Archive for May, 2008

Skipping commercials with DVRMSTools, CableCARD edition

Friday, May 23rd, 2008

DRVMSToolBox Settings

Before you get too excited, let me clear up the misleading title, because no, I haven’t figured out how to skip commercials on TV shows recorded via my ATI Digital Cable Tuner. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to skip commercials with the rest of my recordings. It wasn’t as easy as I thought, and for whatever reason without some tweaking my VMC box was unstable. I can only assume this was caused by DVRMSToolbox trying to analyze shows that were copy protected, but either way, why even waste cpu cycles if it isn’t possible?

Lets start from the beginning though. Ever since my first DVR (ReplayTV 5040), I fell in love with automatic commercial skipping, and while 30 second skip works pretty good, there’s nothing like skipping commercials without ever touching a remote. I’ve tried both DVRMToolbox and Lifextender and while Lifextender was super easy to install, by design it edits the files, so if it mis-marks a commercial, it’s fatal. And over the past few weeks it has deleting one too many scenes from my favorite show, so it’s out. This brought me back to DVRMSToolbox, which I started with first — really loved how it analyzes shows that are still recording — but thanks to the complex setup and a few issues, I quickly gave up on it. But now I finally have those worked out, so I’m going to share them here. First starters, here’s how you get started with DVRMSToolbox commercial skipping (BTW, use Comskip, it’s free).

There are two tricks to making DVRMSToolbox work well. One is to exclude it from scanning shows with no commercials and shows that are DRM’d. The other is to change the default skip keys that get in the way of normal VMC operation.

You can exclude on just about any piece of metadata that VMC stores about a show. At first I tried to edit the default Every File condition and say to skip any show recorded on a channel lower than 1032. But for whatever reason the channel number is a sting value instead of an integer, so you can’t use less than comparison! So I had to create two exclusions instead of one. One exclusion says any show not recorded with an ATSC tuner — this covers all the CableCARD tuner shows. The other rule says to exclude any show recorded from a PBS Affiliate — I love me some Nova, Nature and Frontline and they are already commercial free. This was pretty simple once I realized that ProcessContitionEditor was included with DVRSMSToolbox. I still had to dig around my recordings with DvrmsMetadataEditor to figure out what would work. So after a little trial and error I successfully excluded the shows I didn’t want to analyze.


Ok, but DVRMSToolbox and Lifextender both use the same commercial analyzing software (Show Analyzer $10 or Comskip which is free) to analyze the shows, so I expect it to be less than 100% accurate. So for starters, I choose to only mark commercials, and not delete them (the default). But I need a way to turn the automatic part off when things go wrong. By default this is the up and down keys on the remote, the problem is that those keys are already used when you overlay a menu or the guide when playing back recorded TV and since the plug-in isn’t smart enough to know what you want to do. So now I was off hunting for keys on the remote that don’t do anything when watching recorded TV, so I could use them instead. After some troubleshooting, I ended up with the Enter right and left Clear buttons. I setup left to disable automatic skip, and right to turn it back on — I also set the rest of the keys to F-keys so they wouldn’t get in the way. Update **Right and left ended up working better than enter and clear since the only time  you use them while watching  recorded TV is when the guide is up and you want to see what is on later, in those cases I just hit stop first.**

So now I have automatic commercial skipping on the majority of my shows, and I can turn it off and on whenever I want, I can start saving time. And when you consider the 1 second it used to take me to hit the 30 second skip button each time, compared to the 3 hours it took me to figure this out, I should break even on time in about 3 years!

The ISY-99 is the best thing that ever happend to my automated lights

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008


About two years ago I moved into a new house and discovered that when I park in my detached garage at night, I can’t see where I’m going because the light switch is in the house and I’m in the garage. So I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if when my garage door opened that my alley, garage, and porch lights turned on for a few minutes so I could see where I was walking. Two years later and now I have about 16 automated switches in my house, but unfortunately it came with lots of headaches. The problem is that I choose to use Insteon Lights from Smart Home and although they feature some very advanced grouping configurations, there was no easy way for me to configure it. I tried a few open source projects, as well as three Insteon plug-ins from my current Home Automation controller provider Main Lobby; and I even tried Smart Home’s software HouseLinc. Upon evaluating mControl and discovering it couldn’t master Insteon either, I was telling my new friend Ted Singh from Embedded Automation that I was thinking about ditching Insteon altogether — and the over $1000 I had invested — for something that actually worked. Ted recommended that before I do, that I try out a device from Universal Devices called the ISY-99i. Basically it is a small embedded Insteon controller — they have plans to support UPB and Z-Wave as well — that has a very useful management utility. At first I was reluctant because of the cost. The ISY device I was interested in was $339 and also required me to buy a Ethernet adapter for my Elk M1 Gold alarm system for about $200. So while I was trying to figure out if it was worth another $540 to make my over $1000 investment actually work — more if you include the cost of the Elk — I added up how much it would cost me to switch to Leviton’s Vizia RF and as you might have guessed, it was way too much.

Over the weekend I installed the ELK M1EXP and let me tell you, I should’ve of waited so long, the Ethernet interface is so much better than the serial I was using and well worth the $200 on it’s own. But the real magic happened last night when I received the ISY-99i. In about 4 hours, I achieved lighting bliss and created groups that I’ve fought with for 2 years and never accomplished. The device is an absolute joy to use and besides a few hiccups that UDI’s support was quick to respond to, I couldn’t hardly go to sleep last night because I was so excited about what I’d accomplished — yes, I’m that much of a geek. You have no idea how many hours of heartache I have invested in trying to get even the simplest group created and the ISY can do it in minutes and perfectly every time. Smart Home should bundle this with every Insteon PLM as it makes their hardware an unbelievable solution.

Now for the only problem. As great as the ISY device is, it isn’t very useful if I can’t integrate it with the rest of my system. It integrates pretty well with my Elk, which is my number one priority, but it also needs to integrate with my controller and since Cinemar makes their own plug-in for Insteon — you remember, the one that doesn’t work — I’m not sure I’ll get much help from them. Luckily their architecture is pretty open and my friend Dave has written a few plug-ins already, so with a little help and a little research of the UDI WSDK, I should be in business.

How not to put Recorded TV in alphabetical order

Thursday, May 8th, 2008

Not sure why this bothers me so much, but why is it the Vista Media Center Recorded TV list, has shows like “The Office” with the shows that start with T’s instead of the O’s? One of my first jobs when I was still in high school was working at a video store and while I wasn’t kick’n back behind the counter watching The Hunt For Red October for the 100th time, I was putting movies back on the shelves, and I can tell you one thing for sure, at The Reel Place, we didn’t do it that way.

mControl 2.1, so close, yet so far away

Friday, May 2nd, 2008

One of the main reasons I started to get into home automation was so I could create lighting scenes. For example, when my garage door opens and it’s dark outside, I have 4 lights turn on for 5 minutes. My garage is detached and the light switch to light the way into the house is in the house. This was not a good design on my builders part, but I’ve overcome it and it’s so handy when it doesn’t work, I hear about it from my wife. Another example is when I’m ready to watch my favorite movie at night. My sconces turn on to 50%, my dinning room light goes to 45%, and my hallway and kitchen lights are turned off. This scene controls about seven devices and would take me a couple of minutes to set without a home automation system.

The problem is when I try to get complicated. You see the garage lights are activated by the controller that is also talking to the alarm and knows if it’s dark outside. The movie scene must know a movie is starting and that it’s late enough my wife won’t be annoyed by the lights turning off in the kitchen. As you can see, a good reliable controller is very important.

I’ve had two controllers so far and haven’t been thrilled with either of them so I’ve tried mControl from time to time. The latest 2.1 is really awesome, it has a very powerful generic device driver that can easily be configured to control any IR, RS-232 or TCP enabled device — in fact I wrote two basic drivers in about an hour once I understood the format of the xml file.  The macro builder is powerful and a joy to use — as apposed to Mainlobby which is a total bear. The price is very reasonable at $75. The UI is simple and easy to access from VMC or any web browser enabled device. At this point you have to be wondering, but what Ben, but what? The problem is that mControl can’t activate Insteon lighting scenes and what’s worse if it turns on lights using a semi-workable workaround, my KeypadLincs will be out of sync which means the switch and the light won’t be in the same state — imagine the light is on, but the switch says it’s off. I’m really bummed at this and while Embedded Automation ensures me this will be addressed in Q3 2008, I’m disappointed.

To be fair, I’ve had problems with the my Insteon groups since day one. And since mControl is the third controller I’ve used, and all seem to have some sort of problem with groups, I’m starting to think it may be time to move on. The problem is that I have about $1000 invested in Insteon devices and moving on is not an inexpensive proposition. I don’t suppose any of  you are using a better lighting solution?

Why the ZeeVee could be so cool

Thursday, May 1st, 2008

The embargoed lifted this morning on a device I’ve been waiting since I discovered HD about 4 years ago — well almost. As long as I can remember, we’ve had RF modulators to make our lives simple, I remember my original Atari had one, you just plugged it inline with your coax going into your TV and you were off enjoying games. Of course NTSC RF-modulators have pretty bad picture quality and most game consoles today don’t use them, but they are still very useful for sending TV around your house on the existing coax. The problem is that if you think SD quality of RF-modulators is bad in the SD world, don’t even try to compare it to HD.

But finally the first consumer QAM RF-modulator is coming. Why is this so cool? Well lets say you want to watch your HD TiVo in every room of your house, but don’t want to buy another TiVo or pay the monthly fee. You could connect a device like this — but with component inputs — to your TiVo and then in any room of the house tune to channel 3 and now you’ll have HD with AC3 sound. You could even watch it on every TV in the house at the same time.

But lets take it to the next level, you could have a few of these and put all your gear in same room  and then use the existing coax in the house to watch whatever you want on any TV you want. Blu-ray is on channel 3, HD TiVo on 4, VMC on 5 etc. Sure you can do this now, but it requires you to run expensive cables to each TV in the house and have devices to receive the signal at each TV. Not to mention have an expensive matrix switch and remotes to control it.

The biggest problem with the Zv now is that it only accepts VGA input and works with QAM instead of ATSC.  Although many TVs have QAM tuners, the number isn’t nearly as many as those that have ATSC — it’s required by law after all. But the lack of component input and the lack of audio inputs other than USB is the real kicker. This makes the box unable to do exactly what I want it to do, but I’m sure what I’m after wont’ be far behind.