Media Center Exploration Part 1 - Basic requirements and use cases

Since it's winter time and it's currently snowing, I resumed thinking in a more structured way on what I would define as being a good ‘media center’ solution.

A ‘media center’ is an ICT enabled answer for managing and playing diverse types of media (still images, motion pictures, music…). Today this is either implemented on a general purpose computer (like the PC platform) with application software, or as a ready-to-use appliance (a hardware box). See Wikipedia for a more elaborate definition and additional links.

Let's start with the simple basics. According to me a good ‘media center’ solution should be able to provide the following:

  1. Output audio/video streams (movies) on a computer monitor and a television screen.
    1. Standard resolution requirements nowadays are "full HD", meaning 1920 pixels wide by 1080 pixels tall (1080 lines) in 16:9 format. Progressive scan is marked "1080p", where interleaved (alternatively sending a frame with all odd lines and a frame with all even lines) is marked "1080i".
    2. There is a broad choice of video formats today. Selecting the list of required formats won't be discussed here for now.
  2. Output audio streams (music) on a power amplifier.
    1. There is a broad choice of audio formats today. Selecting the list of required formats won't be discussed here for now.
  3. Support play lists and metadata based classification (tagging).
    1. We do not want to browse through a directory tree as the sole manner to get to our media.
  4. Interfacing with a remote controller
    1. Most remotes you see shipped with media center appliances are pretty basic. So far I did not see a single remote yet with a built-in display, unless you're looking at the very expensive fancy remotes that even automate your home.
    2. Interfacing via a web front-end would definitely be a plus point, since this would allow the use of most wireless enabled PDAs and even smart phones to interact with the media center.
  5. The display must not be always on when playing non-image media (music).
    1. Combine this with the previous requirement, and you'll see that a PDA with a wireless link (or a smart phone) starts to become attractive. Another option is a cheap small low resolution touch screen.
  6. The media can be located locally and on a remote file server.
    1. A wired Ethernet link is a must, a wireless LAN link can be nice if you can't install the required wiring.
    2. Preferably the media center supports multiple file servers, and is able to identify which shares are accessible.
  7. The media center should know how to manage digital (interactive) television.
    1. A must requirement is easy EPG support (preferably based on where you reside).
    2. Recording programs for later viewing should also be supported, but usually this is already addressed by the digital television settop box (if it combines PVR functionality).
  8. The media center must be quiet and consume as little power as it needs.
    1. Ideally you should not be worried to leave it on idling, in practice it's more like finding a low energy appliance that is able to deliver what is needed but not much more.
    2. A number of compact, low power computers is starting to serve this market segment. Examples are the Asus EEE PC based on the Intel Atom chip architecture, and the Mac Mini.

Let me finish this blog post by describing some basic usage scenarios:

  1. As a listener I want to listen to Bach's string quartets. I arrive home, and I want to listen to some relaxing classical music - hence the string quartets example. I turn on the power amp and the media center, use the remote to select Bach as composer and string quartets as type of music. I don't mind listening to all quartets in a row, but they may be reshuffled as long as the movements within a quartet are preserved. The monitor or TV screen remains off while I interact with the media center and afterwards when the music starts playing.
  2. As a watcher I want to see Ice Age 2. I switch on the television set since I know I'll be watching a movie. I interact with the media center with the remote, but now I can also look at the television or display to browse my digital library. When I select Ice Age, I am presented a list with all movies that match the keywords I wrote. I am even told that I have the 2 versions in my digital library (I purchased the DVDs and ripped them onto a dedicated media server), and that I can use pay-per-view to see the 3rd or permanently store a copy on my dedicated media server. I scroll to Ice Age 2 and the movie starts playing.
  3. As a watcher I want to view my last summer holiday photos and listen to some music while watching. I switch on the television screen and select "watch photo album" from the menu. I browse the catalog of photo albums and select the "Pont du Gard" album. I am asked whether I want some background music while watching the photos. I was listening to the radio, hence I selected "keep current audio stream". The album is displayed. I can browse the album with the remote. I can even zoom in by moving a region of interest and zooming via the remote. I can also change the orientation of the image.

Next step is to evaluate current options and see if there's already something that supports most of these use cases and requirements. I'm most curious about the support for the web interface through a PDA or smart phone Laughing.

Talk to you later!

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