Windows Media Center and Windows Embedded

There was a ton of activity and buzz around what Microsoft has been doing with Windows Media Center in conjunction with Windows Embedded. Not sure what Windows Embedded is in the first place?
Microsoft describes the technology in this way on the Windows Embedded site on MSDN:

“Windows Embedded Enterprise products are fully functional versions of Microsoft’s desktop operating system intended for use in an embedded solution consisting of purpose-built hardware and application software.”

Windows Embedded makes a lot of sense, especially when you take into account that Windows Embedded Standard 7 now incorporates Windows Media Center into the mix. What this allows for is the ability for developers to build “a variety of smart, connected, and service-oriented advanced commercial or consumer devices.”

Microsoft’s floor display consisted of a tour through the “connected living room” where a number of these devices were displayed from a variety of companies including Acer Gateway, Evolve, Reycom, Haier, and Prime Time.

The concept, as well as the devices, is a very cool one. It allows a company to build, say, a media streaming device akin to the Logitech Revue in form and function, but the device boots directly into the embedded version of Windows Media Center 7 (WMC7). This is huge because the new embedded OS has only the features that the OEM company wants as well as only the drivers needed for the equipment they are using. This innovation provides for a much smaller “footprint” as far as how much ROM is needed on the particular device as well as removing parts of the standard Windows 7 OS that are not needed or desired.

There’s no argument that this new type of device is key to moving the world towards embracing the concept of the “connected home” because of the simplicity it provides consumers. Much like any of the other Media Streaming devices out there from Roku, SageTV, and even the Logitech Revue, these devices are very easy to plug in, setup, and start enjoying; usually in less than 10 minutes!

While hands-down this is all very exciting, I am not going to be one of the people stating that the “Home Theater PC (HTPC) is dead” like I read one author claim recently. Why? Because the HTPC is NOT dead! The HTPC is still a compelling option for anyone who wants the full powered computing experience from their living room and contrary to some opinions out there, it is no more difficult to operate a Windows 7 HTPC than it is to operate your Windows 7 laptop. Having a keyboard in your living room won’t cause the sun to stop rising either!

Gesture Technology (i.e. Xbox 360 Kinect)
While I put the “Xbox 360 Kinect” in the topic header for the purpose of helping the reader understand what technology I am referring to when I say “gesture technology”, Microsoft did not invent it. A company called PrimeSense out of Tel Aviv, Israel, is behind much of Microsoft’s Project Natal. The exciting part about this technology is that it isn’t being used just for games now, but is reaching into all corners of the Connected Home.
Gesture Technology (also known as Natural Interaction because there are no controllers being held like the Wii and now PS3 have) could turn out to have a very big presence this year with all of the excitement around its potential uses, and most importantly, loads of development happening behind the scenes. We are talking about not just interacting with your TV, but also with your PC, and even eventually things around the home (like lighting) by using just your hand movements and voice. Trust me, this thing even out-does the clapper! 😉

The hardware, coming from companies like PrimeSense and Asus, is combined with software like WAVI Xtion and the framework from OpenNI, and can give you the ability to interact with your media center on a whole new level. Imagine never having to search for the remote again! Already ahead of the game, there is an application called KinEmote that allows the user to interact with XBMC and Boxee Media Centers! Can you imagine the extent at which this can change/impact our home entertainment experience?

While this technology is very new, many people are recognizing the capabilities that lie outside of the gaming industry and touch upon the connected home and beyond. It’s going to be thrilling watching this ground-breaking new field grow!

The Connected Home
One thing is for sure: the idea of the “Connected Home” is still very real to a lot of people and more importantly, to a lot of manufacturers. We have only touched the tip of the iceberg, in my opinion, of where these new technologies can take our home entertainment experience. There are far too many fresh technologies coming out of CES that are geared toward creating or enhancing the Connected Home to give much credence to NY Times columnist David Pogue when he says “For the 417th straight C.E.S., the industry trotted out yet another vision of the Connected Home (your appliances, home theater and other gadgets all on a big network). And for the 417th straight year, nobody in Americaland will have any interest.”. Sorry, David, I just don’t buy that.

I adamantly disagree because I saw with my own eyes the myriad of fresh technology products that directly addresses the Connected Home. I mean, it was everywhere! For example, beyond what I’ve spoken about above, companies like Control4 announced a number of new products, including new touch panels that are designed for one specific purpose: Home System Integration (tying multiple Home Systems together). That is just one example of the many companies who believe there is a market out there for their “Connected Home” products; I think it’s safe to say that the technology giants that were represented at CES hire highly skilled market researchers to find out what consumers are thirsting for. If the comments were accurate, that would mean that a whole score of marketing gurus are dead wrong and leading their companies in a completely wrong direction. I dare say there are millions of people in America who are fascinated by in the Connected Home, heck…I even know of a few in Great Britain. And like I’ve pointed out above, CES showcased several technologies that will make it easier than ever for consumers to begin “connecting” their homes.

While at CES, I was lucky enough to sit in on a Panel discussion entitled “2011: Year of the Connected Home?” which included these industry leaders:

Christopher Albano – Senior Director – CPE and Home Networking, Comcast – Office of the CTO
Dan Marotta – Executive Vice President and General Manager, Broadband Communications Group
David McCalpin – General Manager, Home Energy Management, General Electric
Neil McPhail – Senior Vice President & GM, NBS-CSG, Best Buy Co., Inc.
Will West – CEO, Control4

And although there seemed to be two different lines of thinking when it came to opinions about which area of focus (content vs. energy) could ignite the Connected Home industry for good, everyone seemed to be in agreement that things are moving in a very positive direction and that 2011 indeed could be the year that it sticks. That is a pretty big claim and I whole-heartedly agree. The Connected Home has been discussed and promised to the public for much of CES’s history, spanning all the way back to 1967, though it was typically called Home Automation until this more recent buzzword.

So while the Connected Home has been a topic of discussion for many years, there has also been innovation accompanying it along this journey. New technologies of today replace the new technologies of years past-innovation is always a forward motion path. Like all technology that sticks around for awhile, there comes a time that it will hit critical mass. You can see this trend in any technology we take for granted today, from the telephone to the TV to the cell phone. They are all examples of technologies that took years to catch on, but then suddenly, reached a point where everyone wanted it in their home.

This WILL happen with the Connected Home. I’m sorry, but I will flat out disagree with anyone who says that the Connected Home will never happen mainstream. In fact, I think we are about as close as we can get before this thing explodes, and in actuality, 2011 could very well be the “Year of the Connected Home”. But only if certain things happen…

In my humble opinion, the focus MUST be on the content (read Entertainment) side of the argument for this to take off. The truth is that as important as it is to save money on your energy bill (or hopefully even more relevant to people, the importance of saving the precious resources of our planet by reducing our energy consumption), it is just not enticing enough to lure people to spend the extra money. Sad, but true.

No, the focus must be on something that gets people’s interest, something that people would spend their money on because it brings value of a different type: Entertainment value.

In the panel discussion, we learned that we have more than enough bandwidth to handle the streaming content available to us now. We also already know that there are a multitude of devices and technologies that will not only play that content, but can stream it throughout the house to other computers or TVs, even to our cell phones. We have integration available to us through companies like Control4, Crestron, and others. Without a doubt, the technology is already here to fully integrate all of our Home Systems.

Everything is in place. What is missing from the recipe is certainly not a lack of interest, but in my opinion has more to do with educating the general public than anything else. I believe that the vast majority of our population has no real concept of what options are available right now to start creating their own version of a connected home. I think most people probably don’t really understand what it all means in the first place.

If we want the “Connected Home” to become a widespread reality in the near future (it already IS a reality to a lot of folks), then the general public needs to be educated (i.e. marketing) about what can be created in their very own homes using content as the carrot on the stick. Once people start understanding home system integration and start implementing connected entertainment infrastructures in their home, the energy piece is an easy sell! It just seems logical, doesn’t it?
This truly can be the Year of the Connected Home, but it will take a major push from people with louder voices than me to help people understand its meaning and benefits.

Honorable Mentions
With so much amazing new (or improved) technologies at CES, it is pretty tough to just speak about a few. Beyond the technologies encompassed above, I would be remiss not to mention a couple of other trends to watch this year:

Android: Android is going to continue to grow in power and influence this year. As Google continues to tweak its OS, the phone and tablet industry is going to be on fire! Google TV will also benefit greatly with Android’s next release, perhaps then people will truly understand why I am such an advocate of Google TV.
Blackberry Playbook: I took a look at this at CES and WOW, what a nice looking device and sweet feeling OS. I look forward to seeing how well it is received by the public as well as how big their apps store becomes.

As I conclude, I can’t express how much hope and excitement I hold for this next year. There is so much going on in the world of technology, it will be fascinating to see how much our home technology industry will change a year from now!

The bottom line is that as technology dependably advances, every year something new comes out that will impact a large portion of the world, making life easier and hopefully more pleasant in one way or another. And you know what? That’s a good thing!

Here’s to looking forward to the rest of 2011 and all that it will bring because you can’t stop progress!

Tom Abell is a System Integrator and Owner of Home System Integration LLC, in Sunnyvale, CA. He brings to the table a combination of 15 years in IT Systems Engineering and Home System Integration experience, shifting back into the Home market after returning from Iraq in April of 2009. Judging from his passionate writings on the Articles page of his website (, it is easy to see that he feels he’s in the right place at the right time and that his “mission” is to raise awareness about Home Technology Integration to the masses!