Blog - Unity Behind Diversity

Searching for beauty in the dissonance

Tagged: mythtv

Family Room Computing

Old monitor
Credit: exfordy [CC BY]

My first computing experience was on the family computer, a 386 running Windows 3.1 in my parents’ den. It was truly a family computer—my parents used it for work, and the kids used it for games. A few years later, my parents moved to IBM ThinkPads with Windows 95 (vehicles for my first Internet experiences, dialing into chat rooms to talk about my dog with strangers… I was 9!), but the kids’ computer was still the shared desktop. When the 386 was no longer able to run our games, it was replaced with a new Windows 98 desktop. That shared kids’ computer spent most of its life out in the open, in our family room.

In the next five years, our home computing landscape changed drastically. I got my own desktop when I started high school in 2001. A few years later, I acquired a laptop after a summer trip overseas, and my two siblings (3 and 6 years younger) both got recycled older desktops in their rooms for homework. My desktop became the new kids’ computer, but it was quickly phased out as gaming shifted to consoles and my siblings got upgraded machines. By 2005, our computing took place in separate rooms.

But in 2007, I entered the free software world and developed an interest in bringing old neglected Windows machines back to life with GNU/Linux. I bought a TV tuner card, and turned my old Windows 98 desktop into a MythTV server (among other things). It was an odd project, since I rarely watch TV, but soon enough I had another old computer connected to my MythTV server and setup on the big screen TV in our family room

I soon realized that we didn’t just have a new way of watching TV, but a fully-featured PC hooked up to a giant screen. With a couch and a wireless keyboard, I began using it to browse the web and consume other forms of media (especially useful when we had company!) and even used it for some work (handy for group projects!). It provided a stark contrast to the tethered appliance computers nearby—an XBOX 360 and a Rogers HD PVR (which broke!).

I don’t want any proprietary tethered appliances when I move out. I want a general purpose computer that opens up to the room—not a personal computer that family members take turns using, or a TV that people just watch, but a group computer that brings other people into the computing experience.

With a general purpose computer, I can specialize with software (MythTV for television channels, Firefox for web content, etc.). MythTV is cool, but video is moving from TV to the web—why not focus on that? I don’t know of a real group user interface for general purpose operating systems yet (i.e. like on video game consoles), but a big display goes a long way to involving a room in the meantime. I’m also fascinated to think about how handheld devices fit into the picture, with large tablets for media consumption or smaller tablets as controllers.

A TV is just a big screen. I’d rather have a computer I can own, control and create with hooked up to it, instead of the black box proprietary tethered appliances that commonly broadcast into a room. I don’t want a “home entertainment system;” I want a shared computing experience.

Is there a name for this? I’ve been calling it “family room computing”—or just “room computing”—but suggestions are welcome. I’m just getting some rough thoughts out. What do you think family room computing could look like, with computer users in charge?

ps that original family room computer? It’s still semi-set up in our basement—I installed Debian on it a few years ago to give Fluxbox a try!

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Why I use MythTV

Mike Ho from Techdirt provides his take on the “glorious future” of video players, sentiments with which I can strongly empathize:

With each new offering, it seems like viewers need a separate and proprietary piece of video playing software which is obviously aimed at enhancing the viewing experience for the audience. The DRM and the crazy number of different time limitations for how long you can watch you downloaded shows are really just bonus features. Imagine the glorious future of watching a la carte videos where every distribution channel has its own player and set of rules for how you can consume the content. Future DVRs will incorporate access control systems that would rival the most complex enterprise content management systems of today. I can’t wait to click through dozens of end-user agreements just to watch my favorite time-shifted shows! Progress is great.

I recently helped a family friend install a Rogers HD PVR at their home. It was an educational experience. They had several devices that needed to be hooked into the TV, but once everything was plugged in I thought it would be ready to go. Not so with Rogers… turning the HD PVR on for the first time displayed only a screen saying: “Your settop box has not yet be authorized. Please call <phone number/>”

I will never purchase a device that needs to phone home in order to turn on and work for me.

Rogers has a right to control the use of their network, sure, but to control your own device in your own house? The most obvious problem that comes to mind would be if you ever cancelled your Rogers cable account (say, to switch to another provider). Sure, the box may not work with another provider, that’s expected, but you wouldn’t even be able to turn it on to watch TV shows you’ve already recorded! Never mind trying to get this device to play nice with other devices you own…

Until a commercial company starts offering something that isn’t defective by design, I’m sticking to MythTV.

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Home Media Server – Introduction

I have recently embarked on a project to build my own home media server, a PVR which would be accessible to any computer or television in my house, that not only makes live and recorded television easily accessible, but that also hopefully serves up other content (such as music, photos, games), and hopefully something which could be accessed remotely (e.g. from my laptop with an internet connection outside the house).

The irony is that I hate television. With a passion.

However, the project has still somehow captured my interest. It’s a way to put some of my technical knowledge to practical use. Also, part of the project’s purpose is to come up with a relatively simple and inexpensive setup that a computer hobbyist (ie. not an expert, but an enthusiast) could adopt on their own, something that some of my friends and family may be able to set up by themselves, or with a little bit of assistance. At the very least, it promises to be a learning experience regardless of whether or not I succeed.
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