GTi MacMini - Upgrade!

From March 3, 2009. As some of you may know, I installed a MacMini in my 2001 Volkswagen GTI a little less than three years ago, and received an enormous amount of press, praise and support of the project over the years since then. The car ended up being featured in a number of print and online publications, my blog was Slashdotted (requiring purchasing a lot more hosting) and - most importantly - the buzz around the project way back when gave myself and my business partner the necessary push to quit our jobs and go full-time with 2point5, not to mention booth space at Macworld 2006 to premier spec.dock - our company’s iPod/iPhone integration product - alongside the GTI in San Francisco. It’s been a little like a strange dream come true to have the MacMini installed in the car since then, making it simple to access my entire music collection, surf the internet, check mail, etc…However, I recently realized that I have ended up mostly using the MacMini only for music and some video, but not much more. Further, it has become a bit of a chore to keep my primary computer and the car’s computer in sync and up to date with each other via file transfers. Also, my iPhone 3G has taken over a lot of this functionality, allowing me to continue listening to music via the MacMini, while keeping up with emails and the occasional website (when I’m at a red light, of course)!

So, I decided it was time to switch it up a little and update the GTI with some new Apple componentry that would solve the issues mentioned above which presented themselves over the past few years as our company and Apple’s product lineup has grown…What device could I replace the MacMini with that was solely dedicated to audio and video, but that would also be easy to control in an automotive environment and simple to update whenever I made change to the iTunes library on my primary computer? You likely already have a good idea that I’m referring to an Apple TV.

In this post, I’m going to detail briefly the process of integrating the Apple Remote into my GTI’s shift knob - a device that I’m becoming increasingly familiar with through mods such as the NES Controller and Atari Cartridge projects. Since there’s no longer anything in my dash besides the climate controls and a 7″ LCD monitor, I figured that the shift knob was the most ideal place for the remote, since my hand’s on it 75% of the time I’m driving around town anyway!

I began by completely gutting one remote and cutting down the portion of the circuit board dedicated to the five primary control buttons - left, right, up, down and play/pause - into a circular shape that would fit inside the top of my pre-existing Momo shift knob after removing the aluminum insert in the top of the knob and using a Forstner bit to remove as much material as I could while still retaining the strength, shape and functionality of the top portion of the knob itself. I then carefully soldered five wires onto the back of the board where the contacts for these five buttons trace back to the output of the remote, adding in a sixth wire for ground, which all the buttons short to when they are pressed.

The wiring I used is a 12″ section of Alpine Ai-Net cable, which just happens to have six wires inside of an outer shield that turned out to be perfect for protecting the small-gauge wires as they run from the shift knob down the shift lever and into the center console - but more on that later. Once the functionality of these five buttons was confirmed and reconfirmed with a multimeter, I insulated the back of the board with 400-degree hot-melt adhesive we use in the assembly of the spec.dock product.

The next step was absolutely the most tedious and frightening, as it involved a lot of cutting oil and milling out the original aluminum trim from the top of the shift knob to accommodate the Apple Remote’s buttons, but I am pretty familiar at this point with aluminum fabrication, so it went pretty much according to plan - luckily, since I only had one shot at it! I used our endmill to drill the appropriate-sized hole through the middle of the aluminum disc, and then switched the bit out for a 45-degree chamfer bit to remove the remaining material required to countersink the buttons into the trim piece. This not only looks pretty nice and matches the dash bezel I made, but ensures that the buttons aren’t ever accidentally pressed while I’m shifting. I then assembled the aluminum ring, buttons and circuit board temporarily with more hot-melt adhesive.

Then, it was back to the endmill one more time to create a channel inside the steel and hardwood shift knob itself for the Alpine Ai-Net cable to run through.

Before assembling the knob and remote into a single piece that could go back into the GTI, I split the knob into its bottom and top halves and stripped the original perforated leather off, as it was looking pretty worn after eight years of use! I recovered this portion of the knob with black suede to match some other accents I have added to the car over the years. All four pieces were then permanently reassembled with cyanoacrylate adhesive and the hot-melt adhesive I mentioned earlier. This not only insulates all the contacts, but essentially molds to the inside of the knob, creating both structure and adhesion to keep everything tight and functional.

The Alpine cable was simply wire-tied to the shift lever and substructure (making sure there was enough slack for the lever to operate properly) after remounting the shift knob with the three original allen-head set screws that held it in place all these years. This cable is routed to a second Apple remote hidden in the console which actually performs the transmitting functions to the Apple TV (more on this in a later post).

So how about the menu button? I already had an empty switch blank on the dash where the MacMini’s power button and status LED used to reside, so I simply took the remaining piece of the circuit board from the original Apple remote, soldered two wires to it to make the connection points, mounted it in a new switch blank and routed these wires as well to the transmitting remote in the center console.

I’ll be making a few more posts over the next week or so with the other details of this new project such as mounting the Apple TV itself, power supply and image conversion (composite to VGA), but I can tell you thus far it has been a real pleasure to simply click through songs, videos and photos without having to operate a touchscreen, trackpad, PowerMate control knob and the like! The interface looks amazing on the screen as well, since my MacMini was the first model released and did not have the infrared eye or FrontRow installed, so I’m used to browsing a huge iTunes library on a 7″ screen! The best part so far, however, has been that I simply drive up to work and leave the car turned on for ten minutes or so inside the bay while the Apple TV and my office computer sync automatically and wirelessly - a far cry from the process I had to go through before…So, enjoy, and thank you for reading - I wouldn’t be able to do any of this fun stuff if it wasn’t for you guys (and gals), so believe that I appreciate all of your support! More to come…