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Top Microsoft Exec Shows Off Media Center-Based Home
Senior Microsoft official uses Windows Media Centers, Lifeware automation and mostly off-the-shelf technologies for 11,000-square-foot home.
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December 29, 2008 by Julie Jacobson

A senior – very senior – executive of Microsoft opened his Seattle-area home to a handful of reporters in November for an unprecedented tour of his automated home, powered by several Windows Media Centers and Lifeware home automation software.

The Microsoft exec, who wishes to remain anonymous to protect his family’s privacy, set out a few years ago to build an 11,000 square-foot house laden with technology that would be “easy to use,” especially for his wife.

“She’s tolerated for a long time my experimentation,” he says. 

He wondered if he could create an automated home where, “if a person walked in off the street, could they turn on the lights?”

And could he create such a solution using off-the-shelf Microsoft technology? Indeed, he could.

The exec boasted that his home system has “no custom hardware and virtually no custom software.” What’s more, said the lifelong tinkerer, his home automation/entertainment system is “competitive, I think, with everything I’ve seen in home automation.”

Installed by the local Magnolia Home Theater, the home technology includes nine big-screen TVs, and four Media Center computers, plus a handful of in-wall Lifeware touchscreens, a Russound whole-house audio system and 14 thermostat zones provided by Aprilaire.

The computers run behind the scenes, feeding content to each TV via Xbox 360s, which serve as Media Center Extenders. Almost everything you can access from a Media Center directly – recorded TV, photos, music, movies and automation scenes – is available through the Extenders.

Each Media Center has four cable tuners, accommodating “basically every one that wants to watch live TV in a separate room,” the homeowner says.

The set-up is especially appealing to guests staying in either of the home’s two guest rooms. “They can record their own shows,” says the Microsoft exec.

The One Piece of Custom Software: Tweaks for DRM
The one special tweak performed for the executive’s home involves a (legal) work-around for limitations associated with digital rights management (DRM).

Only Media Center Extenders – not other PCs on the network – can access protected TV content. In other words, the content is locked in the PC that recorded it.

Today, only five active Extenders can be linked to a single Media Center (although Lifeware and Niveus have shown solutions for 10 Extenders).

This home had 11 Extenders. If one “room” recorded an HBO special, the show could only be viewed by the four other TVs/Extenders linked to the Media Center.

What about the five other TVs? They could not access the show. The solution? Custom software that automatically replicates the recordings on the other Media Center machines.

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Julie Jacobson - Editor-at-large, CE Pro
Julie Jacobson is co-founder of EH Publishing and currently spends most of her time writing for CE Pro, mostly in the areas of home automation, networked A/V and the business of home systems integration. She majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin, and has never taken a journalism class in her life. Julie is a washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player with the scars to prove it. Follow her on Twitter @juliejacobson.

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