At the high end of the market it is simple enough to configure a home theater PC and integrate it into a system, but move a bit down the ladder and it often takes more creativity to bring digitally delivered content to your client’s audio-video system.
Does the installation require that content to be shown without calling out to a computer somewhere else in the house or system? Is the computer in a different room or is it in the same room? These are the decision points that you will need to chart, and it is more than simply a question of network access.
For the professional electronic systems contractor, networking should be the easiest part of the equation. Getting the content itself, however, may be another story.
Making Widgets Work for You
Let’s start out with the simplest of data requests: providing information about repeatable data such as sports scores, weather, and financial market updates. TV manufacturers have different ways to do this, but the widget model typically takes advantage of a direct broadband connection to the display that serves up content selected by simply clicking on a banner of icons at an edge of the screen. You choose the data service with simple left/right/up/down/enter navigation, and the data will replace the widgets. A Moxi set-top box is another option for those who aren’t bothered by a “ticker-style” information presentation that can give you sports scores and news.
A Moxi set-top box is another option for those who aren’t bothered by a “ticker-style” information presentation that can give you sports scores and news.
The problem comes when you need something more than what the canned links take you to or when some privacy is needed.
For a browser on the main screen it is worth remembering that PS3 includes a web browser as part of the product. Not bad when there is a budget restriction, but for all the strong points of the PS3 and its other connectivity services, this isn’t something your client would want to use for heavy surfing. On the other hand, the browser of its little cousin, the PSP, is quite readable and is more than up to the task of a handheld information terminal. Of course, virtually all of the smart phones also have a browser, but your surfing is better served when they are receiving data via WiFi, not the wireless carrier’s service.
Budgets not withstanding, perhaps the best option for casual data searching in an “entertainment room” situation is a netbook. Compact and light weight, yet sporting a full keyboard and high resolution screen, these are the easiest and best answer for things such as an IMDB search to answer the inevitable bets about someone in the movie being viewed.
Matching Services and Content to the System
When your state-of-the-art theater or viewing area demands more than what comes from cable, satellite, or over-the-air services, your first task is to see what specific content your client wants and what device will handle it. For example, you may respond to a simple request for YouTube access, by installing a TiVo box, a Vudu standalone box, a VuNow box, Wii, PS3 (now in beta), or AppleTV.
For more than YouTube, there are products such as VuNow and PopBox to consider. If your client is into something specific like Anime or is an Asian ex-pat, a set-top box that has direct access to Crunchyroll will be worth it for that alone. Or, for someone who is a baseball fanatic, Roku’s players offer (with a premium fee) access to live and archived games via MLB.com. After all, an ex-pat isn’t always someone from another country; it can as easily be a Cubs fan living in Los Angeles or a Red Sox fan condemned to live in Manhattan.
Viewing vs. ‘Listening’
If it’s only internet-based audio (not video) that your client requires, you may not have to look any further than for an audio-video receiver that offers DLNA or equivalent connectivity. Almost all major brands have at least one model with that capability, along with access to internet radio via services such as V-Tuner. Some go even further with additional audio service access such as Rhapsody or Pandora. With these, hook up the broadband connection, make sure networking is properly configured, and you’re good to go. For network content access where the AVR or surround processor does not have network connectivity, something such as the Logitech’s Squeezebox or Transporter products can get you the audio you want from in-home or external tuning and music services.
If “listen” isn’t enough, and the request is to “watch” images or video from content in the home or the “cloud,” then another step is required. Some of the AVRs that can connect to audio in the home can also pull JPEG still images to the theater’s big screen. The processing power required to do that is within the range of some of these models.
A dividing line between products comes when there is the request to pull in video content in one of the variety of compression codecs (MPEG-2, MPEG-4, H.264, etc). Here, the required power is a bit more, similar to what is needed in a Blu-ray player. That’s where set-tops come back into play on a few levels.
As noted, there is a wide range of self-contained products such as the Blu-ray players, BoxeeBox, Popbox, Moxi, TiVo, and more that have some access for some movie and video content services along with audio. Of course, AppleTV, PS3, Xbox360, and Vudu also offer movie services of their own or through third parties such as Netflix. Certainly, with more laptops and PCs sporting HDMI, there is nothing to prevent you from going “over the top” by plopping one in the system and making a simple HDMI connection.
Sherwood plans to launch an AV receiver equipped to stream Internet- and PC-based media and an AV receiver with embedded HD Radio.
Accessing ‘the Computer in Another Room’
When your client simply wants access to network-stored content from services such as Hulu, YouTube, Netflix, and Amazon, MediaMall’s PlayOn software offers an easy way to bring that to the screen. After a one-time purchase of this $39.95 Windows-based PC software, virtually any DLNA-compliant computer on the network, and more importantly, all three game consoles, Moxi HD DVRs, Netgear’s Digital Entertainer Live, and VuNow can serve up any of these services to the screen with only a few configuration settings. (That’s the “official” list as of this writing, with many more DLNA compliant products such as some DirecTV boxes, Samsung, and Sony Bravis XBR9 and above TVs, and Western Digital’s WDTV also reported to have reasonable success with PlayOn.) This is one potential solution for content access in the “over the top” world that has a nominal enough cost that you may wish to simply try it out for yourself at home or in the shop to see if it makes sense in any of your current or pending jobs.
ZeeVee’s Zinc provides a simple, consistent way to browse and manage more than 100,000 professionally produced videos, including more than 60,000 mainstream TV shows and 20,000 movies from hundreds of different Web sites like Amazon, Netflix, and major broadcast networks.
For some more basic surfing and content access applications, a low-cost product such as Netgear’s Push2TV adaptor can wirelessly connect “current vintage” PCs or laptops directly to any HDMI-equipped display. When the computer is a more conventional one, a ZeeVee ZvBox 150 QAM RF modulation device can distribute the output of not only a computer via a VGA input, but almost any source with a component video and SP/DIF digital audio output with resolutions up to 720p and 48bit PCM, respectively. Because the output of the ZvBox is on a vacant cable channel, you can view the output of the computer on any device on a home’s RF network by simply tuning to the channel. This gives all sets access to the same feed. With an optional RF remote or keyboard you can control the computer from the remote room.
You can use more than one ZvBox’s QAM modulation system in an application, which opens up potential for commercial applications where distributing content to multiple screens is required. Because there is no software installed on the computer, and with only VGA and digital audio required, ZvBox is fully compatible with Mac systems, as well.
Going forward, the key for the systems integration professional will be to know what the client needs and how to bring it to the desired location with the greatest ease. The products, services, and techniques detailed here are part of a changing landscape.