maandag 1 oktober 2012

Make Your Own USB-footswitch

laptop as dictaphone


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Of late, I get hired more often to do interviews. Which I record, using a digital recorder. I work out the interview in Word from the recording. I want the article to be a life-like representation of the subject's words. So before I start editing, I write down what was said, as good as literally. That means I have to pause, rewind an unpause the recording many times. Many many many times.

So I wanted to be able to continue typing in MS-Word, while operating pause/play and rewind on the mp3-player (which also runs on my laptop) with my feet. The idea is not new: the typewriter and the dictaphone have been among us for about a century. So I figured that something similar on my laptop would be a piece of cake.

I was wrong. Commercial dictaphone software starts at about 200 euro and comes with a separate word processor. Which I do not want. You have separate dictaphone machines from about 400 euro. Which I think is monkey business.

At which point it became a matter of honour. I had to find an affordable solution. And so I did. It cost me about a tenner on materials and a couple of hours of joyous tinkering.

But first, the software.

What didn't work

For starters, you need mp3-player software. Of which there is great abundance.

VLC Media Player supports all videoformats north of Tierra del Fuego, but it will hiccup when you hit pause/play. Which is tiresome to listen to. Exit VLC.

Realplayer and Winamp only obey commands if they are in focus, that is, if they are, of all the programs open on your computer, the one program that reacts when you type something on the keyboard. So from Word, you have to ALT-TAB to them, press a key combination, and ALT-TAB back to Word. That doesn't work. Exit Realplayer and Winamp.

Microsoft is not so bad

What remained was Windows Media Player. Most keyboards have a separate pause/play button. Media Player running in the background obeys to that button while you type in MS-Word. Good! The only problem was that Media Player doesn't have a keyboard shortcut for Rewind. The solution is a free plug-in called WMP Keys. Install, enable, and CTRL-ALT-B jumps back about 15 seconds or so. On most machines, CTRL-ALT is the same as the right ALT key. So that's two keys, not three.

This worked. To be able to press those buttons with my fingers while typing was a big step forward already. But I wanted a footpedal. After a lot of searching (good heavens, the amount of junk on the market aimed at nitwits with money to burn!) Lifehacker.com pointed me to this clip. That showed me the way.

So I bought a second-hand USB keyboard with player buttons, for € 2,50 at a local reseller's. Turned out to work right away, no conflicts. You can do four-handed typing with two keyboards on one machine (should you wish). Good!

So I opened the keyboard. You see a little circuit board, with a couple of micro-switches for the player buttons. Which one is play/pause is easy to see. You also see the keyboard matrix. If you take a good look, you'll understand how a keyboard works. If you want to know more about this, here is a nice tutorial.

All the other stuff for this project I had lying about: (jargon alert!) two foot-operatable double-pole double-throw momentary switches (single pole would do), a plate of aluminium and wood for the housing. It's sturdy, but it doesn't need to be water-tight. I never work on my laptop in the rain.

The Making Of, and the result, can be seen in the accompanying clip.

Does is work to your satisfaction?
Yes.
Totally?
Yes.
Really?
Yes, well, I'm thinking about a piece of software that automagically generates written text from the recording, but that's a different story.

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