One of the centerpieces of my automated smarthome, and definitely the most enjoyable part of my Home Automation/Media Distribution System is all the awesome home entertainment features that can be enjoyed around the house through my HTPCs (Home Theater Personal Computers).
So what is a HTPC anyways?
In the simplest sense it’s a computer designed specifically to be connected to a TV. More broadly, it’s a single device that can bring all types of digital media to your enjoyment… pictures, music, cable TV, movies, streaming media, pretty much everything, in a way that is easily usable while sitting on a couch.
What’s so awesome about all this, particularly to me as a quadriplegic, is all the accessibility it provides. Think about a bookshelf full of photo albums, music CDs, Blu-ray movies, games, all kinds of stuff, but with hands that don’t work good enough to actually grab any of it, so you have pretty much all this awesome/fun stuff staring right at you, but with no way to use it. Therein comes the computer… scan a picture/take a picture on a digital camera, rip a CD, record a movie, tune into Netflix, and instantly have access to it. Put in enough hard drives, connect to the Internet, and that bookshelf has just expanded to a library’s worth of content, all viewable on a unified interface anywhere in the house. Even further, install the right applications on your phone, write a little software/scripting on the computer and you can control every single TV in the house by tapping a touchscreen or speaking by voice. It’s really quite incredible the accessibility a HTPC provides!
What Hardware/Software Makes it all Happen?
I’ve already written about the hardware used in my Home Automation Media Server here. All the home entertainment media awesomeness is piggybacked onto my home automation server by adding a Blu-ray drive, a few high-capacity hard drives, and a cable TV tuner card. This stuff is all accessed through Windows Media Center which is remotely viewed by extender devices at the different TVs throughout the house.
The interface to Windows Media Center looks like:
Notice the live/recorded TV, movies, music, pictures + videos, Blu-ray
Using a Ceton infiniTV4 PCIe cable card tuner I can view and record up to 4 high definition channels at a time. This might seem like overkill for a single device, but remember each TV in the house extends into this Windows Media Center environment, so these tuners are actually shared to every TV in the house. What this means is anything that is recorded on my server can be viewable at every TV in the house.
The live TV environment looks and works like a regular TV.
Here you can see the guide, notice the three separate shows that are scheduled to record at 9 PM
Support for Netflix streaming… you can even change your DVD queue from here.
The Music Library
I installed an external plug-in called Media Browser to take care of accessing all my Blu-ray movies. Look how slick the interface is.
Detailed view of the movie.
Imagine how visually impressive that looks on my 133 inch projector screen
Again, all this media awesomeness is extended and viewable at any TV in the house. Say the grandparents have just stopped by for a visit and you want to show them a picture of their great granddaughter. Just arrow up to pictures with the remote control, go to the correct year, date, and show them the picture on the big screen. What if you’re having a party and want to listen to your hip-hop mix… go to music, play list, and play the party mix on your big stereo. Or you missed American Idol last night… Go to recorded TV. All this in a unified interface that is viewable anyway in the house.
Smart Phone or Voice to Control It All
What really ties this all together and makes it so easy for me to use is being able to control everything using my android device with the Ceton Companion App installed, or using my voice with Dragon NaturallySpeaking and some custom scripting. The Ceton device is really awesome because it lets me select which computer or extender I’d like to control so that I can change the channel, listen to music, view the guide on any TV in the house. The app even lets me view the TV Guide, channel and show information, my recorded programs, all kinds of things right on my smart phone and if I decide I’d like to record that upcoming episode of Revolution I can do it by just touching my phone.
One last thing I started working on over the past few weeks, is writing some advanced scripting commands in my voice recognition program, Dragon NaturallySpeaking, so that I can take control of my Home Theater PC by voice. So far I’ve only written about 20 commands, but it is so amazing to turn up the TV, change the channel, or watch that show I missed the other day while in bed, completely hands-free, using only my voice. I’ll have to make a video someday showing how awesome it works, and with just normally off-the-shelf parts and Windows Media Center; no crazy, expensive, disability specific hardware that cost thousands of dollars and don’t work half as good.
So yeah, all this technology media awesomeness really is that freaking awesome!
If any of you out there have questions about how to get this all together, or if you’re quad like me and would like help getting a system set up that works hands-free, comment below and I’ll add whatever details/do everything I can to help you out.