Homebrew entertainment appliances - cheap, open, and embattled
I've been tinkering for years now with TiVO-zing my PC, with varying degrees of success. But, that's not what I really want. Lately, I've been reading The Invisible Computer by Donald A. Norman, and it's gotten me thinking: What I really want is a family of information appliances. I'd like to have a little Linux box with a capture card or two that just silently whirrs away, filling up a file-server Linux box (maybe like this one) with recorded video. And then, I'd like a Linux box in the living room whose sole purpose is to pull content from the file-server and present it on the screen and speakers in our living room.
So far, I've got the file-server Linux box in the basement that can supply the laptops and other devices in the apartment with various forms of audio and visual and other data. Another fun recent advance is that I've modded my XBox, replacing my PowerBook as a home entertainment system component. The XBox isn't a little Linux box in the current configuration--though it could be--but it's open enough for my tastes, running the XBox Media Center.
But, I still just can't quite seem to get the TV capture end of things working to my satisfaction. I think it has to do with the ATI All-in-Wonder card I have, and various trials and tribulations involved in trying to get it usable and capturing under Linux. But now, since I've given up on Linux for the moment and reinstalled WinXP, the card isn't even working the way it used to on Windows using ATI's own drivers and software. I've been flirting with the idea of picking up a WinTV card from Hauppage, since I've heard much better noises from that direction.
One dim ray of hope for the ATI comes from SnapStream Media and their Beyond TV product. This thing is very slick and allows complete control via web browser. It's quite possibly worth the money if you have a capable computer and don't feel like tinkering much. However, this app seems a bit heavyweight for my on-hand equipment. But, it works, if I don't ask too much from the PC otherwise. (I'm really trying to stretch some all-but-obsolete PC hardware here, having not spent a dime on Wintel since I got my iBook a few years ago.)
But, wait. Isn't TiVO actually a little Linux box that whirrs away, filling up a hard drive with recorded video. If I'm starting down a slippery slope of maybe buying something like Beyond TV, why haven't I just broken down and gotten one of those?
Well, the first thing is that I want to tinker--like this guy, who said he built his own high-definition television and amazed Jack Valenti. I modded my XBox, which is certainly not cheerful news to Microsoft, and I know that you can do some tinkering with a TiVO, but that's certainly not supported either. Wouldn't it be interesting if manufacturers of entertainment appliances ran things like video game companies, encouraging and supporting creative modifications and enhancements to their products? Imagine that.
The second thing is that, at the moment, I'm cheap. Not that retail appliances like a TiVO are all that expensive for what they do, but I know that I can D.I.Y. with much less expensive stuff. And right now, I'm trying to do it with very old stuff and having a surprising amount of success.
The third and most important thing is this: were I to buy something to fit one or all of these functions from someone else, I'd be at the mercy of their whims and the whims of their lawyers and the MPAA/RIAA lawyers talking to their lawyers. As it is, I'm sure I'm breaking a slew of laws just doing what I have so far with my own equipment. Oh, and it's always happy times when they turn around an change their terms on you after you've paid to get in the door.
Wouldn't it be nice if we had a friendly environment for open experimentation with information appliances and cooperative content producers? I'd love to pay a monthly fee to have shows by Joss Whedon stream on down do my file-server with BitTorrent. I'd love to subscribe to favorite indie bands' releases and have them show up in the music folder. I'm cheap, so I'd like the price to be low, but I'll still pay for what I like. And I'd love to do all this, still being able to tinker, still seeing that people producing things I like get paid, without going to jail or letting them empty my wallet with a wet/dry vac.