The assortment of electronic components now found in the modern home is both a benefit and a bother. Consider home theater. The audio-video fidelity delivered into our living rooms today is comparable to that of concert halls and movie houses. But with that we also get a dizzying array of components — receivers, HDTV’s, DVD players, personal video recorders, multiple tuners, line doublers, and the list goes on. If we throw home automation and security into the mix, the number of devices rapidly multiplies. So, too, our confusion when it comes to operating them.

What can be done to make the operation of these systems simpler?

One very powerful tool is your personal computer. The goal here is to transform your home’s myriad of electronics into a simple, integrated system. Achieving that will require delegating to your PC, by means of advanced software, as much operational control of those components as possible. Indeed, in many cases it will mean the PC’s hardware replacing traditional electronics components.

For instance, new software products have been developed that enable the computer to perform many of the functions that previously required specialized hardware. PC’s can now play, catalog, and manage most types of audio including CDs, MP3s and many other digital formats. They can also record TV shows onto the hard disk and time-shift live programs. Computers, too, can play DVD movies, as well as a variety of other digital formats like MPG and AVI. They can decode and record high definition TV. They can tune in over-the-air TV signals and decode surround sound. In addition to these home entertainment functions, PC’s can even act as home automation and security systems controllers. 1

Moreover, enlisting the PC to simplify electronic systems will lead to other benefits as well. When PC based solutions perform as well as separate components like DVD players and PVRs, manufacturers will no longer expend resources building redundant hardware. This will result in products with more versatility at a lower price.

The home of tomorrow begins with MCP.PC based solutions also promise to offer more functionality than their traditional counterparts. Take the DVD player for example. A regular component added to the stereo rack would be able to play DVDs. A software DVD player could integrate your DVD collection with other media types like AVI files and video CDs. It could offer rich cataloging functionality with sorting and searching. Not only that, but once the DVD player is in software, it is more easily automated and integrated with other applications, like the program that controls the sound card.

Programming languages and macro software2 can be used to switch the inputs on the sound card, pick a particular DVD from a carousel3, and play it, all by pressing a single button.

Furthermore, the PC industry can bring its rapid innovation to the field of home electronics. The niche of PC home entertainment and control will benefit from all the developments achieved by the whole industry. For example, look at the improvements in CPUs and hard drives, which never would have been developed so rapidly if PC’s weren’t also utilized by business, education and industry.

Efficiency, functionality, and the promise of rapid advancements, with subsequent lower prices, make the PC the optimal tool for simplifying home electronics.

What would greatly enhance that tool is a single, unified interface that could integrate control of the hundreds of devices found in homes. Such an interface would have to be able to control components operated by IR remote controls (TV’s and stereos), automated appliances like X-10 lighting, security systems, and high-end audio equipment utilizing serial and RF control. Most importantly, though, since the PC is poised to take over many home electronics functions, the interface must be able to control other PC software. A setup like this would look like Figure A.

Such an integrated interface would provide a uniform look and feel, making the entire system easier to operate. By simply pressing the ‘Play Video’ button on the interface, the user would be presented with all the commands relevant to that task, regardless of whether the command controlled the TV, the receiver, or the DSS tuner. This is the first step in enabling users to focus on what they want to do, while forgetting about what components are involved.

The job of providing a platform for such an interface is especially well suited to the computer. For a user interface to work, it must be linked to the things it controls, just as a car’s steering wheel needs to be linked to the wheels to turn them. Since using the PC is the preferable way to handle home electronics functions, it makes sense that the interface be PC software too. This would not only make hooking up the interface to what it controls much easier, but also allow for rich 2-way communication. For instance, PC software can “talk” directly with other PC software, receive information as well as send it, and communicate in both words and numbers. The result is a more direct connection, and enhanced features such as slider controls that match the level of dimmable lights, even when the lights are adjusted elsewhere. In contrast, to control a system with an IR remote, a step would need to be added to convert the IR signals to commands that PC programs could understand. Even then, such communication would indicate only button presses, and only in one direction.

Since the PC already has established communication protocols that can carry commands through wires and through the air,4 a PC software interface would be able to control things in other rooms -even in other buildings. This makes possible things like roaming the house with a Pocket PC that can operate anything from the home theater to the camera in the baby’s room. With an interface that communicates over the Internet, you could do the same from anywhere in the world.

The PC has another capability that makes it an ideal platform for an interface. Its I/O hardware is much more powerful than that of other devices. Large color monitors present colorful graphics that can make the interface for a home’s systems fun as well as easier to understand. Keyboards are the tried and true standard for entering text, like CD labels. Pointing devices allow for quick, easy selection and drag and drop functionality. Don’t you wish you could use a mouse while navigating those DVD menus rather than the clumsy control on the DVD remote? Sleek looking black LCD touch-screen monitors are available, too, allowing touches on the screen to replace mouse use. Black, reduced size wireless keyboards look super high tech on the coffee table. Wireless trackballs are a pointing device that can be used from an easy chair. There is even a clever gyro mouse5.

Applying computer technology to home theater, home automation, and security, is the key to making control of these systems not only simple, but also fun. The technology to do everything stated in the article is here now, or very close. As PC integrated solutions become more widely used and refined, they will rapidly simplify the complexity of our electronics systems, making their operation a pleasure for everyone.

[1] Products handling the referenced functionality: Makers of CD jukebox software and related hardware Personal Video Recorder (PVR) software Hardware and software for viewing and recording HDTV Software for controlling home automation equipment and more

[2] Software for creating macros that control other Windows programs

[3] A 200 disk DVD changer

[4] Manufacturers wired and wireless networking solutions

[5] Referenced hardware: A source for touch-screen monitors Manufacturers of wireless pointing devices and a high end wireless keyboard