There is little doubt that, in the long run, managing digital media in the home will become an ever more important part of our lives, and products to aid in that effort will become ever more common.
Managing Your Digital Media
Tom Goldberg | Interact-TV Inc.
There is little doubt that, in the long run, managing digital media in the home will become an ever more important part of our lives, and products to aid in that effort will become ever more common.
By Tom Goldberg, Interact-TV Inc.
Everyone with a computer these days has digital media. At the very least, a few favorite video clips downloaded off the Internet, a few tunes ripped from CDs, a collection of digital photos you took and others sent you. It may be tucked into folders all over your hard drive or on several computers. You probably have islands of digital media spread around your house. But one thing is highly likely - most of it is not stored where you'd like to enjoy it. This paper will discuss the concept of a Home Entertainment Server and what makes it a good solution to assist you to store, manage, access and enjoy your digital media.
The Home Entertainment Server
With the explosion of digital music across the internet, digital photography having virtually replaced film, and video content inevitably heading in the same direction, it's apparent that computers are becoming more and more commonly used to store that media. The use of personal computers (PCs) for the enjoyment of that media is less common, because it is less appropriate. Even for those that have good speakers attached to their PCs, most people don't want to watch a movie sitting at their desk.
It is apparent that a different kind of computer should be tailored to allow users to both store and enjoy their digital media. Interact-TV sells such a device under the name the "Telly™ Home Entertainment Server" which embodies the concepts discussed in this paper. The point here however, is to present a collection of ideas about how best to manage your media, regardless of what system you employ.
The Media Center concept as popularized by Microsoft with their "Windows XP Media Center Edition" is one example of several emerging solutions that have been swirling around over the past several years. An obvious drawback with that solution is that PCs are designed for the office, not the living room. They are designed for work; entertainment is play, the opposite of work.
One description now being used for a more appropriate digital media computer is the "Home Theater Personal Computer" or HTPC. This name begins to get at the idea that this computer belongs where entertainment is enjoyed. This doesn't go quite far enough though - while your main television screen may be the best place in your home to enjoy your media, it is not the only place. If all your music were accessible anywhere in your home, from the garage to the patio, if all your movies could be seen and all your music heard not just in the living room but in the bedroom or den, the solution would be much more attractive. That is why we promote the idea of a "Home Entertainment Server" as a device which not only lets you store and manage your media, but can also serve your entertainment anywhere you care to enjoy it.
Entertainment Server Fundamentals
Since it is apparent that enjoying digital media isn't ideally done on a PC, we focused on defining and implementing a set of attributes that would be closer to achieving an ideal solution. Two of the most fundamental are the physical characteristics of the box and the way in which it is controlled.
Appropriate Form Factor
While a Home Entertainment Server can distribute media over a network throughout your home, the centrally located HTPC concept has validity. We like the idea that your central storage device should be connected to your home's main TV. We like the idea that it should be able to play CDs or DVDs and should be located in the same room where those are likely to be kept. But who wants a big noisy PC in their living room? So, to begin with, a Home Entertainment Server should be small enough and shaped like a stereo component so that it can coexist with the rest of your components, with all the correct inputs and outputs to interconnect with that environment without clusters of little adapter boxes.
Just as importantly, it should be quiet. Most desk side PCs have at least 3 fans and no attention to limiting the noise they put out. Windows Media Center approved PCs must be high performance in order to meet Microsoft's requirements, and the higher performance, the more heat and resulting noise from ever bigger fans. In fact, much lower power yet good performing processors can easily keep up with most entertainment tasks, which is why we build systems which remain quiet while enjoying media.
Appropriate User Interface
It is indisputable that a tool to enable the enjoyment of media should be easy to use. One of the concepts frequently put forward for entertainment enjoyment is that it is a "lean back" activity as opposed to productivity centered activities conducted at the desk in a "lean forward" attitude. Windows is an environment created specifically for lean forward activities, mouse and keyboard driven, imposing frequent computer related interactions with the user. An ideal Home Entertainment Server is created from the ground up to make no such requirements, but rather to promote an environment conducive to an attitude which is relaxed, encouraging browsing, cruising, and watching or listening, on the sofa, leaning back.
Surely, it is easy enough to tack remote control operations on top of any application. A major component of how lean back an application is, can be seen in how well integrated remote operations are. Poor lean back applications can be measured by how often exceptions occur such as desktop sized fine print appearing on the TV, requirements for typing, or popup dialog interruptions. At Interact-TV we believe that a good lean back environment never makes those demands on the user, yet still allows full control of those features which allow you to enjoy the experience.
A startling contradiction in the whole Windows approach is that, while every desktop function is designed to be mouse-driven, their entire media environment is not. The only way to make selections in Media Center is with Up/Down/Left/Right arrow keys. I wouldn't argue against the utility of that - almost every TV remote works that way and users understand it well. But, there are too many circumstances where it is simply more convenient to point at what you want: long lists of media, screens with many choices, moving around in text entries, just to name a few. This is why we designed our system to offer both arrow keys and a pointing device. Every menu can be driven with either technique or even intermixed. With considerable user feedback, we selected a thumb operated trackball built into the remote, and find that almost everyone ends up gravitating to pointing to control our system. They simply find it easier and more natural.
This is not to say that there aren't times when dealing with entertainment media requires lean forward activities. Editing home videos, managing music categories, or building and adjusting extensive photo albums are all examples of tasks which go beyond casual lean back remote operations. A good Home Entertainment Center solution should have methods which provide for this type of activity, but not at the expense of enjoyment. As described later in this paper, we offer facilities like web-based interaction, shared media, and mountable file systems to let users access media from devices like their desktop PCs better suited to lean forward activities.
Easy Setup and Configuration
One thing that consistently causes PC users difficulties is configuration and setup. Just getting Windows the way you like it can be challenging, not to mention tough problems like finding drivers for that special game control or old scanner. A well behaved Home Entertainment Server must be easy to setup. A single wizard that can take you through all the necessary steps is mandatory, and that wizard should be easy to drive from the remote control without requiring a college degree to get through it. Changing configuration settings should also be convenient from the remote, because you are most likely to discover that changes are needed while you are enjoying the system.
No matter what, connecting a Home Entertainment Server is not likely to be simple if it is going to interface with many devices in an entertainment center. At the very least it will be connected to your network and to your television. It will probably also be connected to a sound system and possibly a cable or satellite box. Simple straightforward hi-fi component-like interfaces will help make this task easier, adapter and converter boxes should be avoided wherever possible.
One element can simplify the whole process of allowing a server to connect throughout any home, and that is built-in wireless networking. Most users wanting to install connected servers near their televisions have never contemplated running Ethernet to their entertainment center cabinet. Wireless networking is a great tool for addressing this issue, especially given the dropping costs for wireless technology.
Manage Media, Not Files
Files and folders are great when it comes to managing work. Being able to keep a spread sheet in the same folder with the report which draws on that sheet is an excellent model for productivity. Managing files does however require some discipline and organizational effort - the last thing you want to pay attention to when enjoying media.
This is why we manage media in libraries. These libraries are searchable by date, by title, by genre, etc. In reality, your media is managed by a behind-the-scenes database designed to be operated by a remote. Some software programs for music and photos exist which manage media with this type of concept, but none of them deal with media in a consistent cross-category way. We advocate libraries that 'drive' similarly regardless of whether you're looking for a video of a sporting event, photo of grandma or jazz tune.
Another problem with the traditional File/Folder metaphor is what it does to you when you run out of room. No couch potato should ever be confronted with remembering whether that movie was on the C: drive or the D:. Library managed media combined with an advanced technology we call "logical volume management" makes those problems go away. What our technology does is aggregate storage behind the scenes so the user doesn't know or care where the media resides, they just know it is in the library and can find it easily. When one drive gets full, users simply add another drive. The system sees it, adds it to the available storage space, and manages it transparently. This allows the server to grow and accommodate an ever increasing library of media without worrying about where the media actually "lives." We build Home Entertainment Servers today that start with tens or hundreds of gigabytes, but which can easily grow to nearly a terabyte. With an established record of hard drives doubling in capacity every 2 years, this amount of storage will grow into the future, and digital media represents the single biggest potential use for that kind of storage. With these truly unbelievable capacities, Home Entertainment Servers can store, organize, and preserve all your collected media over time and let you enjoy it served throughout your home with easy access.
Most consumer electronics provide a fixed set of capabilities; they are what they are when you purchase and will never be more. Your DVD player came with a set of features and that is all it will ever have. If you become dissatisfied with what it can do, your only choice is to replace it.
One aspect of traditional PCs which serves as an excellent model for Home Entertainment Servers to follow, and that is that they are open. That is to say, end users can change them. Third parties can add to them. Oddly enough, many of the outfits offering HTPC-type products have taken the opposite approach, requiring that options and accessories be purchased from the original manufacturer. We think those limits are ill conceived.
Soon after IBM popularized the personal computer, third parties in increasingly large numbers began assembling their own versions. All this activity served to drive computers into an ever widening marketplace at ever lower costs. Because the volumes became so large, computer components became commoditized and amazingly inexpensive. And, computers themselves became incredibly variable, allowing every individual to get exactly the option complement and performance specs they desired.
Our philosophy is that this kind of commoditization of PC hardware should be leveraged into Home Entertainment Servers. We're happy to sell you a new hard drive when you fill up what you have, but we don't believe in trying to stop you from obtaining your own. We've built our Home Entertainment Servers on commodity hardware specifically to leverage the low hardware costs of doing so and believe our customers should have the same benefits once the unit is in their home. This means that users can not only add more storage, but once the software is available, upgrade a standard definition tuner card to HDTV or a CD-RW to a DVD-RW and so on.
Another aspect of Home Entertainment Servers we believe should be open is software. It was the open nature of the original PCs that encouraged creative people to develop new capabilities and expand upon existing features. It was that very openness that drove computers to become such excellent tools for productivity. We think that a similar groundswell will drive growth of tools for the enjoyment of entertainment in our homes.
This is why we publish our Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). Anyone who wants to develop enhancements to our Home Entertainment Server can have the Software Development Kit (SDK) when they purchase one of our systems at no extra charge. This kind of open strategy puts power into the hands of developers who might be interested in writing new capabilities. It also puts power into the hands of customers who have some technical ability. With these tools, the adept can easily change menus to suit their needs or even change the look and feel of the interface. Additionally, these tools let makers of other equipment for the home develop interfaces to control or be controlled by our Home Entertainment Servers.
Lowering the barrier to entry for developing applications will drive the range and scope of our product's capabilities. While we've focused on managing digital media, that is by no means the only useful set of functionality we can envision for systems like those described here and open interfaces will open up yet undiscovered possibilities. We envision a cornucopia of third party extensions like home automation software, voice command software, entertainment agents automatically finding media for you, and so on.
Central to the whole concept of serving media throughout a home is the requirement that the system be networked. Whether it is wired or wireless, the evolved computing standard known as TCP/IP (what runs over Ethernet) is eminently suited to distributing media as data. A thin cable can carry megabits of data representing many simultaneous streams of media. The ease of which it allows us to distribute content however is only the tip of the iceberg - a wide range of other benefits grow from having a well behaved network citizen connected to your media and entertainment displays - like being able to enjoy your media from your wireless laptop, your desktop PC, a media adapter in the bedroom, and so on… even all at the same time.
Sharing and Streaming
Perhaps in some ideal world, all of your digital media would be on the Home Entertainment Server. In reality, however, stuff is going to still be on your PC in the office, or on a family PC in the den, or on a laptop.
The first step we take to accommodate this diversity is to support "file system mounting" on any Windows or Macintosh computer. Our servers appear in your network neighborhood and you can 'see' audio, video and photo folders just as if they were sitting on any other PC. This lets you move your media back and forth between machines using well established techniques. Evolving standards like UPnP and Rendezvous will allow us to automatically discover your media on the network and further eliminate worries of management.
Regardless of where the media is actually stored, you want to enjoy your media where you want and a whole class of equipment we refer to as "networked media adapters" are emerging to fill that need. Today, we have interfaces to both wired and wireless audio devices (i.e. Slim Devices' SqueezeBox) and can stream tunes or entire playlists to anywhere on the network or within wireless range. A number of manufacturers are beginning to produce devices which can do the same thing with video streams (i.e. Pinnacle's ShowStopper) and our system will be able to playout multiple simultaneous streams to those devices as well.
Any good Home Entertainment Server system's network should be connected to the Internet. We use that connection for a variety of things, like updating the Electronic Program Guide and looking up information about music when you insert a CD. We also package up some information like weather, theater listings and stock quotations so it's all easily viewable on any television screen. Another crucial reason for this connection is support and software updates, with the Internet providing a two way connection to help users with problems and to push fixes, upgrades, even new features out to end users effortlessly.
Many of our customers have told us they want a full internet browser on their TV. Many argue about the practicality of doing this in standard definition television, but at least it is possible to do a decent job of it with a real pointing device in the remote. With or without browsing, the Internet will also become an ever growing source for content. Content that you find and pull in and content that you subscribe to which gets delivered automatically. Any complete Home Entertainment Server solution has to have this source for digital media delivery available from the beginning
Another amazing benefit from having your Home Entertainment Server networked is the ability for it to serve its own web site. So, now sitting at your computer, you point your browser, instead of somewhere out there on the internet, to this device living in your TV cabinet. Not only does this give you a simple web based view into all your media, but it allows you to edit lists, manage media, even stream it using standard web browsers.
The server also presents the Electronic Program Guide to browsers with a few really excellent and unique capabilities. Not only can you see what's showing from anywhere on the network, you can use that as a control point for your Home Entertainment Server. The possibilities really open up with web control. Sit on the sofa with your wireless laptop and peruse the guide while the family continues to watch a program. Click on a show and begin watching it, or schedule something for future recording. Another capability we offer which leverages this even further never fails to please users: because we know what your watching, we provide intelligent links to let you click-through to more information - learn more about anything happening on your TV, without ever typing a web address.
Operating System Issues
As explained early on in this article, an operating system like Microsoft Windows is not the ideal point from which to start when building a tool like the server I've outlined. Bulky, burdened, power hungry and expensive, we think there is a much better alternative.
For our servers, we've chosen to build on top of Linux, an open version of the proven UNIX industrial strength operating system known for reliability and stability. Linux an open-source software development itself feeds well into our strategy of encouraging development within our products and fosters a community who can and will improve upon what we started. Linux is used across the web to serve data for the largest providers on the internet, and for many of the same reasons, it is ideal to serve digital media in your home. All of today's original networking technology grew from UNIX roots and it incorporates a robust file system ideal for jobs like storing and serving media. It is very scaleable and while there are a great many features you can layer on it, at its heart it is lightweight and efficient, getting far more performance from a given processor than you could ever achieve under Windows. A product like a Home Entertainment Server can leverage the community of open software at very low costs with better performance and capabilities than any more expensive Windows alternatives.
Even with all the power and functionality of Linux, as it stands it is not appropriate for the home. Interact-TV has designed a set of utilities which run on top of it which we refer to as EOS™ - an entertainment software platform. EOS includes an integrated set of utilities to manage media, to manage networking in a home entertainment environment, to present elegant graphics on-screen, and to manage a suite of applications for media enjoyment. It is into EOS that all the APIs discussed earlier provide access for extending the features of our system. EOS could be the topic for an entire white paper in and of itself (any probably will be), but the main point here is that it provides a means to let users access easy-to-use lean back applications without ever having to even know about, much less deal with the Linux underpinnings which give it all that power.
Stability and Data Reliability
While Linux is not completely immune from crashes, few would doubt that it is a more stable operating system than Windows. The crash of a Home Entertainment Server isn't a matter of national security, but can certainly disappoint the owner if it happens during an enjoyable entertainment experience. A Linux environment is not only more stable, but if it does crash, it can recover and be back on line far more quickly, in some cases so fast the user doesn't even notice. While a stable, fast recovering operating system is a great attribute, we consider data reliability to be a mandatory feature.
We well understand that, as users collect and organize their digital media, it grows in value and begins to represent a terrific investment in time, energy and even money. The assets that live on a mature Home Entertainment Server become precious indeed. We use a "journaling file system" supported in Linux which is extremely robust for protecting the long term integrity of that valuable content you have painstakingly collected. Sudden power outages, users shutting down without notice, all kinds of events which might corrupt data are automatically and invisibly repaired without user intervention. Even in the event of a hard disk crash, data is almost always recoverable. We think it only makes sense to keep your media on the system where it is best protected.
This paper has presented our ideas about the best ways to manage your media using what we describe as a Home Entertainment Server. It has provided an overview of many important concepts we feel should be part of such a Home Entertainment Server to enjoy media in the home. There is little doubt that, in the long run, managing digital media in the home will become an ever more important part of our lives, and products to aid in that effort will become ever more common.
Interact-TV is dedicated to helping users store, manage, access, and enjoy digital media in the home and put forward these concepts in hopes of improving everyone's ability to do just that. If you agree that the concepts put forth here would improve your digital media experience, we encourage you to take a look at our Telly Home Entertainment Servers at http://www.interact-tv.com.
Tom Goldberg is VP of Marketing and Business Development at Interact-TV. He has spent 25 years working in the video industry and left Avid Technology 3 years ago to join Interact-TV Inc. in Westminster, CO to help develop innovative software and products that support and enhance the digital entertainment experience.
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