The Home Computer as Nerve Center for a House

As part of our ongoing series, “Building the Wired Home,” we’ve been experimenting with what could be a sea-change in the whole concept of a home computer. Home computers, of course, have long ago become commonplace, and computers have even taken on some roles that used to be delegated to standalone consumer electronics, such as audio and video storage and playback. They’ve gone from being exotic oddities to ever-more-useful home appliances. Interestingly, though, as our home computers have become more powerful, sophisticated, and useful, they have also become decentralized and have, in most inefficient fashion, been chopped up and redistributed around the house. “Read more” to learn how our experiment worked out.

What in days not so long ago would have been mind-bogglingly-powerful processing machines are now powering our telephones, video game machines, digital video recorders, media servers, wireless routers, print servers, home automation controllers, ebook readers, multifunction remote controls, and even refrigerators. Much of this processing power and memory lies idle for much of the day, but nevertheless hums along, wasting electricity and representing a considerable monetary investment in technology that will soon be obsolete and needing replacement. It would make a lot more sense for one powerful computer, loaded with RAM and big hard disks (preferably in RAID 5) to act as the centralized nerve center of the house. It would end up being more convenient, more power-efficient, less expensive, and would provide a single point of upgrade.

This article will take a look at why systems like this aren’t more common, and what a system like this would look like, and how it works in the real world. We’ll also look at some things that maybe aren’t so common in today’s homes that a centralized home server can make possible.

The first step in making our home nerve center are the rather mundane issues of where to put it and how to connect it to everything. This brings up the #1 reason why these kinds of setups aren’t more common: most homes aren’t designed to accommodate the wires and cables required to make these systems work optimally. We covered this issues in-depth in an earlier article in this series, but suffice to say that had I not been able to run various types of cable through the walls while the house was being built, it would have been difficult and costly. Therefore, it would require more that just some clever engineering to make a home nerve center practical; it will take a minor but radical transformation of architectural practices. Nevertheless, I believe it would be a worthwhile endeavor.

I designed our home server to be located in a basement utility area right next to the patch panels where all of the home’s electrical wiring, both high and low voltage, converge. I had distributed cat5e, coaxial, low voltage power cable to various areas of the home, along with conduit to accommodate fiber optic or any other cable we’d want to run in the future. I also ran some long DVI and HDMI cables to strategic areas of the house. I did this so I could connect a couple of monitors directly to the machine. That’s one of the shortcomings of a home server that’s merely connected to the various home appliances via network. Though theoretically you can stream video over those network cables, it’s not an ideal situation, since the hardware you’d need is an expensive specialty item, and you’d typically need to dedicate some cat5 wires to the job and not run all that data over the ethernet network.

So I ran a long DVI cable from the home server to a desk area in the kitchen, along with a cat5 cable. I attached an LCD monitor to the DVI cable, and used a USB cat5 active repeater to run USB from that work area to the server. If you’re not familiar with these, it’s two dongles that you attach to each end of a long cat5 cable with USB plugs on each end. It allowed me to make a 50 foot USB cable with inexpensive cat5 cabling. I plugged it into the monitor’s built-in USB hub, and I was able to plug a mouse, the wireless dongle for the lovely DiNovo Edge keyboard that project-sponsor Logitech provided, and a set of USB speakers into the monitor and use the home server comfortably and silently, even though it was fifty feet away, connected by only two cables.

The other DVI cable I have connected to the machine’s dual DVI video card is connected to an old 17″ monitor that I have mounted into the wall in the center of the home. More on that unorthodox decision later.

So a little about the hardware and software of my “home computer.” Project sponsor Intel provided a media center motherboard and quad core processor, which, combined with spare components lying around the office and $100 or so of new computer parts I made into a speedy and capable home server. I was only missing a big fat disk, and project sponsor came through with a massive hard drive that consumes up to 40% less power than a regular drive.

Even before Intel provided the mobo and fast chip, I had already decided that despite my weakness for Macs, there were various reasons why a Mac wouldn’t be the best bet for this project, the first one being that I wanted its lessons to be more widely-applicable (and the budget was small). And though the geek in me found Linux appealing, I ultimately decided on Windows, for software availability, and decided on (gasp) Windows Vista. For a super fast and brand new computer with mostly all-new but not-too-new components, Vista works great. I was only worried that some of the more obscure hardware and software I’d have hooked to this thing might have compatibility problems. We’ll see.

So here it is, essentially a run-of-the-mill home computer that’s attached to a keyboard and monitor half way across the house and a monitor embedded in the wall somewhere else. It’s not exactly a home nerve center yet. What’s the next step? First, connect that gigabit ethernet NIC to the gigabit ethernet hub, and network it with the various other computing devices in the home. Second, one of those devices is a wireless access point (an Apple Airport Express — more on that later) so the various wireless devices can connect. Third, consolidate many of the computing functions in the house to this one machine and copy all of the important audio, video, and other files to this machine’s big hard drive. Now we’re ready to add some special software and hardware, stir, and usher in a new era of multimedia prosperity.

Here’s where the ugly reality starts to interfere with my starry-eyed fantasy. In a perfect world, I would be able to us this “media center” as the central repository for all my entertainment media. It would be able to receive a pipe with incoming live TV from the air, cable or satellite, audio and video files downloaded or streamed over the internet, read or rip physical media like DVDs or CDs, and also rip, download and save video game and desktop software. And these files should be able to be kept until consumed or archived forever. Around the house, I should be able to have purpose-specific terminals that connect to this media center with whatever networking medium is required for the necessary bandwidth of the signal. Audio amplifiers should be able to stream music over ethernet or wi-fi. Video receivers would stream 1080p video and surround sound over gigabit ethernet or fiber. Game hardware (with specialized controllers) would load games into local memory over the LAN. Desktop terminals would allow me to harness the media center’s computing power from a thin client. Touch-screen tablet terminals would connect wirelessly to the media center and stream text or video content from any sofa in the house. Everything I’ve mentioned in this fantasy scenario is possible using five year old technology.

My fantasy world isn’t restrained by technology, but by intellectual property law. Any attempts to legally consolidate media in an efficient and user-friendly have been hamstrung by legal issues. The music, TV, movie, and software industries just won’t make it easy to move their bytes around as easily as you need to be able to to make a system like this work. Now, you can, of course, make unauthorized copies of all of these files and work around the limiters and safeguards. But because you have to do it yourself, in the “grey area,” there are no consumer electronics makers who’ll design the hardware you need to make it as easy as it could be. There are no TVs designed to stream a signal over a LAN. There are no game consoles that will load games from a file server. There are audio amplifiers that will stream audio files over the network, though. And these systems give us a tantalizing view into what could be.

If you’re content to watch all your TV and play all your games on a PC, there are dozens of media center applications that run the gamut of features: Live TV with DVR capability, apps that will display video in every imaginable format, a myriad of services to display streaming video, legal and illicit. But it basically means that wherever you want to consume the media, you have to have a full-blown computer there hooked to the monitor. In fact, that’s what we were forced to do it this house: It’s about 500 feet too far away from the local cable terminal box, and it’s too remote to get an over-the-air TV signal, so our only live TV option is satellite. So the two TVs in the house are connected to DirecTV HD DVRs. These DVR boxes are just specialized computers with specialized inputs and outputs. But because they’re built to serve the needs of DirecTV and the TV industry (and because they’re TiVo knockoffs and not the real thing) they’re not nearly as flexible as I would want them to be. For one thing, I have to have a separate box for each TV. If I don’t know which TV I’ll want to watch “Lost” on, I have to make sure I record it on both of them, because I can’t transfer shared files between them. I could go on and on.

What these DVR boxes do have, is the ability to pull files from the network. So I can stream video, audio, and still photo files from my central media center to my TVs. The software is clunky and file format support is a problem. In order to make it work, I have to convert any video files to mpeg2. I was able to find software that promises to ameliorate that issue. TVersity will transcode and stream media files from your media center to a wide variety of terminals (DVRs, game consoles, etc) regardless of what file formats they support. However, I have not been able to get TVersity to transcode all of the video formats I’ve thrown at it. So video streaming has been hit or miss.

I actually don’t need video capability that much. It’s really more of an intellectual exercise. Let me take that back. I do need video capability. It’s just that, as I mentioned before, the kind of video capability I need, I’m just not going to get. I have a small DVD library, and I think it would be cool to rip all those DVDs to the disk and be able to browse them from a menu. When my kids were younger, and watched the same DVDs over and over, it would have been nice. Of course, if I were to rip my DVDs and put them on a media server, I would be in a legal gray area. Well, ripping a DVD will actually put you in a DMCA legal black area, as it’s technically illegal to break copy protection, no matter how perfunctory it is. But, excuse my French, but that’s bullshit. It is not immoral to media-shift or format-shift content that you have fairly purchased. Do you know what is immoral? Expecting people to pay a second time for a movie or song, just because you want to watch or listen to it on another device, or store it in a more convenient manner. And that includes ringtones made from songs you own.

And it would be wonderful if all of the TV shows and movies that my DVRs are constantly recording were stored centrally on one array, ready to be retrieved and played back on any video-capable device I own. It would be nice if I had the option to replace my overpriced satellite television service with pay-per-use IP-TV if I were an infrequent television watcher. If I had real TiVo brand DVRs, at least I’d be able to network them and swap shows between them, which wouldn’t be centralized or efficient, but would be more convenient. Probably the main reason why I have historically wanted to watch video files on my TV is when I’ve heard about a great show, I’ve missed the first few episodes, so I download them from Bittorrent until I’m caught up. Thanks to the TV networks finally getting a clue, that’s less necessary now, as many of these shows are now available on network-sponsored web sites like Hulu.

New gadgets, such as the Apple TV and the Roku are giving a glimmer of hope to this reality, as they allow you to either download from a wide selection of overpriced non-HD videos from iTunes or select from a pathetically small selection of non-HD video from Netflix that’s free if you’re already a Netflix subscriber. So close!

But whether it’s Hulu, AppleTV, Roku, or Windows Media Center, it involves hooking up yet another specialized computing appliance directly up to your TV, and if you have multiple TVs, you have to buy multiple appliances. Well, enough grousing. Let’s just declare the video aspect of our “Home Computer” project to be a partial failure. Let’s move on to audio.

Let’s just start by saying that audio has been a great success. The TV and movie industries have been somewhat successful in making convenience illegal, but the music industry has abjectly failed. Hooray! Many years ago, I ripped all my CDs to MP3 and put them in boxes that are now mouldering in storage. Yes, we’re all philistines because the compression we inflict our music to has ruined it. True audiophiles can’t even let their precious ears be sullied by CDs, and spend thousands of dollars on faith-based technology like fancy cables and power conditioners while the rest of us suffer in our ignorance, dancing to our overly-compressed files playing on our shoddy stock iPod earbuds. We’re so deprived and we don’t even know it! We love it for the convenience, and most of us would never go back to CDs, for all the better fidelity.

Case in point: our audio setup. It was inexpensive, and it’s not just convenient, it’s space age. A large repository of music files is stored on our media server. We’re using iTunes to manage it. The sharing feature means that I can browse and play any file from this library on any of the other computers in the house. Even better, I’m using Apple’s Airport Express to stream audio files from iTunes to an amplifier that’s connected to speakers that I’ve built-into the house. What’s compelling about Apple’s solution isn’t just that iTunes is widely used, integrates fully with the iPod/iPhone, and is relatively feature-rich and dependable. The most exciting thing about the setup is the iPhone/Touch app called Remote. I can pull out my iPhone, and use it to browse my entire music library and play what I want, while lying on the couch. Words can’t express how cool that is. The best part is that whole-house audio has been big business for many years, and many cool systems are on the market to make it easy to play music from a central library in your different rooms. These systems all cost a lot of money; thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars. My system? I spent a lot of money on nice speakers, but removing them from the equation, I spent under $100 on the Airport Express and used an old amplifier I had lying around. I already own the iPhone. Even if you had to buy an amp and an iPod touch to do the same setup, it’s still much less than your typical whole house audio system.

My system does have some shortcomings. I used a push-button switch built into the wall to control which areas of my house should have the music streamed to it. If I wanted that to be controlled automatically, there are a few ways of doing this, including using the A/B speaker outputs on the receiver, or using multiple Airport Express units. To control the receiver, either to turn it on or change speaker outputs, you’d need to use its remote control, and be able to see it. I got an IP to IR converter from Global Cache that should allow me to send IR commands to the receiver from my computer, and if I get the right kinds of scripts set up, I’d be able to do some important things, like not have to manually turn the amp on and off when I want to listen to music. It’s such a daunting task, I haven’t attempted it yet. I’ll report back.

The next area I’ve been hoping to have my home server fill in is in the area of surveillance. Our project sponsors at Smarthome and provided some surveillance cameras, from big, LED-studded ones intended for outdoor nighttime use to tiny, hide-able ones that I think would be excellent ones to use to bust my kids when they’re sneaking messy snacks down to the home theater. (How did I know?)

I ran specialized structured wire throughout the home during construction that carries an RG59 cable for video and a two-conductor power cable to likey locations for surveillance. So I have the cameras, and I have the cable. I even have a video card for my home server to receive four surveillance camera inputs. There are a variety of software programs that will receive these feeds and record them 24/7 to the hard drive. I can set the feeds to auto-delete after a set time, say, 48 hours, so if anything happens, I can retrieve the feeds and use them to figure out which of the neighbor kids broke my window. If I were really cool/paranoid, I would mirror all those feeds to an offsite fileserver to prevent a burglar from thwarting my surveillance by stealing my home server.

On the subject of the monitor we embedded in the wall, the idea was that this monitor could be used to display various information that’s of interest to the household. If music is playing, it would display the iTunes visualization. A “dashboard” of weather, stock quotes, news ticker, or other news could be displayed. Perhaps if a movie is showing downstairs, it could be mirrored to this display. Or the surveillance cameras could be piped to that area. Perhaps when the doorbell rings, the front door surveillance camera kicks in. And by default, a slide show could be displayed, for some digital picture frame action.

Success on this front has been hit-or miss, mostly because of the limitation on Windows managing what’s displayed on a second monitor. What I’m looking for is software that will allow two separate Windows user accounts to each display on a separate monitor, so someone could be browsing the web on one monitor, while automated scripts could be running in the other account, displaying the results in the other. If any readers have any ideas, we’d love to hear them.

The final frontier for the home server is one of the perennial favorites of geek homeowners: home automation. There are many fine software packages, commercial and open source that interface with the various home automation devices and protocols in the market. In fact, though there are different kinds of specialized devices for doing home automation, using a PC is surely the easiest and most flexible. The most straightforward and common kind of home automation is lighting control. Because lighting control has a history of being expensive, unreliable, complicated, and quirky, it has had limited penetration outside of the geek and ultra-luxury subcultures. But there have been great improvements in technology in the last few years. Other aspects of home automation that are interesting are controlling thermostats. I particularly would like to be able to set the thermostats throughout the house back to 50 degrees or so when we’re out of town to save energy, but be able to tell them to turn back up the day before we come home so we don’t come home to a cold house. I have also installed an electrical water main cutoff, so I can set water sensors in likely areas around the house that will automatically cut the water supply if there’s a leak or rupture. We’ll follow up with more information on our home automation initiative in a later article. Suffice to say that our home server will also be pulling duty as a home automation server.

In conclusion, our experiment at making a personal computer the nerve center of the home was only a partial success. Legal restrictions on media stand in the way of many conveniences, though the proliferation of hardware available to support our centralized system is mind-boggling, there are still some holes to be filled to bring my vision to reality. (TVs with gigabit ethernet that enable video streaming, for example). But even if our home server only ends up handling file server duties, audio, surveillance, home automation, and digital picture frame capability, it is still a wholly worthwhile enterprise. At this point, the software configureation required to make this all work is pretty daunting. However, it would not be a huge project for someone, maybe one of the home automation software vendors, to create an omnibus home server software package that included all of these capabilites, pre-configured. To make our “home computer” dreams become a reality, we’re 90% there with the hardware, 70% there with software, and 10% with the legal framework. I think it’s safe to conclude that we could easily have everything we want from a software/hardware standpoint at any time, but the legal issues might stand against it ever happening.

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