Saturday, April 14, 2007

 

Nexremotin’ It

It’s amazing to me how many Celestron owners ignore or don’t even know about Nexremote, one of the most innovative telescope control software tools (putting it mildly) ever to come down the pike. But what, you may ask, is “Nexremote”?

It was a dark and stormy night…

Well, maybe not dark and stormy, but it was a cloudy 2003 evening, anyway. Your Old Uncle Rod was browsing the email. Buried amongst all the Yahoogroup traffic was a personal missive from a dude named Ray St. Denis. Mr. Ray asked if I’d be interested in helping beta test a new software package for Celestron NexStar scopes he and his buddy, Andre Paquette, were working on.

“Well , I dunno,” sez Uncle Rod.

I was, I will admit, simply not overly excited about looking at yet another planetarium program that would—SHAZAM!—allow you to click on objects and send your scope on go-tos. Ho-hum.

Andre responded by saying this was a very special and very different program. What this app, which he and Andre (who called themselves the “Astro-geeks” (!)) were calling hcAnywhere, did was duplicate the NexStar computer hand-paddle on a PC screen. But that was not the big news. After all, ASCOM can throw up a simple direction button “hand control.” What was big news was the fact that, as Ray explained, hcAnywhere replaced the hand controller. That is, it would allow you to leave the handpaddle at home!

A virtual hand controller was something the Celestron and Meade troops had dreamed about for a long time, so my interest was, understandably, piqued. Hell, a virtual hc was the Holy Grail of us go-to-mad SCT troops. And just to sweeten the deal, Ray said he’d send me a “programming cable” along with the software so I wouldn’t have to scrounge one somewhere. Why a programming cable? The program, he said, used the NexStar’s “PC” connection rather than the normal RS-232 socket in the base of the handpaddle to connect to the scope. Before hcAnywhere, the PC port’s/programming cable’s only use had been for updating scope motor control firmware.

So I was convinced to join the effort, and in short order I had hcAnwhere up and running. Even today I’m amazed at what Ray and Andre accomplished. Once I got the package, I found that “just” duplicating the HC was only a small part of the story. Thanks to hcAnywhere, I now had something I’d wanted for a long time: wireless scope control.

hcAnywhere, you see, was compatible with Logitech’s wireless “Wingman” gamepads. Not only could you use the joystick to slew the scope, the gamepad’s many buttons had been assigned to perform various hc functions. Slewing the scope was just a small part of it. It was also possible to use the Wingman to access menus and perform alignments without touching the computer. This made the whole hcAnywhere idea seem much more practical to me. Initially, I’d wondered about the practicality of aligning the scope with a PC. Unless the laptop were near the eyepiece, you’d have to center star and then run over to the laptop and try to “accept” the star as quickly as possible before it drifted away (some Celestron scopes in some modes don’t begin tracking until the alignment is done).

But the gamepad option was about more than just making go-to alignment easier; the wireless Wingman made the difference between hcAnwhere being an innovative curiosity and a genuinely useful setup. I don’t mind telling y’all that as soon as Andre and Ray let me know me about the gamepad thing I ran over to Ebay and snagged a Wingman (for less than 20 American dollars).

When the software and the gamepad arrived, and many cloudy nights had—of course--passed, I got the Nexstar 11 out under the stars with hcAnywhere. Funny thing? For such a seemingly complex piece of code, it all worked perfectly and without complaint. No crashes. No errors. I didn’t have to give up my planetarium programs either. Seems as hcAnywhere had a “virtual (serial) port” that would allow other programs to share the PC port connection. Turn that virtual port option on, startup Cartes du Ciel (or whatever), tell CdC the port number hcAnywhere had assigned, and the planetarium worked just like it always had. Click on a DSO, scope went there. Yeehaw.

Only major annoyance? While the Wingman made it purty easy to do alignments, I’d still have to wander back to the PC and read the display to do many operations. I mentioned this to Ray and Andre and they said, “Well, Rod, why don’t you enable speech?” They should have prefaced that with “you dummy,” since the speech-synthesis function was well documented in the program’s help file (which, as usual, Your Silly Old Uncle refused to read). Turned out hcAnywhere was able to use the Microsoft Mike/Mary speech synthesis utility. It’s strangely sexy to hear my “scope” intone: “Nexstar Ready!” or “Object Acquired!” in a female U.S.S. Enterprise-computer-like voice. Not just sexy, though, USEFUL. With the volume at a reasonable level, I can now do many operations with the help of audio cues without returning to the laptop.

But other than being SUPERCOOL what did hcAnywhere really do for me?

--It let me leave the non-virtual handpaddle in the case. I don’t know about y’all, but I can never find a good place to put the derned thing. I’m dropping/losing it all night long.

--It gives me wireless scope control, eliminating the ring-around-the-rosy dance I usually do that ends up with my tripod hog-tied with the handpaddle cable.

--It means that I have ONE cable running from PC to scope. By using another Ray/Andre program Nexhub, you can implement MORE virtual ports, and send everything to the PC via that one Programming Cable (HC, planetarium, and a serial guiding program, for example).

--I can choose which set of firmware my scope uses. I can set my NS11’s virtual handpaddle to duplicate the old "North and Level” GPS hc. Or I can tell it it’s a new SkyAlign model. I can also switch between scope models (I have an ASGT as well as the Nexstar 11 GPS).

--I can develop “guided tours” with ease. The program comes with an application called “Nextour,” that allows you to compile lists of objects that can then be easily accessed via the virtual HC’s tour function. Recently, the excellent planning program AstroPlanner has added a script that saves AP plans in a format the virtual hc will recognize, giving you almost infinite libraries of objects to cram into your Nexstar hand control.

But what’s this hcAnywhere thing got to do with Nexremote? As many of y’all probably know, Celestron took immediate interest in the ‘Geeks, and soon made a deal with the boys to bring hcAnywhere into the official Celestron corral under the name “Nexremote.”

Is there any criticism to be leveled against Nexremote? Only one, and it’s not the fault of Ray and Andre. Celestron’s scopes still use your computer’s consarned RS-232 port. Yes, you’ll be running to the PC port with Nexremote, but the format is still dad-blamed, cotton-pickin’ RS-232 serial data. Why is that so bad? Because modern computers don’t come with serial ports. That meant that I was Nexremoteless for quite some time.

“But Uncle Rod, But Uncle Rod,” you say, “why didn’t you just get one of them little USB to serial converter cables?” Well, I did Skeezix, and she did not work. No matter which brand I tried, my new laptop (a pretty high-powered Toshiba) would not reliably connect to Nexremote using a USB-serial adapter. If I mashed the button 10 times, I might be able to finally connect. When I did connect, the scope might work fine, or I might get lots of “no response” errors.

I hated this state of affairs, because I love Nexremote. Then, finally, one day, a light went on “Get a PCMCIA serial card you nincompoop.” I found one (on Ebay, natch) for 20 bucks (that’s my magic price point), installed it, held my breath and…all was well again; I was Nexremotin’ in style once more after months and months of withdrawal. Moral of the story? You can try one of them dadgummed converter cables with your computer. Might work. If it doesn’t, a PCMCIA serial card will fix things. I just wish the telescope companies would for once and for all abandon the RS-232 mess (Meade has implemented USB for its RCX-400).

So why don’t I see more folks running Nexremote on star party fields. I dunno. It ain’t that expensive. Less than a hundred bucks for a kit with a programming cable, a little more than 50 for just the software. In fact, the program ships with most new Celestron scopes, so most folks won’t pay a dime. Why don’t they use it, then? Dunno. I reckon they don’t know what it is or at least don’t know how wonderful it is.

Ray and Andre’s baby is all grown up now, and I’m sure they are proud. They oughta be. I know it’s done more to improve my observing experience than anything else since go-to came ‘round.

Comments:
Hi Rod,

There is some thing amiss with the nexremote and Serial to USB converter driver. Fist of all the CD supplied by Celestron dealer was faulty and could not install from it. I downloaded the driver through internet from a site and after i plug in the cable in the USB port, the device is getting recognised but the driver is not getting installed and the cable is not recognised. What could be going wrong. Regards. Venkatesh
 
It sounds as if your problem has to do with your serial-USB driver, not NexRemote. Have you tried looking for a new driver for your serial-usb cable?
 
Rod:

I have a CPC C11 that included NextRemote CPC as part of the deal and also a CGE that we would like to use Next Remote with. Is it possible to use the NextRemote that came with my CPC with the CGE or should I buy the NextRemote software that is sold on different dealers for use on the CGE? I see that the commercial one adresses several Celestron telescope mounts as advertised whereas the one I have only shows CPC.

Carlos
 
You don't need a new copy...NexRemote allows you to select the firmware for your mount/scope. See last week's blog entry for more details.

R.
 
You don't need a new copy...NexRemote allows you to select the firmware for your mount/scope. See last week's blog entry for more details.

R.
 
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