TV-B-Gone: an Electronic Kit with a Superpower
I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me so long to get around to the TV-B-Gone kit. Mitch Altman came up with the design all the way back in 2004, but didn’t catch my attention until 2008 when Gizmodo infamously used one to switch off TVs throughout the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas (see video).
It was a jerk move by Gizmodo, but I can’t help but love that it demonstrates how potent and disruptive DIY technology can be. None of the manufacturers saw this coming because the device itself wasn’t made by one of them — and never would have been. It was made by one of use, arguably as a tool to fight back against the growing encroachment of TVs into every area of our lives.
Another reason why this kit is important is because the vast majority of maker-targeted electronic kits out there can be simply summed up as “neat”. They blink some lights, spin some motors, or emulate a vintage video game. Fun stuff, and empowering in its own way, but ultimately a novelty.
The TV-B-Gone, for better or worse, is a powerful tool that can be wielded for mischief or rebellion. I can think of no other kit that nails the dark art of hardware hacking quite the same way. Perhaps if Samy Kamkar made a kit version of his combination lock Combo Breaker, you could sell these kits together as a teenage hacker anarchist starter pack.
I mention all this because as someone who came to Maker world the long way around (music instruments were my inroad), I remember a time when I was young and regarded most electronic projects with a “Why bother?”. For those who aren’t naturally inclined to explore and tinker with electronics just for the hell of it, the payoff of the TV-B-Gone makes for a great incentive to dive in.
I built my TV-B-Gone from the Super TV-B-Gone kit sold by Make:, though it’s a bit of a misnomer. My sense is that when this kit came out they used the word “super” as a way to communicate that it was using a newer version of the circuit (version 1.2) to differentiate it from the existing first-generation kits on the market.
Regardless, whether you buy the kit from Make: (they seem to be sold out) or from Adafruit, inside the box you’ll find the Adafruit-manufactured version 1.2 of the TV-B-Gone, along with all the components you’ll need, including the battery holder (batteries not included).
You won’t find printed instructions, though, so you’ll need to pull up the online documentation from either Make: or Adafruit. The instructions on either site will get the job done, but Adafruit’s are more thorough. That said, Make: has a nice video walkthrough worth watching.
Honestly, in some ways the instructions on both are overkill. This project has only 20 parts, and both sites basically walk you through part by part. This is certainly better than when a project is poorly documented, but many of these steps could be collapsed so that all the component types are addressed in one step (ie. solder the capacitors, solder the resistors) with details on which component values go where spelled out within the step. Point being, with some thoughtful editing, this could be a 7-step project instead of 15, which could ease some of the intimidation for beginners.
Still, with the instructions as-is, I had no problem assembling the project. If anything, I made more trouble for myself by trying to make tidy soldering joints on the backside of the board before I realized that the whole thing was going to be glued down to the battery pack anyway, hiding my efforts. What’s great about that, though, is that amateur solderers and first-timers won’t have to be confronted with the roughness of their work when the project is finished. All the ugly bits get hidden in the battery pack sandwich you make at the end.
What I wish I knew before I started
All the ingredients are here for a successful build, but here’s what I only know now in hindsight.
1. There are spaces on this board that look like they should have components, but intentionally don’t. Specifically, the spots labeled R2 and R3 are meant to be unused (at least in the US).
The reason why R2 is included in the design is unknown (to me, at least). The logic behind R3 is spelled out on the board itself, which explains that users are only meant to solder in the resistor if they want the board to access the european-only list of TV codes.
And while I understand the function of that optional resistor, I have to admit that it bugs me when I finish a kit like this and there are spots that look incomplete. It’s like a paint-by-numbers painting where some numbers are left unpainted. Call it a pet peeve, but I would have felt more satisfied at the end if these either weren’t there or had been handled perhaps with a DIP switch. I suspect it comes down to component cost, and ultimately I agree that it’s more important to make a kit like this financially accessible to beginners than to satisfy my PCB OCD, but still it sorta bugs me.
2. You really don’t need to solder in the ICSP headers. A significant portion of the real estate on this board is given to the In-Circuit Serial Program headers, which I’m embarrassed to admit I had no idea what that meant when I started in.
These pins allow you to directly reprogram the microcontroller chip using an additional AVR programmer. And though I love that this thing is hackable, almost every tutorial I’ve seen on tweaking the firmware on the TV B Gone says you’re better off just popping out the microcontroller and programming it directly. If I had to do it again, I’d probably save a step and skip the headers. That said, reference item #1 to see how I feel about naked component holes on my kit PCBs.
3. Bend over the big cap. It turns out that there’s a space next to the bigger capacitor (220uF) that allows it to lay flat against the board. Without thinking it over or referencing the photos, I soldered mine in straight up and down. This wouldn’t be a big deal if the device was going into an enclosure, but if it’s going in and out of your pocket as a raw circuit, bending that cap over gives it a lower profile and lessens the likelihood of it snapping off. Next time.
4. Bring the LEDs in against the board. Initially I was quite pleased with how I bent the legs of my IR LEDs so that they all lined up in a neat row. But I made the mistake of cantilevering them out half an inch. It took about a minute before one of them got bet to the side and I had to push it back in place. If I had to do it over, I’d bring the bottom of the LEDs right to the edge of the PCB to minimize their chances of being bent.
Taking it further
A number of Makers have adapted and arguably improved on the TV-B-Gone design and code. There’s the TV-B-Gone hat, and the hoodie. There are also a number of miniaturized TV-B-Gone designs on Instructables.
But more interesting perhaps, are the design and code adaptations from PorkRhombus, whose 2.11 firmware update (and suggested hardware hacks) apparently improve transmission time and battery life, as well as offer a push-to-transmit mode that will shut off the device as soon as you lift your finger off the button (the original design continues to transmit for around 2 minutes). The PorkRhombus firmware also reprioritizes the order of TV models so that the less-likely older TVs are lower on the list. You can read more about his update on the Adafruit TV-B-Gone forum and find the code for it on Sourceforge.
Personally, I think my time with the TV-B-Gone began and ended with the kit, but it’s nice to know I could take it up a notch when the Trump-era media apocalypse is upon us.
Any fan of DIY electronics should make this kit. This and the Useless Box are like the twin pillars of the Maker kit world. If you’re like me and you just turned your nose up at it for being too popular or prankster-y, get over it. For the $20 and 30 minutes it will cost you, you get a low-grade super power in return. There aren’t many projects you can say that about.
Time: 30 minutes
Cost: $18.95 (Check price on Amazon)
Payoff: A pocket-sized remote control that can turn off any TV from up to 150 feet away.
Skills learned: Soldering, component identification, component polarity, wiring battery packs, socketing an integrated circuit.
Tools needed: Soldering iron, solder, snips/flush cutters, wire strippers, 2 AA batteries.