Embedded Development in a Language You've Never Heard Of.

(Almost) Mobile Roku Development

Roku development is unique in that you really can’t do anything without a television as a necessary part of your setup. There’s currently no Roku emulator or virtual device available, so yes — you need an actual television.

This requirement doesn’t lend itself to traditional developer escapes: you’re not setting up your 32″ tv on a table at Starbucks, nor are you bringing it in the car; on a plane; or on public transportation. Hotels aren’t reliable as most hotel routers or access points won’t let you side load rokus over them. We’re mostly stuck at a fixed desk either at home or at work.

Over the last year I have left Pittsburgh and traveled to New York City one week each month to be onsite in the Brightline offices, and have also taken trips to Florida, Ohio, Kentucky, DC, and Washington state (seriously can we move the office to Seattle?). During all this travel and talking with some other Roku devs, I found ways to be productive in hotels, on my monthly Amtrak train through the mountains, and even on the car rides to our other destinations.

All of this revolves around two constraints: we need to get control over the network we’re using so we can side load channels reliably, and we need to reduce the physical requirement of the TV.

To solve the first issue, I bought a travel router from TP-Link (here). It’s usb powered, has a simple quick setup interface, and can handle 300mbps. I’ve never had an issue with this device, and it’s only 2,2″x2.2″x.7″ in size. In all scenarios this will act as our man in the middle — we can connect it to any wifi or hotspot and push our zipped channels across it to the Roku and stream video with no issues.

In the car (sometimes it’s not just a trip, but I’m waiting outside for a few hours while my daughter is at practice), I bought (this) in-car 4G LTE hotspot from T-Mobile that plugs into any car’s diagnostic port. Coupled with the TP-Link Router we have solved an extreme case of working away from the desk. But what about the TV?…

With Roku emulators only a dream, we need to either reduce the size of the monitor considerably or remove the need for it all together. Another developer introduced me to this tiny 7″ 4k monitor. To make this work you will also need an HDMI splitter, like this one, to prevent incompatible DHCP versions from preventing playback. With a small stand this does make for a nice setup to take with you to hotels (I have used this on vacation quite a bit and it’s great). You will need to buy a universal 12V adapter (they’re all over amazon and eBay). I power this setup with a unique power strip I found (here), it has three 110V outlets and three USB outlets — perfect for powering a Roku, the monitor’s power adapter, and the HDMI splitter. The usb ports run the TP-Link router and if you’re using a stick form factor Roku device, there’s two free ports to plug it into.

Lastly, to get rid of the TV altogether, the solution is to use an HDMI capture device (here). It’s not cheap, but it allows the developer to stream the Roku output into a usb port on a laptop. The stream is then picked up via VLC or QuickTime and displayed on the user’s laptop. All together as a bundle, and with the best cable management I could muster on a very long train ride, it looks like this:

I know, it’s a lot. But there’s really not a lot in the way of alternatives. And yes, I really mean that first caption — getting onto a flight with 3 Roku’s and all of this hardware and even more wires is a nightmare. Just having this out and assembled on an Amtrak train caused some stares and questions. Literally no one will understand what you’re talking about but they’ll know it’s not what they were worried about.

So there it is, (almost) mobile Roku development. I wish none of this was necessary, but working on this platform makes hackers out of us more often than it should. This has kept me productive in my hotels at night; on my long trips to and from NYC; working vacations for my youngest daughter’s competitions; and all the other times I’m not in front of my home lab and need to make some Roku magic.

Lastly, none of these Amazon links are affiliate links. I use Amazon smile, which gives a charity of your choice a portion of your purchases. I selected Big Cat Rescue, they take care of big cats that need a safe home or need to be rescued from exploitation. It’s expensive and they could use your help! Link

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