Saturday, August 9. 2008
It was interesting to read Jeremy Toeman's thoughts on what a Digital Home should look like - as a fellow geek it's something I've been looking at over the last few years - both professionally (we have been asked a number of times to think about the evolution of the Digital Home for various people) but also at my and friends' homes. However, a few years ago, inspired by a visit to BBC R&D labs where I saw an entire home automation suite operating on a WiFi enabled PS2, I have become more interested in low budget retrofitting into existing environments rather than buying high cost point-use commercial gear.
The first thing is to ensure ubiquitous connectivity - in general, open cabling is a source of domestic strife so is best avoided - but running cables through walls etc, unless done at the build phase or in a gutting operation, never returns its investment*. I have found that modern (last 2-3 years) WiFi covers a fairly large turf space - certainly big enough for most family houses, except those with extremely thick stone walls - in that case (a friend's house) we tried running a single cable and an expansion box (easy but aesthetically objected to), a second WiFi router (simple but non trivial to get all the computers to be on the same network reliably) and mains electric systems (works if everything is on the same circuit) which worked best in my friend's case.
The next thing I built was the "MyPCTV" rig - essentially using an older PC as a media fileserver (See picture below with system hooked into Laptop). Key is to have a TV with a VGA input, solves lots of connectivity problems. I took the sound output into my HiFi amp (Creek) and then used a Hafler circuit to generate analog surround sound (price - a few pennies for more wire). If you have 2 decent floorstanding hi-fi speakers as the front system you don't need a sub-woofer, nor a central speaker system - they will do all that work for you easily and at considerably better sound quality. (I use Rega floorstanders, I find they are great entry level "quality" Hi Fi manufacturers - my shelfstanders are Tannoy and Rega). The only problem with using this quality of sound output is it exposes the poor quality of low resolution MP3 files, but thats another story
Broadsight MyPCTV rig playing BBC iPlayer through TV. Surround sound via analog Hafler circuit.
The next step is to get music (and pictures) wherever you are. The best way to do this is to have a PC serve as a conduit for a fileserver (or be one itself), and connect to a separate music output system in each room (mine vary from hifi amp & speakers to on-board PC soundcard and speakers). If you are like us, with kids and a bunch of older computers and sound systems, you will find that you have as many machines as rooms wanting music, so I set up a PC in every room, with varying quality of speaker systems integrated (I don't like roof speakers by the way - the sound is not as good as eye level/floorstanding speakers, and you can't adjust positioning to get optimal acoustics). The key is to upgrade the old computers to run Windows XP (we're not a Mac shop) as the networking is far simpler and more reliable - ie as much RAM as you can stuff into them. They don't have to go that fast, as they are mainly used as media servers and for email / web access.
My original architecture had one PC as a music fileserver (another one fdoes photos), but over time as disk storage has got cheaper and cheaper I have tended to reproduce my music on multiple computers' disks in the house. What is increasingly happening is that the iPod owning members of the family also want to play their music, and its far easier just to allow them to connect into the music system directly than try and integrate it into the central network. This architecture also allows me to connect in older music devices such as my old Discman very easily, and in one room I have set up a simple mixer so the musicians in the family can hook in their (and their friends') guitars, keyboards, microphones etc. (Watching my family, I think this flexible approach to roaming music storage devices will be the endgame, not a fixed system like Sonos - you bring your mobile music server device into a room / space, hook it in, and it plays your music).
WiFi in my experience copes with picture and audio files fine (all the computers in the house, and the TV, access our central photo file as a screen saver). Where WiFi does break down periodically, in my experience, is for realtime video transport between computers, so I have found that having the machine operating the TV output needs to be cabled to the router to work reliably.
We've also recently bought an XBox 360 and we have started to dabble with that to see what can be done - and because the architecture is so flexible, it's been very easy to hook it in and start to play with it....
Jeremy talks about other home automation too:
- Central Vacuum. We thought this would be great, but after a little digging in, seems like they are consistently underpowered poorly designed products. Pass.
We rented a house once with central vacuuming, it was a pain in the *rse. Modern portable vacuums are far more powerful, lightweight and flexible.
I have dabbled with various bits of home automation (lights, curtains etc), but to date the complexity and unreliability gives a poor ROI - I'm awaiting the explosion in m2m devices with some interest therefore, as this will enable a whole new set of Digital Home applications. (I aldso have half an eye on recruiting Lego Mindstorms into this task...). My only current project in this space is to allow the security camera server to stream onto the network so their pictures too can be accessed from any PC - so I can see who is at the front door from the top or back of the house.
What I am now getting interested in is "Green" management of the house, as (i) it has real ROI - reducing fuel bills (lighting is noise in this scheme of things, its heating/cooling and local power generation you want to manage), and (ii) its soo zeitgeisty . This is exacerbated as we live in London, where a lot of the housing stock (including ours) is 70 years old or more, and so dreadfully energy inefficient - but the ROI of any form of insulation (except roofing) is laughable unless you are building or gutting a building. Looking at the economics of retrofitting, I suspect the better approach is to self-generate more onsite power to help drive the heating and cooling, and use it as efficiently as possible.
I'd be fascinated to hear of others' retrofit projects - I do think that mobile/ modular / interoperable is the more achievable approach for most households than large centralised systems, and it is far more flexible than centralised systems - I and friends of mine have rented houses with these systems in the past, and we have all found this approach inflexible to adapting to changing usage and new technology (there is nothing more laughable - and frustrating - than a 5 year old centrally fitted home entertainment system, I find).
*I think the most pragmatic architecture is what mine has worked out to be - a "small world" network where a the longer, the highest bandwidth, or most secure links, (eg to the "banking computer") are on cable and everything else is on WiFi
Wednesday, June 4. 2008
....but so will anybody else with a computer and a connection to their TV. Sez the Grauniad:
BBC1 is to air live on the internet, making it the first of the corporation's analogue TV channels to be simulcast on the web.
You may of course ask why we would watch BBC on TV via a TV hooked up to a PC taking it over the internet, and the answer to that of course is "because we can".
But there is a far more interesting "therefore".... once both are on the PC, imagine the mashups one could do - who needs Joost when you can mash BBC1 to Twitter for example
Wednesday, December 12. 2007
...despite what the WSJ says...just buy a TV with a VGA input...I have a very decent Philips.
If you want to know more about how we did it, check out some of the MyPCTV posts on this blog - and for a bonus there's one on how to build surround sound for $0.10.
Sheesh...are people dense or wot
Monday, December 3. 2007
Long-time readers of this blog will know we built a PC/laptop to TV system last year after seeing all the overblown IPTV solutions, which we christened "MyPCTV". There was quite a lot of harrumphing, for example:
Anyway, today I read with delight that VC and blogger Fred Wilsn has set up his own MyPCTV system - pix over here. Anyway, I think Fred is but few a swallows short of the Tipping Point...as he says:
Actually, Fred's system is still a bit complex....if you want to build a really simple one read our posts on MyPCTV. Ours has been running happily for a year now on a home wifi and cable LAN. (And when the iPhone price is reduced I'll get one of those and hook it in as well)
And, if you want to get surround sound for about a dollar (thats 50p for us Brits), read this post on building a Hafler Circuit.
(Update...looks like Stowe Boyd's got one too....one swallow closer...)
(Update 2 - and Robert Scoble...hmmm...an epidemic of swallows! They're all using Mac Minis as far as I can see, which is more of a made-for-point solution, whereas we just adapted an old PC as a server, and also did the same with a (fairly) cheap laptop. )
By the way, it is also theoretically possible to do this with the Linux running PS3, but as yet we haven't tried it out.
(Afterthought...at the time my co-founder Dave Short wrote a little script that allows you to search YouTube for something and line up all the videos it finds, playing them one after the other so you can carry on couch potato-ing for hours. This is a must have....)
Thursday, January 4. 2007
What is not widely known today is that the modern Dolby Surround Sounds et al are based on an elegantly simple way of connecting analog sound systems together for surround sound called the Hafler Principle, developed in the early 70's by David Hafler. There is more information on a stereo track than a stereo picks up, but the Hafler system does - at the very least it does a very good job of giving a reasonable approximation of a "3D" ambient sound.
It works by approximating the empirical way sound typically is heard. Ambient sounds in a room, the music, applause, talking from the audience etc are usually received out of phase by the recording microphones in a "live" environment, while sound from the musicians is generally in phase. So, give rear speakers the difference between the stereo channels out of phase and all the audience noises and echoes etc can be heard from behind the listener.
In essence you add 2 more ( rear ) speakers and connect them up in such a way that they process only the difference between the two stereo signals. This involves nothing more than wiring the 4 speakers up in a slightly different way. So, for the cost of 2 more speakers, a few bits of wire and some insulation tape you can get very passable surround sound.
Most modern systems like Dolby are just improvements (complications?) on this principle, with the ability to add a bit of delay into the rear speakers and manipulate (eg amplify) their signals. More than this, it would seem that, in theory, if you pass a modern DVD's digital 5.1 type signal through a stereo analog amp and through a Hafler circuit, it does a pretty fine job of decoding the signal. I haven't gone into this in enough detail to know how true it is, but after a few days of listening it certainly fools your ears enough to be believable.
Here is a website that describes the circuit - the first diagram is what I have rigged up, as you can see it is very simple - and here is an original paper from 1971 describing various permutations if anyone is interested, and here is a more recent paper describing the tricks of this "Acoustic Illusion Engine"
An aside - my father had this setup rigged up way back then, with four big bass reflex speakers and a valve amplifier, but all this was considered dreadfully old fashioned by the 80's when transistor amps held sway. Today of course people will pay huge sums of money for valve amplifiers, 5.1 surround sound systems and dedicated subwoofers to make up the bass lost by all the tiddly desktop and shelf loudspeakers.
No doubt all the manufacturers of 5.1, 6.1, 7.1 surround systems etc etc will swear blind that the quality of this elegant little bodge is way, way inferior to the shiny glory of their products, but it's pretty good and the price performance is awesome - so give it a go first!
So why bring all this up now, and whats it got to do with MyPCTV?
This Xmas we received a 2 x 64 AMD chip, 15.1" screen laptop with Ferrari badge on it - but it was a Dell, we bought it ourselves, the Ferrari is from a car sticker set - and the only Vista we have is the view of the back garden .
Anyway, the 15.1" screen also means you can watch Web TV, DVDS etc at a bit of a distance. This was a boon for us as the PS2 had given up the ghost on New Year's Eve (perfect timing), and we wanted to keep the kids out the adults' hair as we let it all down at New Year!
The laptop could step in and play the DVDs, CDs, games and Web TV etc etc that kids see to need these days (between beating seven bells out of each other and covering the floor in Lego that is)...but it quickly becomes clear that setting up a laptop to watch at even a moderate distance means the turned up sound is totally cr*p out of those tinny PC speakers, and the sort of desktop speakers you get for PC's are not that much better.
However, we have an old spare stereo amp, and 2 older but still fairly useful bookshelf speakers that could be pressed into service. I was also curious about whether it was possible to rig up a simple Hafler surround sound system, to give a high quality yet low cost, simple entry level Web TV audio system using the stuff that might already be in a house's living room / lounge / parlour / den etc....thus smoothing the path of the PCTV invasion.
At any rate, a quick trip to Tottenham Court Road (the London Geek Market) and £25 for 2 more (on sale) bookshelf speakers later, and we had rigged up a simple Hafler circuit as descrbed.
Another aside - on Subwoofers - these are mainly required on PC desktop and consumer mainstream 5.1 sound systems because the speakers used are usually too small to develop much bass. However, by putting even these 4 small speakers close to wall corners a fair bit of bass was generated. For higher end sound on our main MyPCTV rig I have found, as my father's generation knew, that decent floorstanding speakers will easily give enough bass to make a subwoofer unnecessary - and the bass is good quality, hi fi bass to boot.
Result No 1: The sound is good - awesomely good considering the minimal expenditure. (In fact, I would recommend getting a low cost stereo amp and 4 reasonable speakers and connecting a Hafler circuit rather than one of those lower end 5.1 sound setups - they are just so awfully tinny in comparison). Now, if one wanted a bigger screen the simplest thing to do would be to get a flatscreen with a VGA input for the laptop, but in the interests of experimenting with going Web TV with minimal new investment, the Next Step is to see what I can bodge to to connect the laptop up to the old analog TV we already have....
Result No 2: Found all the kids in a bed, heads together with laptop balanced precariously across knees, watching a DVD......ah well!
Saturday, November 18. 2006
Technology research house isuppli has put out a research note showing that the new PS3 is c $250 - $300 underpriced for what it is, and has been extremely well engineered for power: To quote:
With the PlayStation 3, you are getting the performance of a supercomputer at the price of an entry-level PC,” said Andrew Rassweiler, teardown services manager and senior analyst for iSuppli.
(Though Apple apparently was unimpressed and went with Intel, but its not clear if that was for technical reasons or commercial)
There are two PS3 machines - a $500 one with 20Gb, and a $600 one with 60Gb - and 802.11g Wifi. What makes this whole thing very interesting to me though is that Sony Computer Entertainment boss Ken Kutaragi has claimed that the PlayStation 3 is being positioned as a supercomputer capable of running multiple operating systems, with the Linux system to be pre-installed on the machine's hard drive.
Add Linux to that bigger machine's storage, processing power and the WiFi makes it very, very interesting - because it possibly could be, with a bit of tweaking, a very powerful but fairly low cost"black box" around which to build an Open IP to TV home solution that is easier to use than a PC, cheaper than a Multimedia server, and does more than an IPTV set top box.
This is possible today - I remember seeing a demo at BBC Labs open day last year showing a PS2 being used as a home entertainment controller - but the extra capability of the PS3 means a lot more can be done.
It seems to still be a bit clunky - to quote from engadget:
As so much of the technology is new there is bound to be a shakedown period for the PS3, and its also not clear yet how open the system will be. But, but if it were to become more open, there are a lot of potential applications that it could be used for that are currently done in the "digital mess" of the home - that plethora of home PC's, Set Top Boxes, Media Servers, Slingboxes etc etc.
If this happens and if takeup is high this could be a very disruptive play for controlling the home IP Broadband Media systems.
And it plays games.....
Postscript - we've been following this PS3 Supercomputer story...I don't think we've seen that last of this machine's potential. Additional posts of ours on this beastie are here, here and here.
Tuesday, October 3. 2006
So, 3 weeks on and MyPCTV (My PC connected to my TV playing YouTube videos) continues to charm the masses as the New New Interactive Media play.
We've taken it a bit further now, integrating various bits and pieces to make a smoother "lean back" experience. Looks promising. Surfing some parts of the web is fun too, especially picture rich media.
I have had 4 main criticisms of the concept of running internet TV straight off the broadband pipe through a pc/laptop rather than a STB / IPTV setup however:
(i) Most people don't have TV screens that you can connect laptops to. My view - true, but the people who do are the early adopters and early mass market, and thats all that a service such as this needs to get off the ground.
(ii) Most people don't use the PC for this role, they see the set top box as the way TV is delivered. My view - true again, but enough plays have proven that if you make using the PC easy for media (eg iTunes) people will take to it - and fast. Furthermore, if this is very cheap - say a software download + webservice - then it forces competitors to subsidise their STBs fully, hurting their business models hugely. Hmmmm....
(iii) It won't work because people like to use remotes to control TVs, not PCs. My view is 2-fold - firstly, it is not too hard to make a PC able to be controlled by a remote, and secondly just wait till people have this hooked up to a remote keyboard and experience everything else they can do as a couch potato like read emails etc.
(iv) The quality is not HDTV standard, or even SDTV. My response - hell yes, but the content is awesome...and we know people will put up with poor quality for delightful content. Also, big broadband pipes plus ongoing technical development will most likely make it better very fast. Early music downloads were very poor quality too, remember
After 3 weeks of great Long Tail TV on MyPCTV, my response to the doubters now is this - just set it up at home, try it, and think about what is needed to make this a really sexy service. Then think about how you might do that, and how hard it really would be. Non trivial, sure...but not too hard.
Tuesday, September 19. 2006
We found some videos of Tom Lehrer on YouTube - you really cannot buy this stuff - I liked the old stuff, the kids explored the whole gamut of machinima work done set to Lehrer's music. (The Anime Elements Song is too funny).
This was interesting - consuming PC based video art on a TV with good hi fi is a quite different experience.
This weekend I started to bring the iPaq 5555 into play as a way of controlling the system remotely, a lot of potential but still a fairly expensive device for a rough cut approach to home IP media - the best option still seems to be the use of remote keyboard controlling the PC and some form of TV remote interface.
What is becoming clear is that there is a real opportunity for an EPG / Remote Control / Surf Aid function.
What is also becoming clear is that with development this approach, in my opinion, will be a fairly credible "good enough" that IPTV has to deal with. Recent moves by Microsoft, Apple and Google make me more convinced.
And the evidence supports it - this research from AOL on user habits is worth repeating:
Amateur/Podcast Videos and Sports have the same ratings...yet traditional media pays stupid money for sports rights and the alternative is near free - this is a no brainer way to attack Old Media
And this is not an IPTV play, this is a MyPCTV play.
And maybe the Telcos are wondering about IPTV too...AT&T has just started Mobitv for laptops...20 channels, switching this stuff over to a big screen is but a heartbeat. (Appears not to work with Mozilla Firefox though...is this how IE gets back in the game?)
Friday, September 15. 2006
MyPCTV continues to take the world by storm...well, this family anyway
(For the uninitiated, MyPCTV is my laptop PC hooked up to my TV and playing YouTube videos and music stations...a hugely expensive piece of technology that has consumed about £30 so far in new gear. We have 4 PC's around the house so configured, hanging off about 3 Mb of broadband dsl, one connects to a flat screen TV that takes VGA)
Extensive audience research (ie me and the kids) shows that:
(i) If the content is relevant - and it is, because we choose it - we are not that bothered about picture quality.
(ii) If you hook the PC headphone output up to the Hi Fi that is very cool, the Audio from most stations is pretty good
(iii) A keyboard that you can operate from the sofa is also very cool - you can get PC remotes to control a PC, I saw them at IBC - but a wireless keyboard will do fine....and the keyboard allows you to use the TV like a PC as well.
(iv) What you start to want is some form of intelligent EPG for YouTube......the audio stations are already pretty good
Next step is to dig the 10 year old PC out the attic and fire it up as a Linux media server so I can get my laptop back....
Tuesday, September 12. 2006
I was at IBC in Amsterdam, saw all the high tech wonders and marvels. Just about everyone is now an IPTV company or pretending to be, and there was booth after both showing complex diagrams and costly gear.
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