What?You know. Controls, which work remotely.
Why?The usual reason is not having to get up off the sofa.
How?Obviously, I haven't actually made any remote controls (well not since GCSE technology, anyway). That would be redundant, as just about every gadget larger than a toaster seems to have its own remote control these days. If you're really lucky, and have more than one gadget from the same manufacturer, you might be able to control two devices with the one control... but it's not likely. The only escape from having to buy an extra table to put all your remotes on would appear to be some sort of universal remote control, so that's what we tried.
We initially went for the original Philips Pronto, and it served us well. It could memorise the codes from every remote we had except the NTL one - but then there's a special corner of hell for NTL engineers, and I'm not surprised they should choose some bizarre eldritch IRDA protocol instead of perfectly normal consumer IR. The screen was backlit (a plus), though suffered from poor contrast and there weren't anywhere near enough hard buttons. However, it was hard to beat until we bought the TiVo. As has been mentioned elsewhere, the TiVo remote is a pretty nice piece of design, and we found it so suited to its task that we used the TiVo remote in parallel for the Pronto for quite some time.
Once you get into the idea of a simple unified remote interface, it makes sense to try to extend what you can do with your one, do-it-all remote. The first step was adding an IR to X10 converter (see here), allowing us to control lighting and appliances from the Pronto. This rapidly expanded to a system based around an IRTrans transceiver unit. This little USB device allows a host PC to receive and transmit infra-red signals, as well as supporting rather useful LCD modules.
Once you bring a PC into the system, the possibilities multiply rather quickly. For example, the server is capable of transmitting the code to turn on the stereo in the dining room and changing to the input which is plugged into the sound card, when it wants to make a noise. It can also recognise codes from almost any remote, allowing us to map a tiny little Olympus camera remote (with a whole one, count it, one button) to controlling the uplighters.
The same technology also allows commands issued in the dining room to be broadcast over the house Ethernet, allowing control of any networked device from the core of the house. There are several more features still to add to this system.
Recently, of course, the Pronto gave up the ghost (probably after being knocked off the arm of the sofa - you would have thought that would be a risk that was anticipated by the designers? Ah well). In the lack of any more convincing alternatives, we're sticking with Philips and ordering the shiny new Pronto RU980, which has a funky high-contrast (colour) screen, and enough hard-buttons. Unfortunately, it's not here yet - QED-UK are a very frustrating bunch of people to do business with; so much so that I've had to cancel my order and go back to LetsAutomate.com, who have always provided impeccable service.