Since the beginning of digital media I'm intrigued with bringing digital media into the living room. The prospect of a big screen and easy access to my music, movies, pictures and other internet based content always keeps me busy.
Consider it a hobby, especially if you know that years ago I spend at least a 1000 Euros to build a Windows Media Center for the living room. It needed to look nice, have a remote control and be silent (what was the biggest challenge). I remember my girlfriend asking if it wouldn't been better to buy instead of build. Absolutely, but this was more fun.
The Windows Media Center is still in operation, but with mixed results and successes. Getting proper television never worked out, the analog TV tuners couldn't handle the difference between letterbox and widescreen formats and as a result it never functioned as a DVR either. Television broadcast by now has transitioned to a digital signal and I never bothered to get digital television working on the Media Center. The Media Center is used to play music and watch pictures and does that well if you know how to do it.
The overall user experience is the key reason why media centers in the broadest sense haven't reached mainstream adoption. It's also questionable if this will ever happen, because the challenge is complex and requires truly new solutions for an existing problem. A typical setup consists of a television acting as the big screen, an amplifier to deal with the (surround) sound and some kind of computer / device to manage all the digital media. The three devices traditionally each come with a remote control, all have capabilities to deal with multiple inputs and have several configuration options. This is where the usability goes completely wrong, it's already a challenge to get the on screen menus working. An not uncommon question in this house hold is: can you put on some music? Not without reason, because juggling the 3 required remotes is not easy. I know your suggestion already: try one of the programmable replace all remotes solutions. I actually tried that and also with mixed results, it worked but didn't really solve the overall complexity problem.
Technology is constantly improving and I always keep my eye open for new solutions addressing this problem. Since a week I have an Apple TV and was looking forward towards the Apple solution for the complexity problem. The latest Apple TV is not available in the Netherlands, but my buddy André from www.keepitsimpleandfast.com was so good to bring me one from the US. The device is small, simple and comes with a beautiful little remote (that constantly gets lost!). The concept of operation is a bit different, it's not a standalone device, but just a hub to stream media from other computers, the internet and the iTunes store. This looks nice, but does again add some unwanted complexity, I now also have to turn on my main computer if I want to stream music of view pictures stored on this machine. Further the device easy to set up and the key tasks currently performed by the Windows Media Center are done in simular fashion. Since it's not officially released in the Netherlands the only way to rent content is through the US iTunes store, adding again complexity. I like the Apple TV, but it's not a break through device that makes life simpler, it's just smaller and, big win, 100% silent.
Real break through digital media in the living room can't be solved by one company alone, unless one vendor would be able to deliver all required devices in a more integrated fashion. A more practical route would be the emerge of standards on interoperability between the various devices. The first company that can deliver something that is simple enough to be used with a single remote control, instantly turns on the necessary devices and easily lets me select what I want to do: watching television, listening music, browsing some pictures or play a game; will again get my interest.
How do you manage your digital media in the living room?