The Future of Media Players?

 23 / September / 2008 by Riley

The concept of a computer in the living room for home entertainment (or HTPC) has been developing for many years, but it’s never really taken off. There’s lots of set-top boxes, but no complete solution has materialized. There’s a few simple ways to organize the media viewing experience, and there’s always room for improvement. Current media players only allow simple linear or random playback, and lack a significant advantage over established media sources like cable TV and satellite.

For the last several years, I’ve had PCs hooked up to my television and stereo in various ways. And over time I’ve accumulated an extensive media collection. One of the unexpected problems with a large media collection is how frustrating it can be to find and switch between all the content. It can take the fun out of things when it take as long as picking a movie at the local video store. Unless random play meets your needs, there’s not a simple solution to this problem.

It can be easier to just flip through the cable TV channels, or check out the latest DVD from Netflix, rather than searching through some folders or menus. I finally got fed up with the monotony of my cable company and the Netflix issues, and canceled both accounts. Since then I’ve focused on creating my own ultimate home entertainment system. The hardware is easy, but I’ve found media player software to be the biggest limitation. Why do you have to open a menu every time you want to watch something different?

Channels have been a standard fixture in home entertainment for so long, and yet this concept has never been applied to media players in a compelling way. Why not turn a media collection into the equivalent of an À la Carte cable TV package? Easily creating and switching between custom media channels at the touch of a button would be a nice enhancement. Playlists are great, but some small improvements could make a big difference.

Some needed improvements in playlist functionality:

  • quickly switch between playlists (one button)
  • save and return to the last file played (in multiple playlists after reboot)
  • save playback options independently to each playlist
  • simple interface to bring it all together
  • Here’s a quick UI mockup for editing these features:

    Playlist Switching Settings
    name playlist save place

    Add hotkey assignments for “channel up” and “channel down”, and hotkeys for switching to each channel directly. Also, have the OSD show the channel number and name every time it’s changed. A grid menu, like a Channel Guide, for viewing and switching would be a nice addition as well. The ability to return to the last file played in multiple playlists (even after closing the application or reboot) should be a requirement for every media player. This would allow for seamless playback and content switching with little setup time.

    Channel Guide
    Simpsons 1×01 Simpsons 1×02 Simpsons 1×03 Simpsons 1×04 Simpsons 1×05
    Star Trek TNG 5×01 Star Trek TNG 5×02 Star Trek
    Batman Begins (2005) The Dark
    Zoe (1994) Pulp Fiction (1994)
    Futurama 2×03 Futurama 2×04 Futurama 2×05 Futurama 2×06 Futurama 2×07
    The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
    Family Guy 3×5 Family Guy 3×6 Family Guy 3×7 Family Guy 3×8 Family Guy 3×9
    Dark City (1998) The Matrix (1999)

    The addition of saving playlist state data could be incorporated with other enhancements, like play counts and ratings. Playlist editors have been improving, but it would be great to see more advanced features and better tools for playlist creation and sorting. Intelligent random play algorithms are nice, but not a complete solution. Also, having the option to save unique video (aspect ratio, color, subtitles) and audio (volume, EQ, outputs) settings to a playlist would allow many more possibilities for power users.

    These features could be integrated with other non-local sources to create a more comprehensive media portal. Assigning online media sources (live streams, podcasts, etc…) to channels would be the next step. Many media players interact with various APIs, but there’s definitely room for improvement in the ease of use and flexibility. Most media players barely think in two dimensions. A unified matrix interface for media sources would allow more control with a simple front-end.

    Of course this will require more than just the user interface, but it’s all well within the capability of a competent programmer. Why hasn’t this been implemented yet?

    Unfortunately, DRM is a large burden for many personal media collections. Locking files down to one media player serves only the vendor. Open source software is the obvious choice for unrestricted access, but most are slow to offer new features. Supporting open source media player projects with donations, bug reports, and patches is a good way to make a difference.

    There’s plenty of software and hardware options that remove the need for traditional cable TV (and satellite TV), but a surprising number of people still pay for cable TV (56% of Americans at an average of $60 USD a month). The convenience and simplicity has yet to be surpassed by the current state of media players. Apple and Microsoft have been making many advances, along with Linux based systems like MythTV and Tivo. But more innovation is needed to make HTPCs (or media extenders) a more compelling choice for home entertainment.

    On my current media PC, I continually have BS.Player, GOM Player, VLC media player, Crystal Player, Media Player Classic, and Winamp open at once so that I can “easily” switch between them and have my media files played the way I want. Every week or so I have to reboot the machine and it’s a pain in the ass to get everything up and running again. BS.Player is the only one that will automatically start up playing the last file in a long playlist. Unfortunately, running multiple instances of that program is unreliable and only one playlist position can be saved. Windows Media Player has always been a UI disaster for me, and iTunes is great in some areas, but horrible in other aspects like performance, customization, and other issues.

    A typical day of home entertainment for me might be picking up where I left off on a marathon of James Bond movies, switching over to the last position in a long playlist of Simpsons, Family Guy, Futurama, and King of the Hill episodes (alternating between each in order), and switching back to some music albums that I haven’t listened to lately. If someone can provide a solution that would allow all that with the push of a button, and without fear of a reboot, then I would be very happy indeed.

             filed under: entertainment, home, media