Since the inception of the smartphone, people have been coming up with ways to use it as a remote control. There are smartphone apps for controlling your TV, turning your lights on and off, opening your front door, starting your coffee maker, and even apps for flying drones.
Now, however, the inverse is also true: There are simple wireless remotes that control … your smartphone. The phone itself has become so central to everything people do that some companies are making small wireless buttons that initiate specific phone functions, without requiring you to handle the thing.
For instance, there’s a button called Mobile Home that triggers a phone’s voice command feature while you’re driving, so you don’t have to fumble with the phone itself. There are others, like the HISY shutter remote, that activate the phone’s camera shutter remotely when you’re taking, say, a group selfie. And a new line of remote-control buttons, coming this spring, can be programmed to do a host of interesting things.
I’ve been testing the first two of these, and talking to the creators of the third. They aren’t for everyone, and smartphone users will still find themselves touching their phones for most functions. But they are useful, interesting, and point to the possibility of a world where phones mainly act as the hubs for activities controlled without tapping or swiping them.
Of the two I tested, I can easily recommend the shutter remote. The Mobile Home in-car button was a great way to avoid distractions while driving — when it worked. But I can’t give it a strong thumbs-up because it didn’t always work.
“Siri, how can I become a less-distracted driver?”
Even if you have a car with built-in Bluetooth calling, it can be frustrating to get automotive voice-recognition systems to work properly with your phone. If, like me, you mostly use an iPhone, you might prefer to use Apple’s built-in virtual assistant, Siri. For all of Siri’s flaws, I have found it’s actually better at handling voice commands than several cars’ in-dash systems.
But there’s a problem. Invoking Siri usually means fumbling in your pocket, purse, or wherever on the dashboard you’ve placed the phone to hit the Home button, which starts Siri. And that distracts you from driving — the very thing you’re trying to prevent by using voice commands.
To solve this problem, a small Texas company called Beanco Technology offers a $79 product called Mobile Home. It’s a black, rectangular gadget with a big home button, just like the iPhone’s. It clips to a car’s visor, and pairs with your iPhone via Bluetooth. It’s smaller than a standard business card.
The idea is that you press the button on Mobile Home and, even if it’s in your pocket, the iPhone reacts as if its own home button had been pressed, and activates Siri. It even works on iPhones that have been protected by lock-screen pass codes and fingerprint security, though you have to set the phone to allow Siri to operate when the phone is locked. No app is required.
I’ve been testing Mobile Home for more than a month, and I found that it worked most — but not all — of the time. It sometimes took several button presses to get a response, and it took a while for me to master the special sequence of taps required when a phone is locked. The company claims the failures have to do with the way the phone links to any particular car’s in-vehicle Bluetooth system.
But when it did work, it allowed me to keep my hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. It uses a coin battery, which the company says will last from five to six months in typical use. Mobile Home is sold through Amazon.com.
I couldn’t find a similar device for Android phones, but they may not be necessary, since on Android you can invoke the voice-command system by merely saying “Okay, Google.” Apple recently added something similar (“Hey, Siri!”), but it only works if the phone is plugged in to power and, at least in my case, I rarely charge the phone in the car.
Another option is to use the iPhone’s wired earbuds and just press the button on the cord to summon Siri. But that is mainly used by drivers whose cars lack built-in Bluetooth, and isn’t legal everywhere, according to the AAA.
Time for another Re/code group selfie …
A more common wireless remote, for both Android and Apple phones, is the wireless shutter button. I bought one called HISY for $28 from Amazon, and paired it to my iPhone — it worked perfectly.
The HISY is available in multiple colors, and is about the diameter of a quarter. You can take one shot at a time, or press down on the button to take multiple burst shots. It also works with videos.
It comes with a cheap little stand to hold the phone steady, but you can also use it with a separate tabletop or standard tripod, or just prop the phone against something to keep it steady.
It claims two years of battery life, even if you take 100 shots a day, and like the Mobile Home, there’s no separate app required.
But, unlike with the Mobile Home, you have to launch the Camera app manually before using this remote. Still, I found the freedom it gave me to position myself and the phone correctly to be more than worth it.
The curious use cases for Bluetooth buttons
Finally, there’s Flic. This is a remote wireless button for both Apple and Android phones that’s due out around April for $30 apiece — five for $99 — from a Swedish company called Shortcut Labs.
Flic is much more ambitious than the two I tried, in that it’s designed to be programmable to control multiple functions, depending on whether you press it once, double-press it, or hold down on the top surface. And you can use multiple Flic buttons to do multiple tasks.
For instance, the company says you can use a single button to remotely call up different music playlists. Or you can set one action on one button to ring a lost phone. Flics can be used to dial specific people. And they can be used for safety, to blast an alarm, or text your location and a distress message to specific people.
Flic is also designed to integrate with automated home devices, so it can operate a smart lock or control lighting.
To do all this, Flic — unlike the other products here — does require an app. But, like the Mobile Home and the HISY, it uses a coin battery and has long battery life — about five years, the company claims.
Flic is also designed to stick on a convenient surface, if you like.
Keeping your phone in your pocket or purse, and controlling it with a small wireless button is a pretty good idea, depending on the situation. And it’s about to become even more versatile.
So, while these buttons are not the most game-changing technology I’ve ever tested, I found them to be valuable, and I expect to see more of them.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.