The Ultimate Linux Home

The LinuxMCE Project is a work in progress, promising finally to bring us the Home of the Future.

What started out as an article on the Ultimate Linux Multimedia System ended up being one on the Ultimate Linux Home—coming soon to a home near you, thanks to a project called LinuxMCE. What brought about this change of heart? When I was growing up, I was a big fan of magazines like Popular Mechanics and Popular Science that constantly talked about the Home of the Future. Such a home would manage lights, turning them on and off as you went from room to room. It also would control heating, automatically adjusting a room's temperature according to whether you were going to sleep, about to wake up or leaving for work.

Figure 1. The Main Menu in the Plainest User Interface (All screenshots in this article courtesy of the LinuxMCE Project.)

Figure 2. The Same Main Menu, but Using the Most Powerful “Transparent” Interface

Figure 3. A File Browser in the Plainest User Interface

Figure 4. A File Browser in the Most Powerful “Transparent” Interface

Figure 5. Playing a DVD Remotely

Figure 6. Dialing a Phone Number

Figure 7. The Security Panel

The Home of the Future appeared even more frequently in science-fiction books—the home would wrap its arms around you and take care of your every need. It would read books to you and let you answer the telephone without needing to hold a receiver. These services would be available throughout the house, tailored to the occupants' needs.

During the years, such Home-of-the-Future qualities appeared again and again, mostly in concept homes. Small improvements came about through the use of interfaces, such as X10 for remote control of lights and heat, but the promise of anything like the true Home of the Future still seemed far away, except for some with very expensive systems.

About a year ago, I became aware of a project called Pluto (www.plutohome.com), which seemed to pull together elements of other projects, such as:

  • MythTV for recording TV programs, photos and music.

  • Xine for watching movies.

  • Asterisk for handling telephone calls.

It also added security cameras and lighting control, and it tied them all together, controlling them from a variety of hardware, including Bluetooth-enabled phones. Not only that, but it also could “track” you as you walked from room to room and make sure the media playing in the room you were entering was the same as the media playing in the room you just left. You also could access the output of your security cameras from your cell phone and talk through the speakers of your sound system if you wanted to scare a burglar. The Pluto people made a very nice animated video showing how the system would work if it was completely implemented and installed correctly (plutohome.com/index.php?). They also gave a complete listing of all things it could do. It was awesome.

Most important, Plutohome was FOSS! The people working on it encouraged others to join the project and take the code and put it on their own hardware or even to sell systems and services with Pluto software on them. They correctly pointed out that although there were people who would put their software onto “commodity” hardware, there were other people who wanted a complete and tested system, and they were happy to cater mostly to the second group while allowing the do-it-yourself people to use the software and help extend it. Although the functionality was interesting, I did not have the time to look at Pluto further, so I filed it away for future reference.

Then, in March 2007, I heard about LinuxMCE and saw the video on Google Video (video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-4422887272477313460&hl=en).

At www.linuxmce.com, I read that Paul Webber, the founder of LinuxMCE, had been to CEDIA 2006, a consumer audio/video/home-automation tradeshow. There, he had seen a demonstration of Pluto, which by that time had been licensed to Monster. Paul was hooked, but when he was told that Pluto had all it could do to bring this technology to its own customers, Paul decided to work to make it more visible and more flexible for the Free Software community. The interesting part is that he did this with Pluto's blessing and support.

At the time of this writing, it is June 2007, and the project Paul thought “would take me a week” has been going on for five months, with Paul and another programmer “working on it almost full time”, but they are approaching a usable version. They have done a lot of work to make it operate on “generic” PCs on top of a “generic” distribution and to make sure users would continue to receive all the device support they needed. Closed, single-purpose systems are not their target.

Today, LinuxMCE is based on the Kubuntu distribution, with Aaron Seigo of KDE pledging to integrate it even better. The goal of the LinuxMCE team is to have additional distributions integrate and ship LinuxMCE. Imagine having a multimedia powerhouse as an option on every Linux desktop and notebook, and that every Linux desktop and notebook could optionally provide distributed, integrated multimedia capabilities.

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