great application called RemoteTap, by ReadPixel (here is a link to their homepage).  This one iPhone app is the foundation for being able to run my computer remotely.  Here’s essentially how it works:

  1. First, you install the app on your iPhone (obviously), then you navigate to the ReadPixel website to download the Mac OS X Preference Pane that makes all the magic happen.
  2. Install the Preference Pane, and turn on the RemoteTap server within the Preference pane
  3. Have your iPhone and Mac connected to the same wireless network.
  4. Launch the iPhone app and connect to your Mac

These are the abbreviated steps, because this isn’t a walkthrough for RemoteTap.  Here’s the point:  RemoteTap has specific features within the app itself that make controlling a computer from a phone very simple.  Features like:

  • Easy screen switching or “Space” switching
  • A full list of all applications installed on the computer, as well as a list of apps that are running
  • Volume control
  • A pop-out keyboard
  • Custom keyboards

Ok, let me give a specific example.  Let’s say I need to have a movie play on the TV in the front of the room.  What I’ll do is take advantage of the the Spaces feature offered by OS X to keep the video player out of view until I’m ready to play the video.  I’ll also keep the volume turned down (not necessary, but when running technology, you quickly learn to always plan for the unexpected).  With RemoteTap, I can turn the computer volume up at the appropriate time.  Then, I can switch to the Space where I have the video player set to full screen.  Then I can use the keyboard to take advantage of keyboard shortcuts (such as using the spacebar to play and pause) to control the playing of the video.  All of this while the computer is hidden away in a cabinet, preventing it from being a distraction to anyone else.

As I mentioned, RemoteTap requires the computer and the phone to be on the same wireless network.  Here was where I encountered a certain hiccup:  the normal hotel wireless network that we use for internet doesn’t seem to allow RemoteTap to connect to my Mac.  So I had to create my own wireless network.  That’s not too hard, as my Mac is capable of generating its own wireless network with itself as the base station.  This was where I encountered yet another hiccup:  the iPhone doesn’t like to stay connected to a wireless network when there is no internet connection.  I actually think this is more to do with the IP address that is given to the phone by the network, but I haven’t really looked into it too deeply.  This is where the Airport Express comes in:  The Airport Express doesn’t require an internet connection to maintain a good IP address, so I use it instead of my Mac’s built-in ability.  But that lack of an internet connection comes back to bite here, too.  Connecting the phone to the Mac seems to take a long time (much longer than when using my network at home), so I figured out a way to essentially keep the connection open.

My iPhone is jailbroken, which allows me to install extra software on it, such as OpenSSH.  This allows my phone to act as an SSH server and to receive SSH connections.  So, I established an SSH connection from my computer to my phone to essentially keep the connection open.  With this setup, I have a solid connection, and no slowness when using RemoteTap.  This also means that I don’t have to be directly accessing my computer to make all the “magic” happen.

Of course, when people ask me how I do all this from my phone, I like to just say “There’s an app for that.”


How to clip a song with iTunes

iTunes has many useful features beyond organizing and playing your songs, podcasts, videos, and other media.  Unfortunately, many people are unaware of some of the things you can do with this application.  This is a walkthrough of how to take an existing MP3 (or other song media that iTunes recognizes), and clip it down to a smaller size.  This is useful for creating ringtones (if you have a phone that supports MP3 ringtones), as well as for cutting out disclaimers or other unwanted audio from a track.

If you need to download iTunes, here is the link from Apple’s website:  iTunes download link.

Let’s get started.

First, of course, you have to have iTunes open, and we’ll assume that you already have a song or track that you want to edit.  In this case, lets say I’m going to make an MP3 to use as a ringtone, which means that I’m going to cut a piece out of the middle.  Start in your main music library, and right-click on the song.  Choose “Get Info” from the context menu:

Click over to options tab, and look for the Start time and End time fields:

If you’re only cutting off the beginning or ending of a song, then you only have to fill out the appropriate field.  The format that these fields are in are Hours:Minutes:Seconds.Tenth.Hundredth.Thousandth.  This means you can be as specific as you want (or need) to be about the exact length.  In my case, I have decided that the portion of the song I want to keep is from 0 min 38 seconds to 1 min 2 seconds.  So I modify the fields:

In my case, the check boxes next to the fields automatically turned themselves on.  Now click the OK button to save your changes.

Now, it’s time to make a copy of the song.  Before we do that, we have to make sure that our settings are correct for the importing music from a CD, because these are the same settings that are used when converting an existing song.  If you’re using Windows, use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + , (the comma key).  If you’re using a Mac, use Command + , (the comma key).  Under the General section, click on the button for Import Settings. The layout should be very similar across both Windows and Mac OS X, so even though the picture below is from a Mac, a Windows user should be able to find the correct settings in the same place.

The settings in the Import settings are entirely up to you.  If you have no idea what any of these settings mean, you can set your settings to the following:

When you’re done, click OK to save the changes.

Now, go back to your song that you are editing.  Right-click on the song, and choose “Create MP3 Version”.  NOTE: If you selected AAC or WAV in your import settings, it will replace MP3 with your selection. Here’s an example of the different possibilities for this selection:

Whichever method you chose, you will now have a shorter version of your song.  Obviously, the exact time will be determined by your own settings:

If you need to find the song on your hard drive, right-click on the new song.  If you’re using Windows, choose “Show in Windows Explorer”.  If you’re using a Mac, choose “Show in Finder”.  In either case, this will take you to your song on your hard drive, so that you can copy it or do whatever it is that you want to do with it.

Hope this is helpful to you!