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DIY Project – Home Theatre Projection Screen Controls

Posted by bryan on July 3, 2014 in Multimedia, TV with 2 Comments

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John Underkoffler explains the human-computer ...

John Underkoffler explains the human-computer interface he first designed as part of the advisory work for the film Minority Report. The system, called “g-speak”, is now real and working. Note the gloves Underkoffler is wearing. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Inspired by the now infamous TED Talk presentation by John Underkoffler (scroll to the end of this post if you haven’t seen it yet), one of the leading MIT researchers behind the Futuristic UIs and Technologies that appear in the 2002 Sci-Fi film Minority Report, I’ve set out to find my own “best approximation” of a futuristic yet simplistic controller interface for my Home Theatre.

In considering this home Do-It-Yourself (DIY) project, I wanted to cover the full spectrum of possibilities, from the most simplistic options to the most complex. Another major restriction I put on myself was budget. No single solution should cost more than $100 to implement, and in fact, the cheaper the better! Of course, I should also acknowledge that most of my intended use-cases could have been solved by purchasing a Smart TV (depending on the brand and software version of the unit) however again, due to budget limitations that’s out of my range and I’m assuming also out of the range of the majority of readers here, not to mention it really defeats the purpose of trying to get this all working on a 100+ inch projection screen, which is a screen size that’s definitely out of most people’s price range!


The projector I’m using is the Optoma EW1610, which I purchased for about $800 back in late 2009. Its four years old now but it has aged quite well, and the specs were the best I could afford at the time. The point was, I knew that it would come in far more affordable, not to mention handy (and be a heck of a lot lighter during my frequent moves) than a big-screen TV with similar specs.

Its specs are:

  • Display Technology: 0.65” DMD DLP™ Technology (by Texas Instruments)
  • Brightness: 2700 ANSI Lumens
  • Native Aspect Ratio: 16:10 Native (4:3, 5:4 & 16:9 compatible)
  • Contrast Ratio: 2000:1
  • Video Definitions: 720p, 1080i, 1080p/60, 576i, 576p, 480p, 480i
  • Native Resolution: 1280 x 800
  • Image Size Range:  40″-300″
  • Digital Inputs/Outpus: DVI-I (HDCP), S-Video, USB, RS-232, VGA in/out
  • Audio Inputs: Stereo/AUX
  • Built-In Speakers: 2.0 W Mono

There are significantly more powerful projectors available for the same price-range today, or for even less.

The following are the main PROJECTOR CONTROL OPTIONS I evaluated:

  • Console (Wii, Xbox, PS, etc) – Play games & Browse (Files/Web, inc. Netflix, YouTube, HTML5 videos) with Motion gestures to Projector
  • TV projection – TV box (FibreOp) to Projector
  • Media Center (XBMC or MythTV)PC or Raspberry PI to Projector
  • Mobile Web projection – BEAM app fr. iPhone to DLNA TV box (FibreOp) to Projector
  • PC screen-share – PC to Tablet or iPhone VNC app back to PC (Files/Web) to Projector
  • PC mouseRemoteMouse app fr. iPhone to PC (Files/Web) to Projector
  • Mobile jukeboxVLC Streamer app fr. iPhone to PC (Files) to Projector
  • Mobile mediaplayer remoteVLC Remote app fr. iPhone to PC (Files) to Projector
  • Mobile voice-controllerDragonMic app fr. iPhone to PC (Files/Web) to Projector
  • PC voice-controllerDragon Naturally Speaking fr. PC (Files/Web) to Projector


Here were my main requirements:

  1. Must be able to play any Video
    (whether from physical media, downloaded or streamed), in as good as quality possible, up to the Projector’s max resolution capabilities
  2. Must be able to play any Audio
    (whether from physical media, downloaded or streamed) and send that signal to louder speakers
  3. Must be able to display any Image
    (whether from physical media, downloaded or streamed) such as Slideshows or individual photos
  4. Must be within $100 budget
    (i.e. no more than $100, not counting the cost of the projector/laptop/phone that I already had to work with, aka the “sunk cost”)
  5. Must be extremely easy to use
    (for non tech-savvy family members) BONUS:
  6. Ideally, it works better than current point-and-click, keyboard/mouse or TV remote control user interface peripherals



This is probably the most common option as far as connected home entertainment goes in North America, if not worldwide.

It’s a tempting and “easy” option, but I found that there were several limitations. For instance, of course Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft all charge you in one way or another. In Nintendo’s case its to access “legacy games” by buying then downloading them to the embedded NES/SNES Simulator, however (especially if you’ve already purchased these games in the past) do you really want to shell out more of your hard-earned cash for these old school games when you could just fire up a ROM Emulator on your PC and start playing immediately? Likewise, each of the consoles have “subscription plans” that they are eager to get you enrolled in, but I think you’d be better off to avoid these unless you’re an avid gamer and really think you’ll get your money’s worth on a particular social game feature or gaming network.

Lastly, they do try to make it harder to use your own content, for example they may play DVDs or Blueray (depending on system) but without hacking them you cannot easily play your own downloaded media files and browser-based streaming will be limited for instance the Wii U supports some online video sites that have HTML5 video fallbacks, but no Flash video players will load and I’ve found that even some HTML5 videos can’t playback successfully. Content Providers like Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Prime will be region blocked to Canada (and not even let you download their native apps) again without hacking the DNS settings of your home router via VPN you will be out of luck on alot of content.



TV projection

Move on, nothing to see here. Easiest configuration of all, simply hookup your TV cable provider box directly to the projector via whichever highest-grade component or cable that’s supported as output of the TV box and as input of the projector. The obvious limitation is that you’re still at the mercy of the cable companies and package that your telecom or TV provider makes available to you and only the traditional TV remote control (i.e. don’t lose the remote or you’re screwed, especially with these new digital cable services with 100s of channels worth of crap).

The only way that this becomes mildly interesting is remote access via an external device like SlingBox or at least timeshifted and commercial-skipped viewing via PVR/DVR. With a SlingBox you can location-shift and watch from anywhere, with a Slingbox + PVR/DVR you can also set the box to record remotely and watch the content at your own convenience.



Media Center
The Raspberry PI running either of the main MediaCenter configurations (RaspBMC or OpenElec) or a PC using MythTV for Linux or Windows Media Center (which I happened to have already on an old PC with a TV Tuner). Each of these were a bit of a pain to setup regardless of which one I chose, but once it was setup it worked reasonably well. One problem was that the PI didn’t scale perfectly to my projector (which I’m sure could be tweaked by continuing to play with the various settings). Another issue was that it still requires some kind of basic peripheral device such as a wireless mouse to operate and/or a keyboard (or just a mouse with an on-screen overlay/callout-type keyboard setup along with the mouse).

One supposedly “brilliant idea” I had was to use a previously purchased and scarcely used Laser Virtual Keyboard with Bluetooth (VKB) by i-Tech to type out my searches and enter commands remotely, however, I simply could not get the VKB to pair reliably over a Bluetooth connection using the Bluetooth USB adapter that came with the Raspberry PI. I could only get it to pair with a 10 yr-old old Windows XP machine which had the required Bluetooth v1.1 class 2 with only the HID and SPP Bluetooth Profile supported by the iTech VKB Windows driver which confines me to the crappy Windows Media Center which came installed on the old laptop.

Overall, whether using the Raspberry PI + MediaCenter with a physical mouse and keyboard, or Windows Media Center PC with the infrared keyboard and a wireless mouse, this whole setup was just alot less user friendly than the other options and I found my wife and son couldn’t really operate any of it without my help, despite my attempts to show them how it could be used.



Remote Control

The Mobile Phone as a Remote Control approach allows you to utilize a more broad range of applications rather than simply watching videos, displaying images or listening to music; however practically speaking it’s not that easy to type or navigate a large screen via the small screen, however it is doable. One interesting advantage is the ability to pop in a DVD or Blu-Ray and have it automatically scaled using an application like VLC Media Player by VideoLAN. Of course, you could also do this with the Media Center option above, but the controls of VLC Remote make it quite easy to use without requiring your whole operating system to be dedicated to being a Media Center.

Another added bonus of the “Remote Control” approach could be making use of the Virtual Network Computer (VNC) standard for controlling your whole Operating System remotely over the network. With this setup you could do PowerPoint-style slide presentations under certain a business use cases (i.e. impromptu elevator pitch) or collaboratively editing documents in real-time on a large screen with multiple users in the same room (i.e. interactive E-Learning classroom experience), however realistically speaking this is only possible in specific situations, not necessarily practical activities on a daily basis.

You can use any of hte following configurations to setup an easy-to-use PC-to-Projector Remote Control on your Mobile Phone:
* VLC remote (phone) + VLC media player (desktop) + VLC remote helper (desktop)
* RemoteMouse (phone) + RM listener app (desktop)
* VNC client (phone) + VNC server (desktop)



Voice Control
Thanks to the technicolor dreams of the original and subsequent Star Trek series’ LCARS voice-activated operating system, I really really really wanted to like one of the Voice Control options best; however its still a little clunky and we’re a long way from going warp with today’s offerings. However, they are getting better and better, not to mention cheaper and cheaper, and luckily this past winter I managed to get my hands on a PC version of Dragon Naturally Speaking 12 PREMIUM for a decent price just under $100.

This gave me the opportunity to not only try the voice recognition software with the companion microphone/headset but also to download both the Nuance iPhone apps: Dragon Dictate (for sending Email/SMS/Searching from phone) and Dragon Remote Microphone (for interacting with any app on your desktop through a connection to the Naturally Speaking Desktop software). The main problems I encountered here were not knowing the correct commands to use, needing to train and re-train multiple times after my voice changed slightly from a medical condition, and the frustration of trying to fix mistakes or misunderstandings between my verbal cues and their correct recognition. Options like XBox Kinect, Siri and Google Now are still not viable as the workarounds to interface them with your laptop, TV set-top box or otherwise are still too clunky. If you have a high end SmartTV rather than a DIY Projector type setup like me, then it may come with some voice control options that work ok within a very limited set of commands (that you have to learn in advance and know by heart to work with of course). None of these options are quite there yet, but I look forward to revisiting in the future as improvements are made.



DLNA for the win!?!

At the end of this little DIY Experiment, I’ve decided that I (quite surprisingly) actually preferred the Twonky BEAM app pairing with my Motorola cable box provided by Bell-Aliant as part of the FibreOp package. The primary reason for this, being that it was the quickest way to go from video-to-video or song-to-song, in as few clicks as possible. Furthermore, the ability to both play downloaded media files and stream from several supported Online Video sites such as YouTube, Veoh, Vimeo, DailyMotion, etc made it as easy to use as those sites itself. The only annoying part was that after the Twonky BEAM app was last updated it required 3 clicks to get content beaming.

However, worst of all, the app was recently pulled from the iTunes Store for reasons unexplained (Apple wanting to “own the living room/your media experience” perhaps?) those who don’t already have the app downloaded will be out of luck. If you’re in that category, see the Runner-Up below. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of good alternatives out there yet either, despite the DLNA standard being out there in the wild for quite some time and already “baked into” an increasing majority of electronic multimedia devices. So most of these Cable Boxes, PVRs/DVRs, DVD players, Stereos, Sound Systems and even the Gaming Consoles have their DLNA chips sitting idle, not making much use of the multimedia standard they support.




A close runner-up was just plain old connecting your PC and using a physical mouse and keyboard with the browser already opened (rather than RM, VNC or VLC Remote Control options) since it was the easiest to setup and had the lower learning curve for my family; but for cool/geek factor you can still try to impress your family/friends (or scare them away) with the Voice command approach. The best approach was to always have a browser opened and ready to go (particularly Firefox’s excellent new “most visited sites” summary at “about:newtab“) and have the PC “always-on” and ready to go into Sleep or Hibernate mode in a click of the shutdown button rather than shutting down completely, as it was annoying for users to wait for the system to boot each time they turned it on/off.



Here’s the original TED Talk by John Underkoffler:


Last but not least, I won’t be needing the Laser Virtual Keyboard with Bluetooth (VKB) anymore, so here’s a giveaway raffle, just comment on this blog post and be sure to include your email in the appropriate field so you can be contacted for further shipping address info if you win:
a Rafflecopter giveaway