A fun project that you can do with open source software and some carefully chosen hardware is to build yourself a media centre PC. This is a very different computing experience from a desktop or netbook, it can stream content from the Internet to your TV, act as a PVR, be a jukebox and stream media files to devices such as Internet radios in your home. When you connect a computer to your TV though you need a very different user interface to control it compared to a desktop or a netbook, everything must be visible and usable from ten feet away from the screen, content and functionality navigable by a simple remote control, and even content must be different, more video and audio focused and less text heavy. On Linux systems we're really lucky in having a wide range of media centre software options, popular choices include Boxee, MythTV, XBMC and Freevo. The problem is that these tend to run on top of desktop versions of Linux and certain functionality requires that you exit "set top box" mode and use a desktop or the command line.
For example Mythbuntu is a great remix of Ubuntu that is designed to run on your set top box, in it programs that appear in Ubuntu but aren't related to media centres (e.g. OpenOffice) are removed and some utilities have been added to help set up your system for use with MythTV. Once you have Mythbuntu set up your computer will boot straight into MythTV giving you a pretty good set top box experience. However, there is a problem that if you want to do certain tasks such as connect to a network or update software packages you must exit to a traditional desktop and run utilities that were designed for use with a mouse and keyboard.
Another example is the system I have where I am running Boxee on top of an Ubuntu Netbook Remix installation on my Acer Aspire Revo nettop. This generally works really well, you can even add applications inside Boxee that are designed to use the made-for-tv user interface functionality that Boxee provides. This enhances the the set top box experience, but when it comes to certain tasks such as connecting to a network and package management you have to exit Boxee and work with the operating system. I use Netbook Remix here as some parts of the design actually work quite well with a TV, the large icons and the automaximising windows work well when you are sat a distance away from the screen, but sadly you can't control the interface with a remote control, a keyboard and mouse are required.
When I was developing the Open University application for Boxee I really got a feel for how different TV-friendly interfaces are from desktop interfaces, the difference is as great as between desktop and mobile phone. This combined with the problems above has made me think more about what could be done to help with a set top box experience, is there a parallel here with netbooks? These introduced some challenges for user interface design that made traditional desktop user interfaces under perform as a good computing experience. Innovations such as the Ubuntu Netbook Remix interface made these machine much more pleasurable to use.
If someone designed an "Ubuntu Set Top Box Remix" what would it look like? Would it make sense to integrate functionality such the ability to connect to wireless networks and update packages directly into software such as Boxee though plugins, or would it be better to design something like the Ubuntu Netbook Remix interface for TV with everything usable with a few button presses on a remote control? The interface would need to be extendable to meet new functionality requirements such as being able to connect to mobile broadband networks, or a set top box provider might want to include functionality for their customer to manage their account. The software installation process could be redesigned as most of the packages are designed for desktop use, your could have something like the large icons of the Jolicloud application installer to highlight applications designed for media centre use. It might be that some of the answers to these questions could be found in existing designs, the large icons and layout of the Netbook Remix interface might be a good starting point to a STB Remix interface.
I like having a computer running open source media centre software in my living room as I feel it enables me to explore the whole idea of what it means to connect your TV and home stereo to the Internet. It is a really different experience of Internet use to just using your computer. My Internet radio treats DAB, FM and Internet radio in much the same way, and it is strange but using devices rather than a browser to access Internet content just feels very different. Having a version of Ubuntu for set top boxes might be a really nice base to build a media center system on and to make it feel more natural to use as a set top box, similar to how you would use other set top boxes. I suppose this might also make it more appealing to people who say that they don't enjoy using computers, or associate it with work, but will quite happily come home and use an interactive TV system! Of course it doesn't have to be Ubuntu, it could be a different distribution, but this is an area where open source software is the only real option, proprietary systems wouldn't be able to provide the openness or flexibility to provide a system that could grow and change as the concept of the media centre set top box grows and develops.
*** Update 19th August 2009 ***
This blog post was discussed on the Ubuntu UK Podcast episode S02E11, details are here: http://podcast.ubuntu-uk.org/2009/08/19/s02e11-slipback/