The Technomadic Technomage, Mario, and Me

I’ve been meaning to get this post up for a while, but only just gotten a little time to catch up on some of my blogging backlog.

Once upon a time, I had this Nintendo Wii.

The author excitedly holding a newly-opened Wii Mario Kart steering wheel, surrounded by other Wii boxes and paraphernalia

I bought it a few years back to serve as my exercise and entertainment system during my last season in Antarctica. Then my roommate hacked it and downloaded an NES emulator for it, and we mostly used it to play Tetris all season instead.

In my most recent move, I rediscovered it at the bottom of a tub of Ice mementos and holiday clothes. Now I have a Wii again! Complete with controllers and those nifty steering wheels for playing Mario Kart.

What I don’t have is a television. (Because who owns a television in 2014?)

But Maymay was visiting when I made this discovery, and decided we were going to make the Wii work somehow anyway. We considered trying to use one of our laptop screens as a stand-in for a TV, but that seemed complicated and like it would require a bunch of adapters we didn’t want to pay for, so instead Maymay just downloaded a Wii emulator (complete with a whole bunch of new games — whee!)

Maymay wearing a green t-shirt and jeans sits on a couch holding a Wii controller set, and looks intently at a game screen (not pictured)

Fortunately, the Wii’s controllers use Bluetooth, so they were able to communicate with Maymay’s laptop the same way they would have with the Wii console itself. This is important, because I think the Wiimotes are really what makes the Wii experience fun. Trying to navigate a Wii game using a typical emulator’s keyboard commands just wouldn’t compare.

Only one thing was missing: The sensor bar. This is the little black bar that usually sits on top of your TV and tracks where the Wiimotes are in 3-dimensional space. (Otherwise, the only information the computer gets is how fast the controller is moving, via the gravitron, and which buttons you’re pressing.)

Unfortunately, the sensor bar plugs into the Wii using a proprietary attachment, so there was no way to connect it to the laptop without buying an expensive adapter. Since the idea was to do this project without spending a lot of (or, ideally, any) money, we figured we might just have to go without. But that ruled out playing any games that require the sensor bar, like Wii Bowling and Mario Galaxy and my favorite WarioWare: Smooth Moves. (Omg, it’s the most fun.)

That’s when we discovered the coolest thing about the whole Nintendo emulation process! The sensor bar isn’t actually doing the sensing in this equation.

A Wiimote pointed at a diagonal, so that the sensor window at the end is visible.

I’d always assumed it was the Wiimotes sending a signal out of that little glass window in the end, and the sensor bar receiving it. (After all, Nintendo actually describes it as a Sensor Bar that is “sensitive to direct sunlight and various light and heat sources.“)  Turns out that’s backwards. It’s actually the bar itself that emits the signal. The Wiimotes read it, and transfers that information via Bluetooth to the computer, which uses it to calculate their position in space. And the signal that the sensor bar puts out is infrared.

What is infrared light? It’s heat. (In fact, that same Wiimote trouble-shooting guide on the Nintendo webpage suggests checking the vicinity of your set-up for lit stoves, heaters, Christmas lights, etc. that might be interfering with your gameplay.) Turns out it’s about the same amount of heat as that released by your typical household tea-light candle.

The Wii "sensor bar" with two unlit white tea-light candles in front of it, one at each end.

So, if you get a couple of tea-lights and place them roughly the same distance apart as the infrared lights on your sensor bar would be, voila, you’ve got yourself a cheap “sensor bar” emulator!

Maymay, wearing a green t-shirt and jeans, sits on a couch and plays Wii by pointing a Wiimote at a laptop with two lit tealight candles in front of it.

We tried this out and it works great. But my favorite part is that having to burn candles in order to play videogames tickles all my romantic sensibilities about technomagic. 😉

A laptop displays a Wii game on screen. Two lit tealight candles sit on the table in front of the computer, with a Wiimote placed on the table in front of them.

. . .

Profile view of Maymay looking into the near distance at a screen (not pictured.)Maymay doesn’t only come up with clever solutions for my need to play Mario Kart. They also perform even more legit technomagic, writing free code to help prevent sexual violence and get healthy food to people who need it. They’ve had a bad run of luck lately with two major car repair bills and a massive computer meltdown. If you can spare a couple of bucks to help them get back on the road, I’m sure they’d appreciate it.



  1. maymay

    Aw this is the sweetest, most fun post! I look decidedly un-fun in those pictures but I can assure you (any anyone else reading) that this is because I was trying out the tea-lights-as-sensor-bar for the first time. Things got way more smiley-faces when Mario Kart and whatnot started happening. 🙂 Heart!

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