Top Microsoft Exec Shows Off Media Center-Based Home


Senior Microsoft official uses Windows Media Centers, Lifeware automation and mostly off-the-shelf technologies for 11,000-square-foot home.

Dec. 29, 2008 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

A senior – very senior – executive of Microsoft opened his Seattle-area home to a handful of reporters in November for an unprecedented tour of his automated home, powered by several Windows Media Centers and Lifeware home automation software.

The Microsoft exec, who wishes to remain anonymous to protect his family’s privacy, set out a few years ago to build an 11,000 square-foot house laden with technology that would be “easy to use,” especially for his wife.

“She’s tolerated for a long time my experimentation,” he says. 

He wondered if he could create an automated home where, “if a person walked in off the street, could they turn on the lights?”

And could he create such a solution using off-the-shelf Microsoft technology? Indeed, he could.

The exec boasted that his home system has “no custom hardware and virtually no custom software.” What’s more, said the lifelong tinkerer, his home automation/entertainment system is “competitive, I think, with everything I’ve seen in home automation.”

Installed by the local Magnolia Home Theater, the home technology includes nine big-screen TVs, and four Media Center computers, plus a handful of in-wall Lifeware touchscreens, a Russound whole-house audio system and 14 thermostat zones provided by Aprilaire.

The computers run behind the scenes, feeding content to each TV via Xbox 360s, which serve as Media Center Extenders. Almost everything you can access from a Media Center directly – recorded TV, photos, music, movies and automation scenes – is available through the Extenders.

Each Media Center has four cable tuners, accommodating “basically every one that wants to watch live TV in a separate room,” the homeowner says.

The set-up is especially appealing to guests staying in either of the home’s two guest rooms. “They can record their own shows,” says the Microsoft exec.

The One Piece of Custom Software: Tweaks for DRM
The one special tweak performed for the executive’s home involves a (legal) work-around for limitations associated with digital rights management (DRM).

Only Media Center Extenders – not other PCs on the network – can access protected TV content. In other words, the content is locked in the PC that recorded it.

Today, only five active Extenders can be linked to a single Media Center (although Lifeware and Niveus have shown solutions for 10 Extenders).

This home had 11 Extenders. If one “room” recorded an HBO special, the show could only be viewed by the four other TVs/Extenders linked to the Media Center.

What about the five other TVs? They could not access the show. The solution? Custom software that automatically replicates the recordings on the other Media Center machines.

In this case, if someone in the living room records the HBO special to Media Center 1, the command is “cloned” to Media Center 2, which would then record the same show. The show would be available on (virtually) any TV in the home.

The good news is that the successor of the Vista operating system, Windows 7, will enable such a service fairly simple, freeing users from having to download special software and/or write special code. (Read more: With Windows 7, Media Center is All About the TV)

What’s Next for the Home?
The Microsoft exec now is working to tie IP-based communications into the whole-house system.

For example, when the baby cries in its far-away room, the sound would trigger the whole-house audio system to broadcast a message to that effect, and flip on the TVs to the baby cam.

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