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The family room goes digital

For many Americans, the family room is where more living happens than the living room.  Increasingly it’s also the media room, the place where family and friends gather to watch movies and sports events on big screens or the kids hang out for video games.
The family room is rapidly becoming the media room in many households.Business Wire File / SYNTAX GROUPS
/ Source: Special to

For many Americans, the family room is where more living happens than the living room.  Increasingly it’s also the media room, the place where family and friends gather to watch movies and sports events on big screens or the kids hang out for video games.  And perhaps most uniquely, it’s also where the family watches its own media—family videos or photos that once sat on a shelf or in an album, but which can now be far more accessible for spontaneous viewing. 

As far as big video screens go, Digital Life’s installment “The Transforming Digital Living Room” provides a run-down on the pros and cons of plasma, LCD and cathode ray tube viewing.  But one newer wrinkle that can make good sense in the family room is front-projection video — something of a high-tech throw-back to the old flickering film projector. 

Until recently, video projectors tended to be high-end equipment from specialty companies like Runco and Barco, with five-figure price tags, generally found hanging from the ceilings of private screening rooms in Bel-Air.  Recently, however, a handful of home theater projectors have started to fall below $2000, making them competitive with other big screen alternatives.  The InFocus 4850, for example, at around $1000, weighs under 7 pounds and can throw up to a 9 foot image.  For $1500 the Optoma Movie Time DV10 includes not only a projector, but a DVD player and audio system as well in one self-contained unit.  These low-cost projectors provide just about the picture resolution of a DVD — if you can spend a bit over $2000, two excellent higher definition projectors are the Panasonic PT-AE700U and the Sanyo PLV-Z3, which will give you the extra sharpness of HDTV.

Unless you’re building a separate media room, projectors may be a bit more awkward than just hanging a nice flat LCD or plasma on the wall.  You’ll need a screen, and most likely the ability to at least partially darken the room. Da-Lite, the company that probably made the screen your parents used for slides or movies, now makes a complete line of home theater projection screens, including some models under $1,000 that include electric motors.  With those, you can hang the unobtrusive metal housing on the wall or ceiling and roll the screen down with the push of a button.  Home theater projectors aren’t for everyone — if you just watch the news and occasional situation comedies, they’re overkill.  But for sports, feature films and your own home videos and photos, the projection route can be impressive indeed.  And the projector manufacturers are now undergoing the same intense price competition that plasma and LCD screens experienced over the past couple of years, so real bargains should be forthcoming.  

With projector in place, you just need the tools to create some family media, and of course the shelves are chockablock with digital video and still cameras. For ease-of-use in the family room, take a look at the Kodak line of still cameras; Kodak started far behind in the digital camera race but has become a leader through their innovative EasyShare docks.  Cameras like their $400 V550, with 5.0 megapixels and 3x optical zoom (all the megapixels the average family really needs) come with a sleek docking station that not only recharges the camera but connects directly to your television’s A/V input for instant on-screen viewing.  More advanced versions of the docking station also include a built-in 4 x 6 inch printer—in short, you can basically skip the computer stage of digital photography and do everything in the family room.  (Of course if you also want to use your computer for more sophisticated digital editing and storage, the Kodak system works just like any other digital camera.) 

Cameras all round
When it comes to video camcorders especially suited to the family room, Sony offers a couple of interesting alternatives. The first is the Handycam station that comes with a number of their digital video cameras, such as the $600 DCR-HC42. The camera has a generous set of features for a mid-priced model, including a large LCD display, electronic image stabilization and still-image storage on Memory Sticks.  But the docking station is a real plus, letting you easily connect to your family room television for viewing — and since it includes a remote control, you can even sit back to run the show. 

Similar straight-to-the-family-room thinking is behind Sony’s digital cameras that record directly to 3” DVDs, rather than magnetic tape.  For about the same price as the afore-mentioned DCR-HC24, the DCR-DVD92 includes comparable features (such as Sony’s terrific Carl Zeiss lens) but adds the DVD output.  The recordable 3” DVDs will work in virtually all DVD players, so you can just pop the DVD out of the camera for immediate gratification.  The camera also includes built-in titling and special effects software, so you can do some image manipulation without a computer and editing software. 

Of course, you may also decide that you want a computer in the family room.  If that’s the case then on you might look at the various Media Center PCs that are available.  Available from a variety of manufacturers, these desktops use Windows Media Center software to provide, besides all the normal computing functions, full control of music, photos and videos, including television. HP, in particular, has been aggressive about repackaging Media Center PCs into the more familiar low-slung boxes that house other audio-video components. Their z500 series, ranging in price from $1,400 to $2,400 are expensive, but provide a lot of functionality including TiVo-like television recording.  It can still be a little tricky coordinating these boxes with cable or satellite television, however, so they may be best for folks with some degree of audio-video sophistication.

As Digital Life has commented in earlier pieces, the choice of videogame console in the family room is probably not going to be up to those who actually pay the bills.  However, one absolute must-have addition is a set of wireless videogame controllers: you do not want black controller wires snaking across the floor.  Logitech makes sturdy and interference-resistant cordless controllers for Xbox ($49.95) and PlayStation ($39.95); both include vibration feedback.  Pelican’s $19.95 G3 wireless controller is designed for the Nintendo GameCube. While you’re at it, you should also glance at the wireless headphone recommendations in last month’s “The Digital Kids’ Room.”

One final indulgence: if you need a telephone in the family room, why not get one that’s also a work of art?  Bang & Olufsen’s Beocom 2 is just that: a single artfully curved piece of aluminum by Copenhagen designer David Lewis that rises loftily from a round charging base. The ring-tone was written by a Danish composer and the phone itself has flawless sound plus the ability to quiet any B&O television or stereo directly from the keypad.  At $1,050, it is an extravagance to be sure, but also a striking piece of modern sculpture—and older Bang & Olufsen equipment is actively traded by collectors. What’s a family room without a family heirloom?