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.
Such a great set-up Mike. Already thinking about what movie to suggest for the next 133 Night!
Thanks! That was a fun night! Now we just need to come up with our next movie…
This is cool, I’ve got to start using it!
You hit a topic I’ve been exploring too…it’s hard finding a good solution to wrangle in media and it looks like you’ve done it well!
What type of PC are you using at each TV location? Are you ripping your Blue Rays to a server? If so, what software are you using for that? And if that isn’t enough questions…are you using a centralized server for storage?
Great work and thank you for sharing!
Sorry…I just read the article about the server. I should read ahead before asking obvious questions.
I have not tried Windows Media Center, does it rip movies or are you using a 3rd party application? I also looked up the extension devices. I assume that you can only watch live tv on up to 4 tv’s with the cable card you have?
Hey Steve, thanks for the messages!
Right now the way I’ve got my system set up is with a Core i3 server with the quad TV tuner card, several hard drives, and a Blu-ray drive in a centralized media room. The cable card tuner is set to be network shared with 3 tuners allocated to my server, and the fourth set aside for a second computer in my home theater. Two WMC extenders (an Xbox 360 in one room, Ceton Echo in another) remotely access my server and make use of any of the 3 available tuners. I do it this way so any of the 2 extenders and the television hooked to my server can access any of the recordings related to those 3 tuners. Unfortunately, the computer in my home theater is on its own tuner and can’t access the recordings of the other computer/extenders due to some archaic Digital Rights Management that is based on the way content used to be viewed in the 80s/90s. I could also use an extender in my home theater, but choose to use a computer instead because it’s more snappy and has fuller support for the uncompressed Dolby True HD/DTS Master audio. In the home theater I can watch lossless Blu-ray rips encoded with the highest quality video/audio, but so far have not figured out how to make these files work on my two extenders. Still not the ultimate solution with file support everywhere, but Windows, the Blu-ray manufacturers, Time Warner, and the cable card oversight folks don’t make it easy.
Windows Media Center does not rip Blu-ray movies natively. I use a third-party application called MakeMKV to strip out the main video and uncompressed audio track. It works great, but definitely takes a little legwork and is not a plug-and-play solution.
Thanks Mike! That’s exactly what I wanted to know.
I also use MakeMKV but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing something better.
I want to build something very similar to yours but I am also interested in coming up with some kind of personal cloud solution. I currently use a Netgear Stora (my first file server, so don’t judge :)) and I have access to my music files and image files outside my home as well but the MKV files are stil an issue.
I tend to try to create devices that don’t sit idle waiting to fill a particular need, like DVR, file server, cloud server, etc. My latest was the purchase of my Mac Mini to support Haikuhelper…but I added Parallels so it would also run Windows and PC Access/Up Start from the same PC. Some habits you just can’t break, I guess.
Yeah, wouldn’t it be cool if there is a way you could just stick the Blu-ray in, Windows Media Center would immediately rip the uncompressed video/audio track, scrape the metadata and backdrops off the net, and add it to your collection. Would be so much easier than the number of steps I go through every time I buy a new movie.
I think a personal cloud solution is a good idea, but just not there with the services offered and the storage/bandwidth that’s needed/available. I think it’s probably more likely that a subscription-based cloud service is where things will head if the services like Netflix, Spotify, etc. can ever increase the quality of their streams. So not there with Netflix streaming when it comes to the lack of current releases and 1080 P multichannel streams. Then there is the whole, what’s up with them providing better quality/higher bandwidth streams to every device except the PC. Just doesn’t make any sense.
Would be interested to hear more about the Miny Mac/HaikuHelper although wonder if I could ever take the plunge with my complete disdain for Apple products.
For ripping you might want to checkout Auto Rip n Compress at http://experts.windows.com/frms/windows_entertainment_and_connected_home/f/25/t/81697.aspx. I wrote it a long time ago, but it still works great and it should do what you want it to do. It is free
And now I’d like to plug Recorded TV HD :). I’d suggest you give it a try! http://www.recordedtvhd.com
You have an excellent setup, thanks for taking the time to describe it. Can you describe a typical viewing room setup: i.e. TV location, PC location, how far you can sit from the TV, microphone location for voice control. Do you have a microphone in each room where there is a TV? I’ve tried voice control with my media center but have had trouble with command accuracy especially when listening to loud music or during loud movie scenes and we have a family of 4 and a dog which means noise control is an issue for me. I have taken a different approach which uses head trackers and clicking software to control my media center. My next step is to try out an IR transmitter with universal remote control software( http://wdpsoftware.com/ ) which will turn my laptop into a head tracker controlled universal remote control.
Thanks! Checked out your blog real quickly… looks like we have a lot in common and could learn plenty from each other.
Hate to admit it, but my whole home automation system, particularly the voice control aspect of it is still at 80-90% completeness. Some of that is my fault with too many competing projects/things going on and a little too much ADD, and then there is the whole lack of an affordable, easily integrateable home automation system/solution. I have a bunch of the pieces that are all working quite effectively on their own (i.e. an app on the phone to control my lighting/shades/windows… a separate app on the computer to control IR… Dragon NaturallySpeaking for voice recognition) but still nothing that seamlessly ties them together.
As far as open-air microphones… Not a big fan. I’ve tried them with poor success; lots of recognition errors, commands happening when I don’t want them to happen due to background noise, etc. etc.. What I use in my not completely integrated system right now is a combination of a few Android apps when I can use my cell phone (specifically Superlink to control the lights, shades, windows through my HAI OmniPro, and My Media Center to control Windows Media Center) and Dragon NaturallySpeaking with a gooseneck microphone with the element a few inches from my mouth to control my bedroom TV/computer. That combination works very well for me, but is definitely a kludge for everyone else.
Think we’ve got some work to do to get this all figured out… Shoot me a note sometime through the contact form and I’d be happy to get working together!
Hey Mike, Just finished documenting the IR controller component of my HTPC system. Looking forward to your comments and suggestions.
Hey Mike, I also wanted to make you and your readers aware of another site dedicated to technology solutions for physically challenged users.
It is the UK based AbilityNet website:
I’m a contributing author with the nom-de-plume of Boulevardier.
There is an excellent section on hands-free computing and I just added my latest contribution an article about Home Automation.
My setup is similar. Bedroom TV is directly connected to a 3 year old Sandybridge i5 w/8GB of RAM. 3 Xbox 360s and a Ceton Echo scattered through the house. Been 3 years now with a set-top box fee of $2.99 per month. (CableCARD) Central, whole home DVR and pictures access was an added bonus but saving 5HD TV fees @ 16.95 a month per device has made the setup pay for itself three times over now. Easily the best TV decision I ever made.