There aren’t many advantages in this business when you’re young. No experience. No cadre of current customers to market to. And you’re just beginning to make the mistakes most of your competition has already committed and learned from. But there’s one distinct advantage Tyler Jennings and his team of fellow twentysomethings at Imperium Smart Systems in Herriman, Utah, have: Starting from a clean slate, the group can adopt the latest technology earlier than anyone else, and install it quickly.

This fall, the company was rewarded for its ingenuity, winning the Windows Media Center Ultimate Install Competition. Announced at the 2007 CEDIA EXPO, the contest was designed to bring out the best of the best in home theater technologies that incorporate Windows Media Center. And if Todd Rutherford, lead program manager for the Media Center team at Microsoft, learned anything, it’s that the contest committee had set its sights quite low. No one expected the level of accomplishment they witnessed in the Imperium submission.

“The thing that impressed me most was the completeness of the installation and that it used Media Center as the primary interface throughout the house,” Rutherford says. Whereas most integrators working with Media Center use it as the primary source for home theater applications, Imperium made Media Center the only interface the customer used for home theater, home audio, environmental controls, security cameras, the whole nine yards. “The user was very immersed in the Media Center environment. It really featured the power of Media Center. It extended it to be much more.”

Each entry submitted to the contest was judged based on the following criteria:

• Use of Windows Media Center as the primary user interface for media consumption

• Use of Windows Media Center experiences (for example, television, music, video, pictures and DVD library)

• Integration with other, non-PC consumer electronics devices

• Ability to create a seamless user experience

• Creativity and originality

Imperium’s customer was looking for a solution to integrate all their pictures, music, home videos, TV and DVDs into one simple interface. “There wasn’t a piece that was left out,” Jennings says. “We did everything that he would want to do with his CDs, DVDs, pictures, Internet access, gaming, environmental controls, surveillance, weather forecasts, everything.” Jennings says using Windows Media Center as the platform that controls it all is what put Imperium over the top. But he gave credit to the customer, who was adamant about exploiting new technology. “The homeowner was always up for the latest and greatest so we were able to introduce him to those things and he got excited,” Jennings said. “That helped a lot.”

With 12 distributed audio zones, the project featured multiple entertainment access points ranging from in-wall touch panels, Xbox 360 consoles, televisions and even an Ultra-Mobile PC. The installers (and homeowner) embraced numerous categories, including management of the family’s music, pictures, recorded programming and DVD movie library. In addition, Lifeware enabled the installation to go beyond entertainment to include the family’s management of all of their home systems, including lighting, security and surveillance, heating and cooling.

The job cost around $75,000, which included essentially ripping out the Crestron system the customer was using before. So on top of everything else, this was a retrofit upgrade. It wouldn’t have been possible without the Exceptional Innovation (EI) Lifeware software and interface that ties everything together. EI assisted Microsoft in establishing the parameters of the contest and helped put the word out to dealers, looking for submissions.

“I think from our side we were looking for installers that used multiple innovations of a home system. [Imperium] really took all the angles,” says Mike Seamons, vice president of marketing for Lifeware. That’s been the focus for Lifeware lately, driving installations that put everything a customer might want on every screen they interface with. “That single [Media Center] box is the producer of all the things on the screen without having to change sources or manage a rack of gear,” he says. “As an industry, we’ve had killer home theaters, but this changes it so a single interface shows up on every screen in the house and that handles everything.”

Reaching out

For its part, Microsoft is finally getting excited about a group of people who’ve been passionate about Windows Media Center for a couple years now. A contest like this wasn’t absolutely necessary, but it demonstrates to the industry that the Redmond, Wash., software behemoth has gotten the message and now it wants to return the favor.

“Microsoft started paying attention to this channel a little more about two years ago,” says Rutherford, who actually was hired in March 2005 specifically to pay attention to the channel on behalf of the team. “Since then, we have expanded our efforts with CEDIA and EH Expo, getting involved with the shows and working with the partners and training.”

In addition, the group is revamping its “Resources for Consumer Electronics Installers” Web site (microsoft.com/CEInstaller) to serve as a resource for installers who want to use Media Center. “For right now, that’s the place we’re posting everything we come across. That was where the information was for the original contest,” Rutherford says. Soon, there will be forums where integrators facing challenges with Windows Media Center can share best practices and find out what’s been most challenging to their brethren.

Up until now, most of the input Microsoft was getting for Media Center was from industry players, like Niveus and EI. The contest, as well as future endeavors, will focus more on the integrators themselves and what they’re looking for in the platform.

The future of Media Center

In addition to a full photo shoot of the project, which will be featured on the Microsoft CE Installer Web site, Jennings and a guest were invited to visit the Redmond campus to enjoy a vacation in the Seattle area, as well as meet face-to-face with Microsoft programmers. Just before he left, CustomRetailer asked Jennings what advice he might offer. Hands down, one of the biggest issues is streaming DVDs to any room in the home. Because of the DRM controls on Media Center, there’s no feasible way to watch movies from a disc-changer in more than one room in the home. “The ability to stream a movie from the basement to the master bedroom is something people always want,” Jennings said.

Another big deal is the lack of plug and play between Media Center and satellite TV set-top boxes, whether it’s DirecTV or DISH Network. Interestingly, neither of these issues has anything to do with technology, per se, but rather with rights management and contractual agreements. Finally, Jennings said the lack of viable Media Center extenders on the market is limiting what installers can do. For the installation that won the contest, Imperium installed Xbox 360s in other rooms of the home. However, some customers just aren’t comfortable having a video game machine in that many places in the home. Jennings hopes more TVs hit the market with the extender technology built right in.

For its part, Microsoft is trying to do as much as it can on the front end to make Media Center appealing to consumers so the sale will be easier, including the launch of an Internet TV portal that lets the consumer explore MSN content like concerts, shows, trailers, movies and music videos. That’s now on the Media Center front end. “We wrote it as an application to exemplify how you can design a killer app inside Media Center,” Rutherford says. “We realize that the custom integrator channel isn’t a volume play but…they’re the ones installing and supporting it.”

Microsoft also wrote a sports portal, working closely with Fox Sports to let the customer browse TV Guide to see all the sports content, player stats and scores. All the information is coming down from the Internet in real time from Fox Sports. That one should be useful for fantasy sports nuts.

A young business

It’s that capacity for constant innovation that Jennings really enjoys about the Media Center platform. As a two-and-a-half-year-old company, whose employees range from 26 to 29, the president realizes just what a rarity Imperium is. In fact, that’s one of the reasons the three got into the business. With backgrounds in low-voltage and software programming, they saw how it was being done, and felt like they could do it better. “What I’ve seen in terms of Media Center and its acceptance within the channel and CEDIA mindset, is it’s slow because most of the people are so much older and they’re used to doing it one way,” he says. “It’s tough to teach an old dog new tricks.”

To them, Media Center just looks good. “I handle the marketing and sales side of the business and that is the biggest thing for technology. Men are going to want technology but the women want simplicity and looks, and that’s what Media Center has in spades. I walk people through the demo and they get it,” Jennings says. “I was watching MTV Cribs yesterday and Rod Stewart’s daughter was trying to operate the Crestron system but it didn’t work. I’m sure it was working. She just didn’t know how to use it.”

For EI’s Seamons, four years of hard work is starting to pay off as integrators, young and old, start seeing in Media Center what the Lifeware group has seen all along: a reliable platform for home entertainment and control. On top of four years of engineering, EI spent three years educating a market that has a different paradigm: routing analog A/V around the house. Now you’re not connecting switches, but connecting set-top-boxes that create new environments for each room.

“A lot of what we’ve seen is dealers catching
up to what we’ve designed. We’ve seen the systems designed that are coming and we’ve seen
creative and new ways to do these things,” Seamons says. “I think in the next year, you’re going to see, taking off from what Lifeware has created, proof that [Lifeware is] not just a platform but an application.” CR