July 2009

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Its been about 4 years since I first had a computer that was dedicated to running media on my television.  At the time, it was a rare thing to do.  The resolution on TVs wasn’t that good, streaming video wasn’t as mature as it is today, and storage was more expensive and less available then now.

The biggest inhibitor to switching to the computer as the primary input on the television has been the audience.  My wife is the primary customer when it comes to the television and if she doesn’t agree to what’s going on, it ain’t happening.

There are a lot of applications and considerations that made this finally a workable (and nearly ideal) solution.  Here’s the list of things that needed to happen.

1.  The media needed to be there

A computer can be used to get media from locations that a TV just can’t match.  Internet-based media is great because it is on demand by nature; which means that it can be watched when it is convenient.  With all major networks streaming their shows and Hulu emerging, Internet media is almost good enough to replace traditional TV viewing by itself.

To make it easy enough to replace a standard television, applications that put all of this media in one place, while using a consitant interface, is a must.  I use Boxee to fill this role.  Boxee is a gets rid of the need for having a keyboard and a mouse to control the computer with.  Also, it has an app to utilize Netflix’s streaming service.  With Boxee, I can watch Onion News with just a couple of clicks, and then switch over to listing to a Shoutcast radio station.  Internet media is a check.

Even with all of the Internet media out there.  HDTV is still a must.  This is the last form of media I that I got running through the computer.  The reason being is that it requires special equipment to get going.  I didn’t want to spend the $100 to buy a HDTV tuner card.   Until March of this year, I didn’t have a machine capable of running a HDTV tuner card anyway.  I finally caved and purchased the Elgato EyeTV Hybrid tuner.  It fills the role very well.  I can now watch HDTV on the computer.  As an added benefit, the included software (Eye TV) works as a PVR; meaning that live TV can be paused, rewound, and recorded.  I can set it to record shows that I would like to watch.  HDTV is a check.

I have a collection of pictures and videos that I keep on my home server.  These need to be able to  stream to the television.  I accomplished this with Boxee and a NFS share from my home server.  Boxee can connect to media across a network and display it.  My media is a check.

2. The hardware has to be there

Here’s a money making opportunity for someone.   Make a Mac Mini-sized machine with a HDTV tuner, N wireless in it, an OS that requires almost no maintenance, but can play anything thrown at it (Linux?), ability to display HD video without a glitch, and make it quiet.   There are a couple of possible options here.  For my own solution, I have a Mac Mini with components replaced in it to add a faster processor and N wireless.   There is a company that appears to be trying to solve this problem.  Visit http://www.neurostechnology.com/ and see if there is something that may work for you (it wouldn’t for my situation).   The EEE Box 206 may be a good solution for this.  There is no working solution that I know that comes right out of the box and works for this solution.

Game console manufactures are trying to get into this market.  The XBox360 does Netflix streaming now.  It may be a possible solution for some.  But again, not me.

N-wireless is a must for HD content.  I am running a WNHDE111.  It is a good solution because it runs over the less-crowded 5Ghz range.  In a place with a lot of other houses around, avoiding interference is key to smooth video playback.

3.  There must be a way to control it with one remote

A programmable remote is a must.  This is the part that most people will be turned off by.  I have 4 remotes: one for the TV, one for the home theater, one for the Mac Mini, and one for the Eye TV.  In a stroke of luck, I had purchased a programmable remote a couple of years back that works great for this.  It is the One for All  URC-9910B01.   All 4 devices are now programed in to the one controller.  This was a pain, if you decide to make the ultimate computer-to-connect-to-a-TV setup a good, programmable remote is a must.

I also have a wireless keyboard and a gyro mouse.  These sit under the couch for the most part.  If you want to browse the web on the TV-connected computer, they are a must.  I can’t expect most people would want to have a full-sized keyboard and a mouse under their couch.  The Logitech diNovo mini is an interesting move in the right direction, but it is horribly expensive and doesn’t to IR.  A perfect remote would have IR over RF to increase the range of the signal as well and not put line-of-sight restrictions on the user.  This is probably the most sub-optimal part of this configuration.

A good application launcher is needed because multiple applications are used in my setup.  Mira is the application I am using to accomplish this task.  With it, it is easy to launch applications if for some reason you’re stuck at the desktop without mouse.

4.  It must be cheap

Overall, I have spent somewhere around $600 in hardware costs.   I am notoriously thrifty though.   All of the purchases were done in a way where I didn’t have to pay retail price.  My monthly costs are just what I spend on Netflix, $8 a month.

Compare this to what you would pay and the features you would get from cable or dish services.  I see it as a compelling option.   Good luck with your setups.

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For those who just want to grab the applications and go try out PictoMio and Picasa, and make sure you are running on a Microsoft platform.  Linux users are in the cold on this project.  Sure, there ways of doing this on Linux, but nothing as quick as the apps listed above.

The requirments for this project were as follows:

  1. Build a slideshow in less than an hour
  2. Incorporate the Ken Burns transition to keep the audience’s attention
  3. Incorporate video clips in between some of the slides
  4. Play audio during the presentation

When in this situation last year, I used PictoMio and found it a great application to use.   Transitions could be changed midstream, and timings could be altered on a per-picture basis.  The application was unstable at the time and it left a sour taste.  Slideshow applications cannot have instability.  When you’re the tech guy running the projector, the last thing you want is 100 people looking at you after a application crash.

When I was in this situation yesterday, I turned to Picasa.  The biggest reason for this is that I knew it would display slides without crashing.  Picasa packs a lot of features that I didn’t expect and ended up using often.

The two tools that helped the most where the automatic red-eye correction and contrast/color correction.  A lot of the photos benefited from these tools.  It added immensely to the overall quality of the show.

The slideshow aspect of Picasa is horribly limited.  The trick to getting the Ken Burns effect in Picasa is to use the movie maker.

There are a couple of limitations to the movie maker;  only one transition effect can be chosen and only one slide duration can be chosen, and songs will not loop for the duration of the photos.   To more than compensate for this, Picasa offers a few features that will enhance the slide show.

Text slides can be added in-between picture to convey information to the audience.  There’s nothing like a good setup for a funny picture.   Picasa does well with integrating video.  Putting video in the middle of a slideshow is simple to do and works pretty well.   There is, unfortunately, a 2 second delay after the video where the screen is black.  This appears to be the point where a transition would’ve been occuring.

I had to do the video in preview mode.  There wasn’t enough time to encode and run it as a video file.   In preview mode, the videos were choppy.  It probably ran at a 20 fps rate.  This didn’t ruin the show, but it dropped my perfection goal a touch.

It is the day after the show.  I wanted to replicate the work on my Linux workstation and create the DVD.  However, the Linux version of Picasa is disappionting with regards to video.  Making this a non-starter.  I have to hop on my soapbox and again proclaim that catch 22 that Linux is in;  user won’t use Linux due to lack of applications and funcationality, applications and functionality won’t come to Linux due to lack of users.  Of course, that is improving, but it’s sure is slow goings.

Overall, using Picasa to do the show exceeded my expectations.  Compliments from the audience abounded.  I am currently creating the video file to burn to a DVD to meet all of the requests I recieved for an encore.

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