Interview: Mitch Altman, Inventor

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Mitch Altman is an inventor and a hardware hacker, most recognized for his universal remote control called the TV-B-Gone. He’s an important figure in the hacking (modifying and customizing hardware and electronics), Do-It-Yourself, and maker communities. Today he shares his EDC for traveling to speak to and mentor others who share his passion for making things with electronics.

What’s in your everyday carry?

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View Mitch Altman’s Full Everyday Carry

I carry a TV-B-Gone universal remote control keychain that turns off TVs in public places up to 12 meters away, and a TV-B-Gone Pro that turns them off up to 100 meters away. I use that one a lot!

I get about 300 emails a day. My Nexus 4 allows me to keep up with all of the amazing people I correspond with. As I travel the world, it also allows me to find my way with maps, and also helps me find great food (I’m vegan, and the Happy Cow app is a great help). It also helps with translations, as I only speak a little of a lot of languages.

I have WeChat installed on my phone, which is a huge energy hog! But I need it to correspond with people in China where I travel to every year attending hackerspaces, since everyone in China uses it to communicate. So, for the days when I use a lot of GPS, my 10,000 mAH phone charger comes in super handy.

I load my Sansa Clip mp3 player full of language lessons so that I can better communicate wherever I go.

I travel a lot, so having an RFID blocking passport case is helpful. I also use it to keep my business cards and stickers that I hand out to anyone who’s interested.

Sometimes pen on paper is the best technology! So I carry a Sakura Micron pen and Moleskine booklet. These pens come in cool colors, and are water-proof and UV-proof, and permanent. Moleskine makes durable blank booklets that easily fit in my cargo pants pockets.

I need my reading glasses to help people learn to solder, which involves looking at tiny things.

My All-Ett wallet fits lots of different sized money (and not just US dollars). It also fits zillions of business cards, bank cards, and credit cards, without getting bulky.

My eyes are sensitive to sunlight, and good sunglasses like these polarized Oakleys keep my eyes happy.

It is often really cold when the wind picks up in the fog in San Francisco, where I live (and where I am about 1/3 of the time) so I keep a wool hat with me.

I love reading! And it’s a pain to carry lots of books while traveling. So, this Kindle Keyboard 3G e-ink reader is really nice for me. It also comes with free 3G, so I can get internet for free everywhere in the world (sometimes even when the service on my smart phone is unavailable). While on mass transit, it’s sometimes nice to pass the time in a useful and enjoyable way.

When I give talks and workshops, I use my throat and vocal cords a lot. So my hard candies (with Xylitol) help keep my throat and throat happy, while keeping my teeth happy as well.

You’ve had quite some success from making and selling your invention. How else are you using your time these days?

I started my company, Cornfield Electronics, to manufacture and sell my invention, TV-B-Gone universal remote controls, a keychain that turns off TVs in public places. This is how I’ve made a living for 10 years. (With a project I love!)

Most of my time is devoted to giving workshops to people of all ages on how to solder and how to make cool things with electronics (mostly for total beginners), and giving talks — I travel all over the world doing this.

I also mentor people who are quitting their day-jobs, and focusing on more interesting projects.

Wherever I go, I help people to start and run hackerspaces. I co-founded one of the earlier hackerspaces in the US: Noisebridge, in San Francisco.

As an inventor and a hacker, you must need to be very creative to come up with new hacks and inventions. What inspires your projects?

Going to hacker conferences and hackerspaces is very inspiring. Unlike society at large (unfortunately), a vast majority of people at these places and events are doing what they love. They are places where people feel encouraged to explore and do what they love. It’s way high.

It motivates me to continue to explore and do what I love in my life. And I take that and encourage others to do so, too. I encourage people wherever I go — at home, in the US, and around the world — to consider the possibility of making a living on projects that they love.

When someone uses their time to explore and then do what they love, their life becomes so much better. And it has a positive effect on those around them — it is contagious in a way cool way.

Besides making your own inventions, what else are you passionate about?

I love teaching people to solder and how to make cool things with electronics. I love mentoring people who are taking steps to make a living doing what they believe they love. I also love talking with people about how they use their time. There are so many ways that all of us use our time that takes away more than it gives.

For me, that is TV. TV has plenty of interesting, fun, and entertaining content to offer. But, for me, it takes away way too much time (time I could use in ways that I enjoy much more). Especially in public places, where all too often I find myself staring at a TV screen, even as I’m telling myself to ignore the stupid thing, and to pay attention to those around me (who are much more interesting than what’s on the TV!). Of course, I have my TV-B-Gone remote controls with me for these occasions.

TV-B-Gone Kit via adafruit

Why do you EDC?

I actually use all of the things I carry on a daily basis. As a reformed pack-rat, I don’t want to carry what I won’t use. And since I travel and walk around a lot, it’s nice to have pockets in my cargo pants and my jacket that fit all of it well. All of the items I carry every day were chosen by me, some after a bunch of trial and error. All of these things work well for me. They are all practical on a daily basis, except for the necklaces, which I wear because I like them, and what they symbolize for me.

What’s your favorite item to carry?

If I had to pick one item to highlight, it would be my TV-B-Gone Pro remote control. I really hate TV in public places — I’m powerless in the face of those things — and now I can turn them all off. It is also a powerful symbol for how I am empowered to make choices in my life. It’s a great conversation starter.

Could you tell us about any recent projects you’ve completed? What’s next for you?

I had a successful Kickstarter campaign for my NeuroDreamer sleep mask project. It’s a comfortable sleep mask (that works with light and sound at brainwave frequencies) that helps people sleep when they’re a bit too stressed. There’s also a version that helps people learn to control their dreams (which anyone can learn to do). I’m about to manufacture the 2nd batch, since the first batch is almost sold out.

I’m now working on 2 things:

A large brainwave-controlled hugging robot, that is both warm and fuzzy, and also just a little scary sometimes (most technology has both of these aspects). This will be shown at Chaos Communications Camp, a huge outdoor hacker conference near Berlin this August (and where I’ll be setting up a huge Hardware Hacking Area).

An inexpensive music synthesizer kit that anyone can solder together (even total beginners who’ve never made anything), and it will make way cool sounds and music. It will also be very well documented, so it will be very hackable (using the free Arduino software). And, for those interested, it will also be a great educational project for those who would like to learn about audio digital signal processing.

I’m also getting ready to do lots more travel, giving keynotes and talks at different workshops at hackerspaces, libraries, museums, and schools in Europe, Asia and South America. I’m excited for all this.

To wrap things up, do you have any “life hacks” you could share with us?

I highly recommend exploring and doing what you love doing. Or, what you believe you might love doing. If you love something, there are probably many others who will love it, too. And you may even find opportunities where people will pay you to do it! Maybe you can supplement your living doing more of what you love. And if you get enough of what you need, simply by doing what you love, to keep doing what you love? Then you are making a living doing what you love! What better definition of success could there be? This might not be easy (for life rarely is), but it will definitely be very rewarding. It’s worth considering.

Keep up with Mitch by following him on Twitter.

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