Media Center and Convergence

Every month or so, increasing in frequency as the holiday seasonapproaches (courtesy of PR shops acting onbehalf of Microsoft and its hardware partners), there arenewspaper and television pieces about Microsoft’s MediaCenter OS and the hardware that hosts it. Each time it’spresented as a revolution in the living room, and thereare bold predictions about how this year it’ll take theworld by storm.

While everyone seems to focus on the operating system as thecritical link that will yield convergence, I think that’s theleast of the reason why computers were deported from theliving rooms to home offices everywhere.

Instead there have been some historical problems that havethwarted convergence:

  1. As computers grew from the Commodore 64s and Atari 800 era intohighly capable devices, like the Amiga and Atari ST, thatgrowth brought with it a need for more resolution than televisionscould handle. This is what kicked the computer outof the living room, as computers now required their own,special monitor, and conversely there was no way that you weregoing to watch television on a 14″ VGA monitor. Quite a few yearsback, just under a decade ago, Gateway tried making a 27″television/computer monitor to support their convergence device,but the result was a subpar computer monitor that doubled as asubpar television.
  2. The wires of keyboards and mice are very unsavoury in theliving room, not to mention that a modern PC needs to be networkedto really be usable.
  3. Computers take a long time to get going – they aren’t veryconvenient – and they are noisy beasts.
  4. Computers are ugly.

Thankfully there have been some great advances in all of theseareas. First and foremost, home television and computer displaytechnology have merged, and we now have relatively inexpensive,large (27″+) multimedia displays yielding a million pixels ormore (720p and up). Many of these feature perfect-fidelity digitalDVI or HDMI ports to transport the display of the PC accurately onyour living room display. My living room television is a bettercomputer monitor than the one in my home office.

Advances in wireless technology have brought us wirelessnetworking (no running CAT5e to your living room), but alsoreliable wireless keyboards and mice: you can stick them under thecouch, and you don’t have a sloppy setup in the corner of theroom.

On the topic of aesthetics, several manufacturers are now(finally!) making PCs in a standard home-theatre equipment form, making it fit inbeautifully alongside your other equipment. No longer doesconvergence mean having a beige mini-tower in the corner of yourroom. With this they’ve equipped it with virtually silent fans andhard drives, ensuring that it’s sonically unobtrusive.

So now we have good looking, high power,convenient computing devices that display gorgeously on ourliving room displays. Convergence is upon us, and whether it’s usedto play MAME games, poker online, or as an MP3 repositorie, thecomputer has re-entered the living room. I don’t even care if itacts as a PVR – I have a stand-alone device to do that – but if itcan interface with the television source provider and their HDTVand digital content, and it does a competent job at it, then itcould do that task as well.

Sidenote: Microsoft recented inked an agreement with the cable and satellite cabal that willsee them including CableCard functionality in their media centers by nextChristmas. This is tremendously important, as without this therewas no way that your Media Center could make use of all of thedigital and digital HDTV channels on the provider’s feed, insteadbeing limited to the analog signals.

Speaking of that, a “fun project” I had been considering was aDVI loop-thru adapter in my media PC – one that took theuncompressed DVI 720p signal in an input, and passed it untouchedinto a DVI 720p DVI-D output. The purpose would be that I couldthen start overlaying graphics on the computer – the processingdemands would be significant, but I mean things like a littletranslucent icon saying that mail has arrived or a skype call isincoming, or whatever. Of course this brings up digital rightsmanagement (DRM) issues: This would not work for HDCPprotected content, nor will it work when Microsoft integratesCableCard functionality, as they’ll have the swear on their firstgoldfish’s grave that there is no way evil programmers can alter orintercept the signal.