Q&A with flirc's Jason Kotzin


Recently we caught up with Jason Kotzin, the creator of flirc -- a device that plugs into your computer's USB port and allows you to program any television remote to control your computer. He has a pretty inspiring story and we thought we'd share it with you!

 
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do? 
 
At a fairly young age, I earned the reputation in my family for taking things apart. My grandmother would save her broken electronics for me to fix when I came to visit, and all those little experiences quickly turned into a love for understanding how things worked, and a strong interest in math and science. I was never good in subjects requiring memorization; I was much better at understanding and applying.
 
Later, in high school, I gave 10 dollars to a student for his broken TI-83. He watched in disappointment as I opened it in front of him, reset the calculator by clearing the EEPROM to its factory default settings, and began playing with it. I started writing TI-83 software to help with my math tests, and they started to circulate the school. That started my love for writing software.
 
I got accepted to a few colleges for electrical engineering except for my first choice, Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. I applied to Cal Poly for early decision and normal admission, and got denied for both. So I applied for summer school as another major, and was accepted. Cal Poly has a very strict policy for changing majors -- strictly put, they really don't allow it. But I took a chance, risked my future by declining other schools, and went to Cal Poly, which emphasizes hands-on experiences, creativity, and exploration.
 
Within my first two weeks, I went to the college of engineering and told them I made a mistake, I wanted to be an engineer. They told me the requirements; I had to pass all the calculus, physics, and chemistry pre-requisite courses with an outstanding GPA. They told me to drop out of school, and go to the neighboring Junior College where I would have better luck.
 
But I stayed, worked extremely hard, and met the requirements. I subsequently had more motivation than any other student, joining multiple clubs to prove to everyone that I really was an engineer. Each year I joined the robotics club, which further instilled my love for the intersection of hardware and software. I began experimenting with microcontrollers outside of school, and started "hacking." For my senior project, I fabricated my own PCB, hand-soldered the components (which involved many SparkFun chips that I probably still have my original receipts for), and wrote the microcontroller code. I had a few job offers before I graduated, and learned very quickly that my success had been because of what I had done outside of the classroom, and not in it. Playing on my free time continued even as I progressed into the industry.
 
What is flirc, and where did the idea come from? Where do you hope it will go? 
 
Flirc allows you to pair your television remote control with your computer. The idea came from a very big gripe I had with media centers. I set up a Linux machine, attached it to our TV, and both my wife and I enjoyed it. However, I was constantly told that the wireless keyboard that occupied the larger portion of our dining room table had to go. I'm a minimalist, and refused to buy another remote control. So I started looking into how I could use my own television remote to control my media center. I found LIRC, and was immediately frustrated. My remote wasn't supported and required a new lookup table. I said to myself, "This shouldn't be this hard." 
 
I came to the realization that every single media center application can already be controlled by my keyboard. Why not make my remote control look like a keyboard? So I began the process of researching and trying to find out if this could be done on my favorite microcontroller, the ATMega. 
 
It just so happened that I started moving all my development to my Mac, and in doing so, found a pre-compiled avr-gcc toolchain called Crosspack
 
I then found their USB stack, which I downloaded, and immediately had something up and running. I contacted Christian, one of the creators, and we drew up an agreement which allowed me to use his stack commercially in exchange for allowing the community to use my USB Vendor ID.
 
I spent my free time outside of my job at Cisco working on flirc and had something with a commandline interface in less than three months. It took me another three years to turn it into a polished product. I quickly learned that 95 percent of the work is in the last 5 percent.
 
I think I’ve accomplished my goal of where I wanted it to go: earning a spot in people’s homes other than my own.
 
You have a unique story about the allocation of flirc profits. Can you tell us a bit about it?
 
When I graduated college, I finished enrolled in 27 units, had three part-time jobs, and was president of the Cal Poly IEEE student branch. I ended school looking forward to what would have been my first vacation in five years. 
 
On suspicion and my mother's insistence, I went to the doctor before the trip, and had a precautionary colonoscopy. I woke up, and the doctor said, “We were surprised with what we found." I asked how serious it was, and he replied, "Cancel your trip."
 
Within a week I had surgery, and a month after recovery I started chemo as a precautionary measure. Throughout that time, I still hacked on the side. During "good" weeks, I helped a family friend materialize a product, and worked on what would be my last participation in the Cal Poly Robotics tournament.
 
After finishing chemotherapy, I started to fundraise for my oncologist’s research center. I did that while balancing my full-time job and flirc, but couldn’t handle the workload and had to give something up. I couldn’t stop fundraising for my oncologist, so I decided to allocate a portion of the company for his research center, and donate a portion of every sale.
 
It’s been an amazing journey and worth every sleepless night. But one thing is for certain, I couldn’t have done it without SparkFun. I’ve learned about fabricating PCBs from BatchPCB; I learned about bed of nail programming from SparkFun’s tutorials; SparkFun pointed me to a great enclosure design house called Spoko Solutions; and Nate recently gave me my contact for the new product packaging. I never imagined the generosity of a single company would play such an important role in my life, and I’m forever grateful. Thank you.
 
Thank you Jason, and best of luck with flirc!

Comments 14 comments

  • Hello,

    Well this story talks to me quiet a bit … especially the 95% of the work is the last 5%. I’m the designer of the MSH Brain product (RC helcopter flybarless - and tricopter, quadcopter, plane, etc - controller), and it took me less than 2 months to get my helicopter flying with it.

    Now that’s about 2 years I’m working on it to get the other helis to fly correctly ;)

    I think we are quiet a few that can now combine hobby and work thanks to Sparkfun, for me it took approx. one year working after day work, on weekend, during holidays, etc to get enough credit to quit my regular job and open my own small company.

    My biggest frustration ? There is no hackerspace in Metz where I live (in France), I’d so much like to share experience with other hackers/devs. I’m also thinking about how to put something in place with my wife (she’s a teacher) to make young people “feel” what is hacking and electonics about.

    My biggest happyness ? Now I’m working at home, and can see my 1 year old daughter grow hour after hours :D … plus of course I got free parts for my Mini Protos :D :D

    Thomas.

  • Agreed with the comments on the TI-83. First dabble into programming was with it, and what a profound impact.

    Jason, thanks for the inspirational story. For helping me get over this rough spot in life and see that there is light at the end of the tunnel for those of us DIYers that are trying to make a name for ourselves. With hard work and perseverance anything can be accomplished.

    -EDG

  • For as much as I’ve complained about the TI-83 being overpriced and behind the times, it has gotten so many of my friends into CS. TI BASIC is incredibly simple and easy to test, just right for a kid in math class.

    I still remember my dad complaining about that. “100 dollars, for a calculator!?” Now that I look back it looks kinda funny since he has a fancy HP business calculator, but I understand him questioning whether getting high-schoolers fancy calculators was a good idea. I lost one and had another stolen, but I did buy the replacements myself. I’d have to say the calculator was probably one of the best purchases he made for me. It really fed my curiosity for computers. Now I’ve got a degree in Computer Engineering.

    Back to the article. Really inspiring story, thank you for sharing!

  • At one point of time the floppy disk drive served as very important format for movable storage. However, with increase in number of storage options, eventually, the floppy disks started to fade out and now have become nearly obsolete. Now-a- days there are much more versatile options to replace floppy drive as a source of data transfer in IT related equipments. From last so many years various companies have been working for solutions related to data transfer. buy more instagram followers

  • This comment intended to add some sorely missing keywords: IR, infra red, infra-red.

  • Would you please share your contact for the new product packaging firm?

  • I’m working on a product that is still in development although I have to say that Sparkfun has had such a huge impact on the way I do things and everything. Their tutorials help like no other and the variety of items help me get a broader sense of what I can do.

  • Very cool idea. With post-octogenarian parents this gives a nice idea on simplification. Maybe they can quit trying to answer the remote when the phone rings. FYI, Flirc web site says “customize flirc for for your own”.

  • Bless the people who help themselves. Cheer

  • Inspiring story. I don’t want to say anymore.


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