How-to: Voice control Windows Media Center

Difficulty: 2.5

WSR voice controlI have been interested in the voice control of computers for a long time. My first attempt was around 10 years ago, and I had some success with it. In the right environment, I was able to say commands to my computer and it would respond based on what I said. The problem was that I didn’t have a practical use for it yet. It was clear in this early testing that using a keyboard and mouse was far more convenient, reliable and a quicker option than using voice. It will remain that way for many of the standard interactions (i.e email, facebook) we have with computers, at least in the short term.

The day Microsoft Kinect was launched in Australia, I saw the promotional video showing people waving their arms around to navigate through their media centre. It seemed to me that this would be a fairly unreliable and exhausting way to control anything, apart from games specifically designed for the technology. I was way too lazy to consider using this technology into the future.

I concluded that voice is the simplest way to control anything, and that it always will be. This led me to start playing around with voice control again. I ran through the voice tutorials and was able to get the computer to understand my voice some of the time. It did stuff up on me a whole lot, but it was clearly much more reliable than software I had used in the past.

Now around 6 months on, I have written an AutoHotkey script and a WSR macro that interact with Windows Media Center and Windows Speech Recognition software, allowing my media centre to be controlled completely by voice. This is a practical use for voice control. I can navigate faster with my voice than I can with a remote control. Instead of needing to know which button to press on my remote (or remotes), I simply speak my mind. I no longer use a remote at all. This is something I have wanted for a long time and I am excited about this outcome.

This system far exceeds any other voice control setup on the market today in terms of reliability and practicality. Most of the problems as to why systems haven’t worked in the past has not been because the software was inadequate for the task, (the software has worked fine for many years). Most of the problems are environmental, and my solution tackles these environmental issues. Rather than trying to make technology that works in our environment, my solution changes the environment to enable the technology to work. I believe it is inevitable that all future voice control systems will need to take this approach for the system to work.

This article will give you all the information you need to control your Windows Media Center home theatre PC with your voice. I will provide the easy to edit scripts and show you how to install them on your PC. I will also explain what works and what doesn’t, as well as explaining why previous attempts have not been successful. The more I explain how it all works, the easier it will be for you to set it up and get it working reliably. This will not be as easy as installing the software and having the results you want right away. You will need to train it to recognise your voice, and you will need to learn the correct commands to make. A solution that can understand the whole English language is a long way off. It is much more difficult to synthesize human understanding than it is for a computer to understand dictation. That is why we need to have set commands.

There is a video of my home theatre PC running this system after the jump.

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Windows Software: Windows Media Player

Windows Media PlayerWindows Media Player was a program that I never gave much respect to, until I recently found a new use for it. Windows Media Center relies on Windows Media Player to playback most media files. This means that any changes we make in the Windows Media Player settings will carry through to Windows Media Center. i.e. Windows Media Center does not have cross fading built in, but if we turn on cross fading in Windows Media Player, the music we listen to in Windows Media Center will also have cross-fading. The same goes for setting up visualisations, CD ripping options etc.

There are so many expected and unexpected features in it, and many of them are relatively well hidden within the program. This is great as the hard to find features such as cross-fading or SRS WOW effects won’t need to be changed often. This has allowed the interface to show us the features we want to use all the time. The way the software is laid out lets us use the full screen to organise our media with a very simple drag and drop layout.

CrossfadingWindows Media Player makes it very easy to make playlists that can be used with Windows Media Center. The interface also makes it very easy to add information to files, such as producing your own star ratings. It even makes burning a CD simple. It is a comprehensive package that has now become my tool for managing my media.

This is by no means a review, or an encouragement to use this as your main media player, but it is worth having another look at it to see what it can do. It is a great resource to pull out when it is needed. If there is something you want to do with your media, where your normal media player doesn’t have the facility, it is likely Windows Media Player will. It is very likely to serve your needs. Because it has been tested on every Windows machine, it has become very stable and the chances of it crashing are very low.

After giving it another run, I have found it to be an outstanding media player.

Windows Media Player is available for free from your start menu. 

My Projects: My Home Theatre PC

Difficulty: 3

Windows Media CenterWith Analog TV being turned off in Australia and around the world in the next couple of years, set top boxes, PVRs and Tivo are all going off the shelves and into peoples homes very quickly. Many people are unaware that Windows Media Center is an option to switch to Digital TV, and there are considerable benefits over the PVR units above.

You can view ALL of your media on your TV, you can record more channels at once, you can store more media, with automatic meta data fetching and you can even play games. It was a no brainer for me to choose to use a computer to control my media.

If you have a computer running Windows 7, there is a huge chance you already have everything you need to set up the basic configuration in your house. The only cost may be to purchase a TV tuner which start at around $20. It is worth dedicating a computer for this task, but there is little harm in experimenting on what you already have. Consider re-purposing your current machine as a dedicated media centre when you upgrade. If you want a new feature, eg. BluRay, you can generally just plug in a new drive at a considerably lower cost than buying a stand alone unit.

This is a “What more could you want?” scenario. With the system being capable of handling full screen HD video chat (pending internet connection), only minor software updates are likely to be necessary to allow new technology to work with this system. This system should keep me ahead of mainstream consumer technology for many years.*

I have spent a lot of time over the last 12 months, trying to create a Windows Media Center that would work flawlessly. With the strong foundation of Windows Media Center 7, a bunch of free programs and a lot of research and tweaking the puzzle pieces have come together. I hope that this guide will help you build a system that will give you as much enjoyment as this system has for me.

Check out a video of my media centre in action after the jump.

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How-to: Use batch files to organise recorded TV automatically

Windows ExplorerWhen I built my Windows Media Center PC, I was able to have the majority of features working as I wanted them to. This was using Windows Media Center 7, and a bunch of free applications working together. The only thing I could not get my HTPC to perform was to separate my recorded movies from the recorded TV. I then needed to put each of the files in a relevant folder so that Media Center Master would download the correct meta data. I performed this task manually for a while but knew there had to be a way to automate this process.

After a weekend of research and testing, I finally came up with the 50 lines of script that complete the media centres autonomy. This has effectively eliminated the need for me to go into the backend of the media centre at all. All the data is moved automatically to the correct locations, making it unnecessary to control the system with anything beyond a remote control.

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Windows Software: Media Browser

MovieBrowserWindows Media Center 7 has some nice features when it comes to viewing movie information, but it is somewhat limited. If you are interested in taking it to the next level so you can see even more information, grab a copy of Media Browser.

Media Browser can be customised to show your movie collection in various ways. Whichever way you prefer it, it fits in really well with the default Windows Media Center theme. It goes beyond what the built in Windows Media Center Movie Library shows, by adding in cast information, and a bunch of pretty background pictures taken from the movie.

MovieBrowser2I use Media Center Master to retrieve the information for the movies, but there are likely a few programs that can do this. With all this information on hand, Media Browser shows as much information, if not more than can be found on a DVD cover.

I love the cast and crew section. If I find a movie with an actor I like, I can read a biography of the actor and see what other films I have with them in.

I don’t use this all the time, but when I am struggling to figure out what to watch, having enticing pictures is helpful. I have set this up on my system as an alternative to the built in library. It is easy to put Media Browser next to your Movie Library icon with Media Center Studio.

Media Browser is great if you have a large collection of movies because it loads them up much quicker than the built in Movie Library. It even has built in support for TV series and your music if that is something you are after.

Media browser is available for free from the Media Browser forums.

Hack7mc also has a great rundown of all the features.