Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Future Is Not Now

So this about a first look at a project I plan to start after the first of the year. I'm just sort of thinking here, with no clear plan at this point, and there is a lot of dreaming. I have an overall concept, with goals, but there is no telling what the end results will be. Basically, I want to give the 4 bedrooms, the parlor, and kitchen access to internet, TV, and music. Ideally it would be all pulled from a central location - a hub, or brain center of the house. For me this will be in the butler's pantry. I like ease of use over functionality. I think of it in terms as designing a system my Mother could use, and my Mother is about the least technologically advanced person I know.

The backend can be advanced and will need someone who knows what they are doing to maintain it, but I imagine that for the prefect system, the-end user side would be fairly simple and without a lot of hardware. When I was staying at a Hyatt hotel last month they had an in-room internet service that was pretty crappy, but fairly easy to use. You accessed the system with a wireless keyboard and the use of the TV remote and there was no username/password necessary. As I said, it was crappy, and slow, and it was also very proprietary.

I picture something like that, but hopefully done better. Ideally, in the kitchen and bedrooms there would be a small flat screen monitor, 2 small speakers, and a wireless keyboard and mouse in each room. The parlor would be the same setup, only with better speakers and a larger monitor. In a perfect world there would be no computer to turn on and wait to boot-up, and no username\password to log on. The computer side of it should be as quick and simple to use as a TV. Internet, TV and music would always be on, and email, if it was needed would be a generic account that anyone could use at anytime without a user name/password. Much like the telephone.

If a more robust system is needed for a home office or for gaming, and it most certainly would be, there is no reason why a full computer system couldn't be set up in a room where it is needed and this system could be used for TV, music, and generic internet use.

It seems what I need are monitors with a TV tuner, a CPU, memory, and network interface card. There would be inputs for cable TV and LAN, and outputs for audio, and I suppose a few USB slots would be nice. The computer part would by just another input selection. Right now my TV has input selections of TV, Component Video, HDMI, DVD, Video 1, and Video 2. The HDMI is to give a simulated high definition signal from the hi-def DVD player. I think the Component Video is another way of getting better definition form a DVD, VCR, or video camera, but I've never used it. I use HDMI.

There wouldn't need to me a hard drive, because everything would come from the server. There would be a limited OS that would be read from flash memory. It would always sit in standby mode when the unit is turned off, but still plugged in. This is not something that I would ever want to pull the top off to put in more memory, and upgrade the video card, or install new software. My days of wanting to fool with computer hardware and software are long over. I want to be able to turn it on and use it quickly and easily. The OS would be small and just run a two applications that can be upgraded from the server. First there would be a web browser. The email client would be just your basic SMTP email client run through the browser. The email would be passed to a server side application that would assign user name and passwords based on admin settings (e.g. The Smith Family The other application would stream video and music from the server.

Maybe something like this already exists. If it doesn't, I'm staking my claim to the idea right now, and I'll sue the pants off anyone that markets this idea in the future and does not pay me royalties or give me stock options.

The server side will be like a small office server set up with a high speed router to stream video and music. Video and music could either be run from the hard drive or from a CD/DVD player. The TV/Web Computers in the rooms would basically have a robust guest account and would be logged on automatically. Other more traditional user accounts could be set up and managed like in a traditional networked office. Users would have private email and folders on the server that would be accessed from a real computer, but also be able to access video and music from their computers.

So far what I have is 2 coaxial cables and 2 CATV cables run to each room and they are all in a bundle hanging from a joist under the butler's pantry floor. As I said, this is just a start at think about what to do. I have a long ways to go, and something tells me the end product will not look like what I described above.


Jennifer said...

Good luck... I would love to see what you come up with for this!

Rose said...

Very ambitious. Great idea. I was wondering if you had to reopen any walls to install this wiring, but it sound like you have already planned ahead. Great blog, you have a very exciting project.

RWohleb said...

You have some options. Personally I've avoid having to switch inputs on a display and just have everything streamed. This would also allow for centralized DVR functionality. It also removes the requirement for a tuner in the display.

You might want to check out the open source project MisterHouse ( This is really geared towards home automation and not media distribution, but interesting none the less.

I think what you should really look at is MythTV ( You setup a MythTV backend to handle tuners, recording, etc. while multiple fontends can then access the content. There are also many available modules to check the weather, email, surf the web, play video games, and much more. It's also possible to netboot the frontend software ( so that you can easily manage deployed software to all your displays. Just think, running one CAT6 gigbait wire to each room, rather than CAT5 and coax.

Muskego Jeff said...

The future was actually a few hours ago. Sorry you missed it. There was an e-mail notification sent out next Friday to warn you of the change.

Greg said...

"The future was actually a few hours ago. Sorry you missed it. There was an e-mail notification sent out next Friday to warn you of the change."


Anonymous said...

Sounds very ambitious.

A quick suggestion: Compare all of the above to a wireless router plus a laptop that "drifts" around the house. Assume a power cord for the laptop in each room laying next to your favorite sitting spot. This would be a lot less work ... and I'm not sure what you'd really be missing.


Greg said...

Well, lets see Eric, with your solution I think I would be missing almost everything I mentioned above.

What would I gain with your solution: Hours of lugging a laptop around the house. Crappy TV signals with trying to stream live TV/video/music over a wireless connection to multiple displays.

Did I mention the crappy TV signals?

Tyler said...

Most of these pieces already exist in one form or another, and there are a lot of people out there who are working toward something like this.

First of all, it sounds like you want a THIN CLIENT, that is, a computer that boots from your network, where all of the software is centrally located on a server.

MythTV, as rwohleb mentioned, should be able to stream your audio and video around with easy to use interfaces.

As far as the email goes, I can't imagine everyone in a family to be sharing one email account, so I don't think that's what you want. However, you can set up Mozilla Thunderbird to be able to SEND email from any number of different addresses - the from address is a drop-down box - so you can get the incoming email to your proper account.

It is VERY unusual to come up with an original idea when it comes to technology. The trick is not coming up with the idea, but is in turning the idea into reality. :-)

Alicia said...

are you assuming that the person in bedroom 1 would have to schlepp down to the butler's pantry to put in a dvd, or in your world are all the dvd's, etc., on the server?

I want something like this in my house, so when you figure out the cost-effective system, lemme know.

But I would have put a cable in every single godawful room. I spend all this time dragging a dvd/tv combo from room to room. (for the day I want to watch a dvd in the bathroom, for the day I want to watch a dvd in the laundry room, etc).

I also want my house to have stereo speakers in every room so I can play music all over the house without it being loud.

Greg said...


Thanks for the "THIN CLIENT". I will be googling that. I think of it like the old main frame drones.

As far as email, yes I do mean sharing one email account. For this application that is exactly what I want.

It is funny that the thought of a whole family sharing an email account sounds wrong an unworkable, yet for decades whole families have shared one phone number and one answering machine.

The key is ease of use. In this instance there should no no user names or passwords. Type something out. Chose an address from a list and hit send. The server side app will take care of the rest.

"However, you can set up Mozilla Thunderbird to be able to SEND email from any number of different addresses - the from address is a drop-down box - so you can get the incoming email to your proper account"

Right there, you just lost my mother and a lot of other people. The idea is not to replace Outlook or private email accounts for the whole family, the idea is to enhance the use of the TV with Google, easy to use email, video and music.

Greg said...


I will add at this point that the chances of me getting exactly what I want are slim to nil. I realize that. It will be something, but a lot of this is part rant and part wishful thinking.

What you're talking about is what I want (maybe not the bathroom). The way I see it is the server would have movies on it, but if I went out and rented 2 DVDs for the night, the I would need to go to the butler's pantry to change DVDs

Alicia said...

Well huh! We want pretty much the same thing, then! If two people want it, then two billion do.

I figure that a multi-dvd tower will be at Wal-Mart next christmas.

To a certain extent, we already have what you are looking for at work; we can put dvd's on the network server (somewheres) and pipe them to certain pc's in certain labs and control viewings or whatnot from the pc via a sort-of 'download-streaming' thingie (in theory; I have never put it to practice, and don't ask me what the program is). The IT department would be your Butler's Pantry.

Just wasting time, but what you REALLY need is a wife to go downstairs and put the new dvd in for you. one thing you are saying that you are tired of being married to your laptop because you lug it from room to room? (that's how I broke the last one)

With the music thing, if I expressed my true desire, it would be to have all my music on some kind of wireless thingie, with multiple remotes thru the house so I could decide at any place in the house to turn on the music. Because I never listen to music because it's always in the other room from when I think of it. And I want music to be like atmosphere, not blaring everywhere. So...add aromatherapy to this automatic music/atmosphere/dvd-watching thingie.

John said...

Also check out the LinuxMCE project (easy to find on google) which incorporates MythTV and a few other Home Automation systems. Would definitely do what you are contemplating.