tech

Couch Potato Futurism

I’ve been ahead of the curve on what I’ve wanted from entertainment technology at least since college. I tend to be about 2 to 5 years ahead of the way most people look at home entertainment. I intend to first demonstrate this, and then explain where we are now vs. where I actually want to be.


I got a Google Chromecast earlier this week, and I’ve been thinking about posting a review of it. However, this is not a new piece of tech, and I don’t think I would say anything about it that hasn’t already been covered. The more I thought of it, though, the more I was reminded of how I’ve watched TV & movies since college, and how what I want tends to be a couple years ahead of when it becomes easily implemented.

For example, I wanted cable channels a la carte since I first moved out of the dorms in 2007. That is still not yet a reality. But we’re getting closer. Unfortunately, now even that isn’t enough. I want shows a la carte. This is actually possible now – but not through cable providers. I use Amazon to buy shows one at a time. Episode by episode is even possible, although I don’t actually pay for shows one episode at a time, unless I know for sure I want the whole season. Most shows, I’m willing to wait for it to be available on Netflix, if it isn’t already on Hulu. Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, and Doctor Who, though – those can’t (or couldn’t) wait.

Also in college, I had a modded Xbox (original), which allowed me a way to watch pretty much anything on my TV. HTPCs (Home Theater Personal Computers) were never really mainstream, but even for those who had them, XBMC – the software that ran on top of a modded Xbox to play media – was the pinnacle. It would play anything, and an actual remote control could be easily integrated.

XBMC eventually got ported to other stuff, and even evolved into Boxee and then the Boxee Box – a dedicated piece of hardware that worked as basically an enhanced XBMC machine right out of the box. The popularity of XBMC must have been at least part of the reason the Xbox 360 has such a non-gaming-media focus. The downfall of all of these things, though, was that they required having the video on your local network. In order for any of that to be useful, you basically needed a file server. And then came Netflix streaming.

When I started using Netflix, it was not trivial to watch it on a TV. The only way to do it was to hook a computer up to your TV. As I recall, this was also before HDMI was so widespread. It was still a big deal if your TV had it, and it was unheard of that your computer did. Making it a much bigger hassle to plug your computer into your TV. As streaming caught on, though, more and more devices gained support for it. In fact, I currently have six devices in my apartment capable of playing Netflix. And I live alone in a studio.

I think at this point, I’ve established my credentials. I’m also sure there are other examples that I can’t think of at the moment. Maybe when Ryder reads this, he’ll remind me of a few more. Now, before I can explain what I really want out of my home entertainment setup, I’ll need a jumping off point – what I have currently.

In my apartment, I have a laptop, a TV, a sound bar (a cheapo’s single-unit “surround sound”), a Roku, an Xbox 360, a Google Chromecast, a Sonos Play 3 & Bridge, and an Android tablet & phone. The majority of the content I consume (for lack of a better phrase) comes from Netflix, which as I mentioned, can be played from pretty much anything. But I also use Hulu, Amazon Video on Demand, HBO Go, YouTube, Vimeo, Pandora, Mog, and Amazon Cloud Player. Not to mention whatever random proprietary flash-based video player any random website might use. (Lookin’ at you, CBS.)

I can use pretty much all of the above devices for most of the media sources I use. The problem I have, however, is that none of the devices can play all of the sources (with the exception of my laptop, but it has its own problems). If I want to watch YouTube on my TV, I have to use the Chromecast (the Xbox 360 could also do it, but I let my Xbox Live Gold subscription lapse, because I don’t play enough games). If I want to watch Amazon Video on Demand, I have to use the Roku. In Amazon’s infinite wisdom, it decided that since it sells an Android tablet (Kindle Fire), it should only allow it to use their streaming service, in order to drive sales of the tablet. This would be fine if their tablet was any good, but they lock the thing down so much that it isn’t worth buying just for that feature.

With all of this gear, I have come very close to what I (currently) consider the perfect home entertainment setup. I have basically everything I want, but not across all the devices I want it on. To elaborate, I’ll list each of them and go into detail.

Control

I want to be able to control everything in my apartment from an app (or apps) on my phone. However, I also want to be able to control everything in my apartment via traditional controls. In the case of lighting, this means a switch. In the case of entertainment systems, this means an infrared remote. If the doorbell rings, I don’t want to have to find my phone, turn the screen on, unlock the device, open an app, hit a pause button, and wait for the signal to make it through the network to the device. The bell could ring 5 more times while all that’s happening. On the other hand, if it can be controlled with an app on my phone, it means it’s only a few steps away from being integrated into IFTTT, which would be awesome. I would love to come home, and by walking in my front door trigger a motion sensor that turns on my lights and plays some music over the Sonos system. Unfortunately, as you can see from the chart below, only one of the many devices actually supports both infrared and app remotes: the Roku.

Device Traditional Remote Phone App Remote
TV X
Sound Bar X
Roku X X
Chromecast X
Sonos X

“Airplay” Video

There are several different standards for playing media on a device triggered from another device. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to refer to all of them as “airplay” because it’s the one most people are most familiar with. I love the idea of airplay. But there is no good standard. If all I owned were Apple devices, I’d be close. But I don’t own any Apple devices (apart from my laptop, which I try to avoid integrating into my home entertainment setup as much as possible). The Chromecast does fairly well at this. The problem, though, is that it only supports very specific stuff. I can’t watch Vimeo on it, for example, even though there is a Vimeo app for Android. Even if I had a Kindle Fire, I don’t think I could send Amazon Video on Demand stuff to the Chromecast. Roku supports some sort of airplay, but the only app that I have that detects the Roku is Netflix, making it bascially useless. The whole reason I want airplay is for this very specific scenario:

I’m sitting on my couch, watching some TV show that is sort of boring, so I’m also browsing Twitter or Tumblr or Feedly or something. I see a video on Youtube or Vimeo or some other random video website. I want to press play on that video on whatever I’m browsing on it from (phone or tablet – even laptop), and whatever I was watching on the TV disappears, and the video I clicked on from my phone pops up on my TV and plays. Then, when it stops, the TV switches right back to whatever was playing before, and picks up right where it left off.

The Chromecast comes as close to this as anything I’ve ever seen. …Assuming, of course, that the video I found happens to be on YouTube. If it’s on anything else, tough luck. …Unless I am farting around specifically on my laptop in Chrome. Which I never do, because I don’t fart around on my laptop at home, and I don’t use the Chrome web browser. Plus, if I switch apps on the Chromecast, it doesn’t switch back on its own. It just shows a sort of app title screen until I push something else to it.

“Airplay” Sound

I’ve had my Sonos system for just under a year now, and I LOVE it. I would very highly recommend it to anyone that listens to music a lot at home. It is the perfect system for integrating into a tech-savvy home, with one exception: There’s no good way to tie audio into the system that comes from another device. Sonos recently attempted to solve this problem with a new product: the Sonos Playbar. The Playbar is a sound bar, but it also works with the Sonos system. This means it integrates into your existing Sonos system while also allowing you to use it in your home entertainment setup. The only problem, though, is that you can’t push that sound out to any other Sonos speakers. If I had a house, I would want to be able to push the sound coming from my TV to other rooms. A more relevant use case to my current setup, though, would be the ability to push sound to it from my tablet.

I can’t see my TV from my bed, so I often watch “TV” from my tablet in bed. This is a rant for another day, but with one exception, speaker placement on phones and tablets is plain dumb. The speakers always point in the wrong direction, which means the volume is never quite loud enough. I have considered buying a bluetooth speaker to solve this problem, but what I really want is to push the sound to my Sonos system. Then I could get a Play 1 for my bed, and play anything out of it. I’m also considering buying some HiFi audio equipment. If I play audio from a better source (ie vinyl instead of low bitrate streaming mp3), I might still want that audio sent to Sonos speakers. That is simply not possible. The Sonos Connect allows you to push audio sources from Sonos out your HiFi or other non Sonos equipment, but nothing allows audio to go the other way.

Obviously, I know there are bigger problems in the world than these. But I’m an American, damn it, which means I spend an average of 34 hours a week watching TV. Most of the ways in which I’ve wanted to watch TV have come to pass, or are on their way. With any luck, I’ve predicted where we’ll be a year or two from now.

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