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Home-Brewed Entertainment the Open Source Way

Home-Brewed Entertainment the Open Source Way

There are plenty of companies offering to sell you the latest set-top box or media server for your home theater. However, many of them are tied up with proprietary technologies that limit what a true-hearted tinkerer can do with them. There are other ways. Open source software exists for those with the courage to do it themselves.

By Jack M. Germain LinuxInsider ECT News Network
06/20/08 4:00 AM PT

One of the biggest trends in consumer marketing today is to appeal to the do-it-yourself mentality. Don't think so? Just visit home improvement outlets such as Home Depot and Lowe's for some clues. Then count the number of auto parts stores on your drive to the office.

Also consider the iPod and other MP3 players, along with install-it-yourself audio speakers for giant-screen high-definition televisions. All of these products entice consumers to try their hands at creating their own perfect home entertainment theaters. Homegrown consumer electronics has come a long way since the days of amateur radio and short-wave radio kits.

Some consumers prefer the convenience of an out-of-the-box experience, but what about computer users who learned to abhor proprietary products popularized by Microsoft and Apple? After all, who needs Apple TV, iTunes, TiVo or the Microsoft Media Center?

If you have the hardware, the open source world can provide the software to create a screaming home media center, all without the burden of end-user license agreements (EULAs). From MythTV to database and server software, the code is there. However, knowing how to pull it all together can be a challenge.

"Even if you know the right [help] spots, building your own system is still a pretty big undertaking," Terry Heath, director and founder of software consulting firm Navoty, told LinuxInsider.

Build vs. Buy

Why build your own home entertainment system? That's no doubt the same question people asked kit builders in the pre-computer days of amateur radio and television. Back then, hobbyists had little pre-built equipment to use as an alternative to kits. Not so in today's consumer-driven electronics world.

"It's not worth the effort for a casual user. But it is a great hobby for audio and video enthusiasts. It is a good deal of fun to experiment for new features," Joe Born, CEO of Neuros, told LinuxInsider. His company manufactures audio and video devices for consumers.

Another attraction to home-built entertainment systems is the freedom from proprietary restrictions it provides. Consumers can tailor their systems to what their interests are. These can run the gamut from viewing computer content through a central media display to viewing Internet-based videos, music and photos on a TV with add-on surround-sound stereo in the comfort of home theater rooms.

Ample Sources

Once you make the decision to assemble a home-branded design, plenty of resources are available. However, consumers need to be organized and do their homework first. A Web search for open source home entertainment systems will lead to hardware makers.

Perhaps even just as important is finding help and answers to questions. That's also often available through the manufacturers' Web sites. Equipment makers often maintain customer support forums and links to open source communities that cater to home entertainment systems.

"There are numerous communities online for this. Many of the regulars are open source developers who participate, often remaining obscure to newcomers," Heath offered.

However, don't let your enthusiasm get in the way. When you first begin hanging out on a forum, read and learn what you can. Then ask questions.

"Most communities expect you to spend some time listening before asking your first question," Heath said.

Specialty Items

For some home system enthusiasts, creating the perfect home entertaining system also includes being able to control the graphics with open source video presentation tools. The market is flooded with commercial software that does this.

Open source developers are making strong contributions in this area. One product that has set the bar for competition is Blender. Blender is a free open source 3-D content creation suite. It is available for all major operating systems under the GNU General Public License.

"Blender is better than any proprietary setup," Matt Asay, general manager for open source enterprise software development firm Alfresco, told LinuxInsider. "It is possible to do this yourself."

Starting Point

Newcomers to the notion of building one's own open source entertainment system should start their research at MythTV and AwkwardTV , suggested Heath.

MythTV is a basic, open source personal video recorder project. AwkwardTV provides information about technical hacks for home entertainment equipment, he explained.

"When I built my own system, I basically used an Apple TV and hacked it with open source," he added.

Possible to Start Small

Newcomers to home-brewed entertainment systems do not have to go it alone. Building your own system does not mean starting with kits or learning how to hack component compatibility.

For instance, Neuros has developed what it aptly calls the "OSD," for open source device. It was first launched as a product primarily for the tech-savvy but is now much more user friendly. It is a MythTV-like device that does not require assembly.

It is not a full-fledged PC, and it is very conducive to hacking and tinkering, according to Born. Most of his customers use the device as a digitizer to convert video files and sound tracks from other media onto a DVD. They also use it as a sort of video jukebox.

"After consolidating the video and audio tracks, it is a freestanding video recorder that works right out of the box. It doesn't need a PC to operate," Neuros' Born explained.

Supports Experimentation

There are no proprietary products that consolidate videos -- they only just record, he added. PC capture cards just record as well.

"Our product is a partial replacement for a build-it-yourself system. Of course, a full PC is always more flexible," he said. "This is a more focused, embedded device that is the size of a hard-covered book."

The OSD is an open source home entertainment hub that connects and archives live TV, TiVo, DVD and satellite/cable television. Neuros designed the device to work well with Linux code. Its support community offers a bonus to coders who can help connect various open source devices together.


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