home theater

New Year's Eve in New York

New Year’s Eve in New York

(This post isn’t directly about cord-cutting or home theater per se, but about a side benefit of Plex, which itself is a very good cord-cutting/home theater move.)

New Year’s Day, I signed up at Planet Fitness in south Tulsa.

At home, we have a Diamondback 860Rb stationary recumbent bike, and a Schwinn Bowflex Comp machine. Both my wife and I have used them regularly.

The bike was originally for her, but I liked it as an rainy-day alternative to running, and have used it much more often in recent years. I can get a pretty good workout from the Bowflex, so much so that I let my All American Fitness membership lapse years ago.

But after using the Life Fitness brand machines on the ship during our cruise last month, I thought I might like to be in a gym again for all the muscle-specific machines that demand constant force throughout the range of motion with inertial resistance. It would also be an impetus to get out of the house more often.

Planet Fitness has Life Fitness machines, plus a nice setup in their huge aerobic area with 18 TV screens, set on 9 different cable channels. You plug your own headphones into the machine’s console, then select the sound for the screen you want to watch.

The 2 shows I missed while cruising.

On my smartphone.

Arnold on my smartphone.

PF also has free wifi, so while exercising, I can stream any of our Plex content (e.g., my recordings of KWGS’ “All This Jazz” radio show, or any movie, TV show or music album from our Plex library) from home to my wifi smartphone in the gym. (Also see this summer’s post Poolside fun with Plex remote access)

Of course, I can use any of the other phone apps, such as Netflix, YouTube, TuneIn Radio, etc.

Plex has another feature which would be useful if there were poor or no wifi. You can sync any movie, TV show, or album to a specific device (like my phone), then watch or listen when not connected to a network.

This has always been possible, but used to be a huge hassle, due to the need to convert to a device-friendly size and format, then load the media to a phone or tablet.

But with Plex handling the transcoding and downloading, it’s easy.

Most of the movies in our Plex library are ripped from standard DVD (480p resolution, 1.5 Mbps bandwidth). When selecting for download in Plex, I typically cut the bandwidth in half (to 720 Kbps), since it makes little difference on a small screen, and creates a smaller, faster processing and loading media file.

I just added a 64 GB microSD card to my phone, so I imagine I could get most of our video library on it if I so desired.

Right now, I have two of my favorite movies (“The Terminator” and “Dr. Strangelove”) and two “All This Jazz” shows downloaded to the phone.

The other day at the gym, I tried streaming “Diamonds Are Forever” from one of our home Plex servers. During the 30 minutes I pedaled, there were a couple of momentary freezes, but they weren’t a significant viewing problem. If I didn’t care for that, or if wifi bandwidth were a problem, I could have just downloaded the movie before heading out the door.

Which I need to do in about 15 minutes.

Happy Plexing and Flexing New Year!

OSMC 15.2

The free Open Source Media Center software installing on my $35 Raspberry Pi in the theater room.

Goodbye Raspbmc and XBMC, hello OSMC and Kodi!

I’d held off on the free software upgrade due to not wanting to lose my PleXBMC installation on Raspbmc “Gotham”, the last version of that software before it was superseded by OSMC this year. But some SD card/USB stick corruption issues suggested to me that the time was right to overcome my laziness.

The transition went smoothly yesterday. I again have access to all my DVR’d shows on a Windows Media Center computer by reinstalling the free ServerWMC add-on software. I also have a nice Plex client again on the Pi with a more recent version of the free PleXBMC add-on. (See previous post Windows Media Center & Raspberry Pi.)

By now, I have other well-functioning Plex clients on Roku boxes and Chromecast, as well as on smartphone and tablet. So it wouldn’t have been a crisis not to have Plex on the Pi; I just like the slick Raspbmc/OSMC interface that brings together TV, movies, music, internet radio, photos, and even a news crawl and Yahoo local weather.

Valuable and unique free TV content available through OSMC includes ESPN3 in HD, and CBSN, CBS’ new 24/7 online HD news channel. (Later note: the latter is also available on Roku, I discovered.)

Raspbmc was an adaptation of the Xbox Media Center (XBMC) software for the little Raspberry Pi computer. It was done by Sam Nazarko, then an 18-year-old student in the UK.

From http://kodi.wiki/view/OSMC:

“OSMC (short for Open Source Media Center) is a Linux distribution based on Debian that brings Kodi to a variety of devices. It is the successor to Raspbmc and Crystalbuntu.

“OSMC is an embedded, minimal, self updating Linux distributing which ships a Kodi front-end for a variety of devices. The project was founded by Sam Nazarko in 2014 and is maintained by a group of volunteers in their spare time.”

(For my own future reference, my Raspberry Pi 1 Model B is now on OSMC 2015.09-3 running Kodi 15.2, kernel: Linux 3.2.3-3-osmc Linux 4.2.3-3-osmc; PleXBMC 3.6.1, PleXBMC Helper 3.4.2, and ServerWMC 0.5.8.)

Sam Nazarko

Sam Nazarko

Back in July, I commented on TTM@Facebook: “Sam resembles Dr. Sheldon Cooper in appearance, but both Sam and OSMC are a lot more stable.”

Sam replied: “That.. made me laugh so much. Unfortunately you’re not the first person to suggest the similar appearance either…”

Congratulations, well done, Sam and company!

(Added 10/22/2015: See my new comment on previous post The missing context button for a new and easier way to restore that function to your remote.)

Atari 800 XL simulation on hacked Wii. Controller eembedded in flight yoke, wireless keyboard as control console.

Atari 800 emulator on my hacked Wii. The new BIC America F-12 subwoofer is on the floor. Final subspace radio message: “Star Fleet to Star Cruiser 7: Mission Complete. New rank is: Pilot Class 1. Congratulations”.

In a previous post, Sci-fi Saturday fun in the theater room, I showed our home theater setting for viewing MeTV’s “Sci-fi Saturday”.

But who doesn’t want to get in on the sci-fi action him/herself?

Star Raiders is a 1979 game cartridge for the Atari 400/800 home computer. Gameplay combines elements of Star Trek, Star Wars, and even Battlestar Galactica.

Very well-done simulation, even more impressive when you consider that the machine code took up less than 8K bytes. Subsequent higher-tech updates to the game were not as playable.

I discussed some of the details of how to get access to The Homebrew Channel on the Wii in last year’s post, Raspberry Pi computer leads to Atari on Wii, but I thought I would show it in this post, having just acquired a much better keyboard for the purpose, the Logitech Wireless Combo MK270.

This keyboard comes with a tiny USB dongle, described as “advanced 2.4 GHz wireless connection with 10-meter range”, more than adequate for my purpose. The dongle inserts into the powered USB hub I attached to the Wii. It was recognized immediately on bootup.

I found a free digital copy of the Star Raiders cartridge online, and FTP’d the file over to a folder on the Wii, with the help of a Homebrew channel, WiiXplorer. Then I plugged the cartridge in (virtually), within the WiiXL emulator, another Homebrew channel.

Of course, if you still have an Atari 400 or 800 and the Star Raiders cartridge, just plug into VIDEO1 and go!

WiiXL simulator, from the Homebrew Channel

WiiXL emulator channel from The Homebrew Channel. Other HB channels: WiiXplorer (file handling, FTP server), USB Loader GX (run games ripped from discs to external hard drive), Wii Earth, Wii Media Center

WiiXL simulator splash screen

WiiXL emulator splash screen

The familiar Atari initial screen

The familiar Atari initialization screen. Select, Start and Reset are F3, F4, and F5 on the new keyboard.

Set course to starbase or enemy-occupied sectors

Set course for a starbase to effect post-battle repairs, or for an enemy-occupied sector

Steering In hyperdrive

Steering In hyperdrive, shields up.

Direct hit, but a Zylon basestar lurks to the lower left of the crosshairs. Sounds good on the subwoofer.

Direct hit, but a Zylon basestar lurks to the lower left. The explosion sounds good on the subwoofer.

A 1979 game in a 2015 home theater. Still fun!


Google Chromecast with HDMI extender cable, microUSB to USB cable, USB power supply.

We didn’t need the Chromecast device since we already have several Rokus to watch Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video, YouTube, Crackle, Plex, etc. (Chromecast can handle all these except Amazon; Google doesn’t like to accommodate their competition.)

We still don’t really need it, except for one purpose (so far).

After cutting the cable TV cord, I was still able to watch msnbc’s “Morning Joe” program on the Roku’s Plex channel. (The video podcast, found on a special Plex msnbc “subchannel”, typically became available in the afternoon, or the next day.)

But ten days after cutting the cord, up popped a message from NBC that the video podcast would be discontinued ten days hence. What a kick in the head.

There was and still is an audio podcast of the show, and it can be listened to on Roku’s “iTunes Podcasts” channel. But it’s not quite the same.

I then discovered a European website that streams msnbc International 24/7 in an embedded Flash player. It has the same content as the cable channel, which is very good. But it has no commercials, which is very bad. Say what?! Yes, commercials are preferable to the repetitive, horn-tooting show promos which appear instead of commercial breaks.

Still, the entire “Joe” show can be watched in real time on a web page.

I considered buying a Mohu Channels device as a way to get the page onto a bigger screen, but was put off by the cost, and the need for a special remote to move the cursor around. I didn’t need its other features, having settled on the TiVo Roamio OTA for my wife in the den. and Windows Media Center/Raspberry Pi/Roku for me/us in the theater room. I was also unsure it would work well enough for this purpose.

For awhile, I watched the show in a browser window on the side of my laptop’s screen. Not ideal, but better than an audio podcast.

Next, after my wife moved up to an iPhone and iPad, I inherited her Android phone and tablet. Both devices did a good enough job going full screen on the Flash player, and the tablet’s case doubled as a stand. So I could now watch the show on a separate device. But the promos still drove me crazy, since muting is inconvenient with a small device.

It finally dawned on me that the Google Chromecast might be the simplest and cheapest way to get a web page up to the big screen. Since we had gone with Roku quite awhile back, I had forgotten that the Chromecast is capable of casting a tab from the Chrome browser to the TV. I checked, and Chromecast could handle Flash.

The mailman soon brought one.

The little dongle plugs directly into an HDMI slot on your TV (or if you have as many devices as I do, into an HDMI switch.)

The Chromecast is powered by AC adapter, or by USB if you have a USB port handy on your TV or other device (I plugged into the powered USB hub I use with the Raspberry Pi, which is both powered by the hub and connected to other devices by it.)

Download the free Google Chrome browser on your PC. Once you have it, install the free “Google Cast” extension (see Chrome’s Settings/Extensions/Get More Extensions).

Then go to the page you want to cast, and click the little “cast” icon on the upper right to send the page up on the big screen.

To view an embedded video (Flash player, YouTube, Vimeo, etc.) on the page, click the fullscreen icon on the video. You will now see the video fullscreen on your TV.

On my first try, the video was very choppy. I suspected this was due to the fact that it had to be transmitted from the laptop to the wifi router, then again by wifi from the router to the Chromecast device. (We have an old 802.11g router.)

So I tried casting from the office computer, which is Ethernet-attached to the router. With only one wireless hop to the Chromecast, it worked much better. The video only occasionally was not perfectly smooth, though I have seen a freeze or two.

The video quality is about that of the Cox analog channels, which only this month disappeared for good. Very decent quality for a talking-heads news show.

Sometimes, the audio is not in perfect sync, though acceptable to me. This happens on the PC even when not casting. Further Googling leads me to believe that Flash player sync has been a problem for years, and mainly has to do with settings on the server side. So, nothing more I can do about it.

I figured that if the Chromecast were connected to the router by Ethernet (or by Powerline as we have it set up), the occasional stutter might be cured. There is a $15 Ethernet adapter for Chromecast, so I ordered one. Just got it today. So far, no stuttering.

One final hurdle: who wants to get out of the Laz-E-Boy and go into the office to change channels? (CNN and CNBC are available online, too, though not as is Fox News.)

My solution: Download and activate the free TightVNC server software on the office computer. (I already had given the PC a fixed IP address, which is needed to run the software.) On phone and tablet, I downloaded the free Remote Ripple app, which is TightVNC’s client software.

Smartphone screenshot: office PC remote-controlled from smartphone. Hmm, stock market tanked. Time to buy!

After I set it all up, I took over the office PC’s desktop with the smartphone. Using Remote Ripple’s virtual mouse, I brought up the PC’s Chrome browser and clicked my bookmark to the webpage. Then I clicked the tiny little cast button on the browser to get it onto the TV.

Finally, I clicked the fullscreen icon on the Flash player. Voila! The show is on the big TV.

So I now need a smartphone in the theater room to control the office PC, but I typically have one close by, anyway.

My other remote (Logitech Harmony 890) makes it easy to mute Joe’s many mind-numbing, promo-laden breaks.

There are more conventional ways to use Chromecast, to be detailed in a future post.

(PS, another way to use the new setup is get Alan Lambert’s new radio show, “Big Band American Songbook”, onto the big sound system. Listen Saturdays at 8 pm on The Grid, TCC Student Radio online.)

(PPS, yet another use: after I finish a workout accompanied by a smartphone plugged into a boombox, I can go to the theater room and cast whatever music program I was listening to onto the big sound system, from exactly where I left off.)

Commander Albert serving as officer of the watch.

The heroic Commander Albert serving as officer of the watch on our starship bridge.

We do “Sci-Fi Saturday” with MeTV, but while I was a big Wonder Woman fan in college, the shows today offer only intermittent entertainment, mainly when WW is running around in costume (come to think of it, not much has changed).

We have also seen the original Star Trek way too many times in recent years. So we feel free to substitute other content, such as Star Trek: The Next Generation and other sci-fi from Amazon Prime, Netflix, or our own sci-fi content (e.g., The Outer Limits) on Plex.

Comm panel with X10 ceiling fan, overhead lights switch

Enterprise com panel over X10 remote control ceiling fan & ceiling lights switches

Oops, the tribbles got into our quadrotriticale again.

Tribbles got into our quadrotriticale again. The remote also controls X10 devices.

It’s interesting that the original Enterprise’s bridge viewscreen is almost exactly the same aspect ratio (shape) as the 65″ plasma TV in our theater room. So on Saturday, we think of the room as our bridge, complete with command chairs (Laz-E-Boys). Armed with a phaser and communicator app, we’re ready for the Gorn or any other foe. A com panel/door swoosh device on our wall annunciates entries as well as exits for galley and head runs.

I found out our subwoofer was dead (Jim) while playing around with a starfield simulation for the room. One final casualty of the lightning strike. Video Revolution wants almost as much to fix it as the original 2002 cost, so I think it’s time for a new one. For now, we get surprisingly good bass out of my old AR-12 speakers (purchased at SEVCO in 1977).

Anyway, I found a high-def video on Alien Couch Potato’s YouTube channel, created with Space Engine: “a free space simulation program that lets you explore the universe in three dimensions, from planet Earth to the most distant galaxies. Areas of the known universe are represented using actual astronomical data, while regions uncharted by astronomy are generated procedurally. Millions of galaxies, trillions of stars, countless planets…”

As detailed in my previous post, Saving YouTubes, viewing with Plex, I saved an .mp4 file of the simulation to one of our computers. It is now playable in the theater room with Plex or Emby on Roku, Chromecast, or my Raspberry Pi computer. (Enterprise D ambient bridge sound is included to complete the experience.) Playing the file on our home network saves internet bandwidth.

Our starship bridge. Mr. Sulu, arm the karaoke machine!

Mr. Sulu, arm the karaoke machine!

This video can give you a visceral understanding of the vastness of space, even in our immediate “neighborhood”.

To give you some perspective:

The Robinson family of “Lost in Space” was trying to get to Alpha Centauri, 4+ light years from Earth. (This is one of the closest stars to us, as Dr. Sheldon Cooper instructs.)

Even if they were able to travel near light speed the entire distance (not even feasible, according to Einstein), they would be looking at around 5 years to arrive, though they wouldn’t have aged much due to the relativistic effect of time dilation. They would need some really good brakes, or they wouldn’t be stopping to look around.

At the impossible speed depicted in this video, that super-fast 5-year mission would take 1/3 of a second. The video lasts an hour and 18 minutes.  You go 70,000 light-years, about 7/10 of the way across our Milky Way galaxy. The galaxy background scene changes almost imperceptibly at this speed.

The galaxy closest to us, Andromeda, is 2,500,000 light-years distant. That means that the light from it hitting our retinas today started its journey 2.5M years ago. A video showing this trip at the same speed (15 light-years/sec) would run almost two days.

Our galaxy is one of 100 billion in our universe.

That’s big.

The only way you could ever experience the incredibly faster-than-light speeds depicted in these videos is if someone invents a warp drive. (Zefram Cochrane, where are you?)

In actuality, the best speed a craft with a feasible propulsion system could attain is a small fraction of the speed of light.

There was a “conceptual interstellar spacecraft design”, Project Longshot (Wikipedia). by NASA in 1988 to reach Alpha Centauri orbit with an unmanned, nuclear-powered probe.

Wikipedia: “The journey to Alpha Centauri B orbit would take about 100 years, at an average velocity of approximately 4.5% the speed of light, and another 4.39 years would be necessary for the data to reach Earth.”

All this, Commander Albert probably ponders from from his Laz-E-Boy, er, command chair.