How to integrate 10 HTPCs, solve the noise issues, make it cheap and inexpensive, make it flexible, make it simple to use, and use nothing but off-the-shelf parts.

HTPCs Beget HTPCs

Chris Bomicino | Home Media Networks

HTPCs Beget HTPCs
By Chris Bomicino
Submitted by Home Media Networks

How to integrate 10 HTPCs, solve the noise issues, make it cheap and inexpensive, make it flexible, make it simple to use, and use nothing but off-the-shelf parts.


It all starts, innocently enough, with the notion of watching TV on your PC. You read all the PC articles, the reviews, and the bulletin boards and finally make your choice on a PC TV Tuner solution. You drop the cash, bring the quid, spend freely the moolah and buy what you believe is the best piece of hardware available to mankind. Armed with pages of instructions, printed information, and of course all the latest drivers; you begin the arduous task of installing the hardware, connect the cables, loading software, then reloading software, and reloading software some more. With a little patience and much more luck, onto this world you have delivered TV to your PC. Congratulations, you've just started your journey into the HTPC (Home Theater PC) realm.

For those of you reading this article, you probably have a good idea of how to use an HTPC. The layout, buttons, controls and such are starting to become more and more identical. A defacto standard seems to be coming together, as one would expect in a new technology area. The reasons for designing my HTPC system, and yes the implementation you are about to read about goes well beyond just sticking a PC next to a TV, the reasons ultimately came down to a few major reasons; noise, flexibility, and ease of use, all at the top of the list. The ability to turn on the TV and begin watching TV right away, no waiting for the PC to Boot Up, no waiting for Showshifter to launch, and no navigation required to activate the TV module. Most everyone has come to expect, to turn the TV on and see a TV show. Using the controller, channel up or down along with volume up and down. Thus the quest started.

TEN HTPCS ANYONE?

If these obstacles aren't enough, I had to throw another dimension into this matrix, 10 HTPCs. I've been called nuts, geekophile extraordinaire, even uber-geek by some. The question arises "What can 10 HTPCs give you that just one HTPC can't?" The simple answer is flexibility. Flexibility is one of the top three reasons for my design, and soon it will all be made clear. Think about how many rooms you have in the house, and now how many rooms have a TV. Now envision Showshifter beyond just Home Entertainment. Imagine Showshifter capable of providing weather, or a place to store cooking recipes, how about a web phone with video or a video intercom system. Imagine if you want a whole house audio system, video system, or combination thereof. You see, when you look at Showshifter beyond just entertainment media, and in what rooms you would like access to this information, 10 HTPCs don't seem that far fetched anymore.

I can hear the laughs and chuckles already, but the truth is I'm not the only one using the HTPC. Albert Einstein once said, "Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius -- and a lot of courage -- to move in the opposite direction." This was explained to me once in even simpler terms, "Any idiot can make a complex machine, but it takes a genius to make it simple". People have an idea, an understanding, on how to use today's TV's. A certain amount of menus, setup, and a few other goodies aren't a big deal anymore. But for all the sophistication, an underlying cardinal rule has been followed by all TV makers. When you turn on the TV, you should see TV.

I violated this cardinal rule, and the results were clearly evident. From families to friends, the running joke was the TV could do everything under the sun, except watch TV. Not only was this irritating, but true, which made it even worse. So I set out to resolve the three major goals, to eliminate the noise, provide flexibility, and simplify the ease of use. Oh, and the most important over-riding requirement; ► everything had to be inexpensive and off-the-shelf, no custom parts.

The Design

HOW MANY HTPCS CAN FIT IN A HOME?

Now it's time to get into the real guts of this article. How to integrate 10 HTPCs, solve the noise issues, make it cheap and inexpensive, make it flexible, make it simple to use, and use nothing but off-the-shelf parts. Phew, a tall order! Here are some pictures of the rooms that will have HTPCs connected to them.

I had to make some assumptions about the environment I was about to tackle, and luckily I had an ace up my sleeve. But first my assumptions

The assumptions were:

  1. Each TV has a built in NTSC Cable TV tuner (Channels 1-125 NTSC)
  2. Each TV has built in speakers
  3. Each TV placement has a CAT 5 cable, Coax, and Telephone connector

NECESSARY BACKROUND INFO !!

The house in question was a custom home, built by my wife and me. This allowed me the opportunity to pre-wire the entire house, by the way I did. The builder wanted an arm and a leg to do it, so I did it myself. Each room in the house has 4 outlets. Each outlet is comprised of the following connections:

  1. RG-6 Quad Shield Coax
  2. CAT 5 twisted pair Network cable
  3. CAT 3 twisted pair wire for Telephone

Each outlet is a home run, meaning that every outlet, the three cables identified above, go back to a central location. No connections are daisy chained anywhere. In total, I have around 4,000ft of wire circumventing throughout my home, not including the power lines.

I'm sure some people are saying, well because of this I had it made. Oh don't be so quick. My original plan was to have a PC next to each TV, which I soon discovered was a bad idea. Also, everything that I'm going to show can be done wireless nowadays, and using off-the-shelf parts. And take a look at the picture; all those wires are for only two rooms. I recently had to go back and redo the wiring, because another mistake I made. In some parts, I bundled all the wires (Telephone, Cable and Network) as well as whole house audio speaker wire and my Honeywell Thermatemp Zonal HVAC system. In short, I was getting cross talk, so when the phone rang static would appear on the TV screen. Needless to say that adventure has been completed.

ENOUGH ALREADY, HOW DOES THIS WORK?

Okay, okay, I'm getting to that. I want people to understand, that I didn't come up with this solution out of the blue one day. This design evolved. I made several mistakes, several wrong decisions, and for each wrong decision I learned a little bit more. So let's get our hands dirty and see why this design is so successful

HTPC Hardware

  • Intel Celeron 433Mhz Processor/Intel Celeron 1.0Ghz/AMD 1800+
  • 128MB PC 133 memory/256MB PC2100 Memory for the AMD systems
  • SoundBlaster PCI 128 sound card
  • D-Link 10/100 Network Cards
  • ATI All-In-Wonder 128 (Pro and Non Pro versions)
  • 3.2gig ATA 33 Hard Drives/20gig ATA 66 Hard drive for AMD systems

Server Hardware

  • Intel Pentium III 933Mhz Processor
  • 256MB PC 133 memory
  • 2 Promise ATA 133 IDE PCI cards
  • 2 450 Watt power supplies
  • 8 250gig ATA 133 drives (2TB total space)

Other Hardware

  • Home Electronics IRA/TIRA combination in Remote Extender Fashion
  • IR remote
  • Radio Shack 4 way splitter/combiners (many of them)
  • Radio Shack multiple channel RF Modulator
  • Radio Shack 200 Watt PA Amplifier for whole house audio

Software

  • Home Media Networks Showshifter Application
  • Girder 3.2b (Free version)
  • Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 software
  • AVG Free Anti-Virus

DATA FLOW OF THE SYSTEM

Below is a picture detailing the top level data flow. Before I dig into the details of each, sometimes it's helpful to get an overview look at how things go together. It might be easier to follow along with the numbered items below the picture. The flow chart could be a bit overwhelming at first.

This is the order of the data flow:

  1. A person hits a key on the Cable Box Remote Controller in the Living Room to change channels
  2. The IRA receiver receives the signal and converts it to serial data
  3. The data is carried on CAT 5 cable, not TCP/IP protocol, it's serial data
  4. The CAT 5 cable plugs into the Serial Port on the HTPC
  5. Girder Software interprets the signal, and forwards it on if destined for the cable box to the TIRA unit
  6. The TIRA unit reproduces the IR signal originally received by the IRA unit.
  7. The cable box received the IR signal from the TIRA unit, and changes the TV channel.
  8. The Cable Box outputs the Video and Audio via Coax back to the Coax Input of the HTPC.
  9. The HTPC then outputs the Video and Audio via RCA connectors to the RF Modulator.
  10. The RF Modulator converts the RCA input into Cable TV channel 5.
  11. The Channel 5 data is sent to the distribution hub and forwarded to all TVs.
  12. The Living Room TV is tuned to Channel 5, and the picture changes with sound.

PARTS AND PIECES

It's time to get even more involved, as I dissect each part of the system. I will explain some background on the failures and successes, and then summarize on why I decided to go with my final decision for implementation. Let's begin with Remote Controllers.

Remote Controllers

Nothing gave me more difficulty than deciding on a Remote Controller. However, it's important to understand my mistakes and why they were mistakes so you can avoid making the same errors I did, and save quite a bit of money in the process.

My first controller was an RF wireless controller made by X-10 product. At the time, the PC's were all located next to the TVs, so hooking up this remote was simple. This controller worked great. It used RF technology, distance was not an issue, and had a cool directional pad to control the mouse if need be. I quickly ordered 10 of them and thought my remote issues were solved.

First off, the remote works only on a single channel. Yep, the cross-talk killed me. When you pushed a button on a single controller, all the PCs reacted. So I moved on to a wireless keyboard solution. That gave me about 3 meters, or 9 feet for distance, not enough to make it work.

I then moved on to a brand new product made by ATI, the ATI Remote Wonder.

The product was made by X-10 and was so new at the time no one carried it. I contacted ATI directly, and they drop shipped 10 units to my door direct from China, or was it Korea, I don't remember which but I do recall I had to pay import fees. I connected the controller up, and blamo, 4 feet distance max. I was so upset. I contacted ATI, went through some trouble shooting, and eventually they agreed to let me return the units for a refund, less import fees of course.

Totally discouraged, I looked into IR Repeaters, and at this time I came across a new company called Home Electronics, www.home-electro.com. He had a device that could accept IR signals and convert them to serial data. Combined with GIRDER software, which at the time was free, and the unit was only $20 bucks each. I ordered 10 of them. I was so happy I went out and bought 10 IR remote Touch Screen Remote Controllers from Radio Shack. Touch screen remotes were cool, but a pain to use on an everyday basis, so I went back to standard remotes.

I ditched the RCA controllers into my parts bin and hauled out some old RCA controllers to use. Granted the touch screen were cool, just a real pain to use everyday. The final solution came from by Cable TV provider. Just a good old standard remote, but best of all they are free. So after that adventure, I was able to narrow down my remote controller selection, but not after a very aggravating journey through failure after failure.

What about those IR Repeaters?

Ah, this is where everything really started to gel. Thanks to the folks over at Home Electronics, www.home-electro.com, the final piece of the puzzle was in place. I was able to get IR signals from the Remote Controller into the HTPC. But my solution had the HTPCs in the basement, and the Cable Box had to be next to the HTPC. So I started to look around frequently to see what I can find. RCA had IR to RF repeater bases. These converted an IR signal to RF, transmits them to another base station that converts the signal back to IR. After my fiasco with the RF wireless Remote Controllers, I wasn't going to go anywhere near wireless RF products.

I continued to search and research products. One product relayed IR signals on the coax cable itself, although this was really cool, it was very expensive, and immediately dropped it from contention. I was starting to feel beaten.

One day, I decided to visit the Home Electronics website once again, www.home-electro.com, and see if anything new was happening with the IRA units. Then it caught my eye, in one of the tech support pages, a diagram explaining a possible implementation of their new product, called the TIRA.

I sat there, reading the information, looking over the diagram, painstakingly slow. I knew what I was looking at was my solution, but I didn't quite understand it yet. Imagine you are looking at a complex equation to solve a problem, you know what you are looking at is correct, but you don't really understand it. That's how I felt at the time, which is until the light bulb turned on, and I leaped from my office chair yelling with glee, as I ran around the house in such an excitement I couldn't find the words to express my joy. So I emailed Home Electronics to verify two things. One, that I understood the implementation correctly, and two; how long could I extend the IRA cable and still have it work. They responded quickly, answering all my questions, and also the PinOut for the IRA to make my job easier.

HTPC Inputs/Outputs

Now that we know how to forward IR signals from a room back to the HTPC, it was time to tackle the next problem; getting the picture back to the TV. The solution came to me while I was on vacation in Las Vegas. "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" I was told, but this is too good. Upon our return to our room to catch a few hours of sleep, I think it was around 10am, I turned on the TV and then it hit me. The Hotel had a system that communicated controller commands via the Coax line. I remember thinking back on the research I was doing, and saw those Coax devices. Then it hit me, I can send the video via Coax. The house was pre-wired in all the rooms and each TV had a built in NTSC tuner. The wheels started turning.

I took a trip to my local Radio Shack, 'cause I knew they had simple RF modulators that converted RCA to Channel 3 NTSC. Upon arriving, there they were; and they were on clearance to boot. I saw the Multi-channel RF modulators staring back at me. My brain locked, as the ideas started to go rapid shot through my head. I had a coax distribution, coax to each room, TVs with built in tuners, and now a multi-channel RF modulator. A tear formed in my eye.

Time to test our system. I configured Showshifter to a single channel on the HTPC, channel 3. I then fed the output of the cable box to the NTSC tuner on the AIW card. As I changed the channel on the cable box, the picture in Showshifter changed. Showshifter was behaving just like a VCR, and that was perfect. So I took my setup another step. I modulated 4 HTPC outputs onto different channels, sent each output into the Radio Shack 4-way combiner, and then fed that single coax into a TV. I set each HTPC to a different channel and started to change the TV stations. As I flipped through stations 5, 7, 9 and 15 on the TV, I saw the output from the respective HTPC. This was it, the final piece in the puzzle. I found a way to send the HTPC IR signals, how to forward IR signals to cable boxes, how to feed the audio/video into and out of the HTPC, how to modulate the HTPC outputs, and finally how to distribute the video across my entire home.

A great side affect, I could use my cable providers EPG, set recordings, and all the other features it has.

CLOSING REMARKS

It was a long road, as this article is coming to a close, using this implementation, you could have theoretically 125 HTPCs connected up using off-the-shelf parts and do it rather inexpensively. A few other items to note. This design also allows you whole house audio or whole house video. By setting an HTPC to play audio, you can tune each TV in the house to the HTPC channel, and voila, whole house audio.

Now that you see the design, the mind starts to race about all the options it presents. So, to take a look at the original goals, they were; how to integrate 10 HTPCs, solve the noise issues, make it cheap and inexpensive, make it flexible, make it simple to use, and use nothing but off-the-shelf parts. Each problem was solved, and a job well done.

Chris Bomicino is a Shoshifter user providing information back to the HTPC community. For more information you can contact him at: cino@cableone.net Showshifter is available from Home Media Networks Limited. www.showshifter.com


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