On the Couch: fforde
This week we have John Conrad (fforde) on the couch. Most of you already know him, or his awesome work on the Moving Pictures plugin, but today we get a chance to take a closer peek at Mr. Conrad.
How did you become interested in HTPCs?
I have been interested in computers since I was about 8 to 10 years old and even back then I found media that lived on the PC fascinating. In the early 90s I remember downloading some MIDI files and playing a song by Fine Young Cannibals in synthesized glory. The midi synthesizer was terrible, it sounded exceptionally bad on my tiny computer speakers and the lyrics were replaced with what sounded like an 8-bit choir. But it was in stereo! And it was amazing! Years later in high school it was 128kbps MP3s of The Offspring. In college I had moved on to low quality episodes of The Simpsons. This was the beginning for me. For a long time media on the PC was more of a novelty than anything but around the turn of the century it was becoming more practical. At least for someone a bit computer savy like me.
Once I learned how to rip my DVDs so that I could have all my movies in one place, it was just a matter of time before I started seeking out a nice interface to browse them.
How did you first find MediaPortal?
For a long time I just managed and watched my movie collection via Windows Explorer. I always felt like there had to be a better way but I had a hard time finding anything practical. The most recommended HTPC applications at the time either ran on Xbox hardware or Linux. I had no console to sacrifice and I was not really ready to make the jump to Linux.
Over time I dabbled with Windows Media Center but I was never able to get it to work just how I wanted. I looked into a few other HTPC applications like Meedio and XBMC (now with Windows support!), but I was never happy. Then one day I discovered MediaPortal. At the time it was super buggy and a pain to setup, but the community was so active. These people were really passionate about this stuff! And best of all, it had an amazing plug-in to manage your TV Shows.
What MediaPortal projects are you active in?
As much as I loved MP-TVSeries though, I was really not satisfied with the options to manage a movie collection. MyVideos was too generalized and while MyFilms created a great user interface once configured, it was very difficult to get setup and it was very high maintenance. Both MyVideos and MyFilms have come a long way since this point in time, they are both great components that have matured very well over the years. But back in 2007 I felt like something new was needed. So I started working on Moving Pictures in the evenings.
Progress was slow at first. I initially was working on my own and because there was nothing released yet, nothing that was even functional, there was no community to push me along. It took me about 8 months of working off and on to get to a point where things were demonstrable. In those early days I would spend a week working furiously on one component or another and then spend a month without touching the code at all. Eventually though I was ready to show off what I had been working on. Things picked up rather quickly with Moving Pictures, people seemed to respond very positively.
At this point I started getting help from the community as well. New people joined the project. Moving Pictures from this point on was no longer mine, it was ours. Armandp and ZealotSix joined the core team. Contributions came in from dozens of people including LRFalk01, gshipley, mattsk88. I could go on and on and I know I an leaving many important people out, but the point is that virtually overnight Moving Pictures became a collaborative effort and the plug-in is what it is today because of all of these people.
In mid 2009 the team started working on what would eventually be called follw.it. Originally this was conceived as an online component of Moving Pictures; the original name was Moving Pictures Social. Over time though the site evolved into something more. Thanks to work from ZealotSix, Inker, gshipley and several others, follw.it now supports not only MediaPortal, but also Windows Media Center via the Media Browser plug-in. We even have Windows Phone 7 and Android apps on the way. My roll in this project is fairly small compared to the other contributors, but it’s something that is tangential to everything I do here and it is something I am proud to be a small part of.
Travis Collins (ZealotSix) and I later would launch the Pandora MusicBox plug-in that adds support for Pandora radio to MediaPortal. It’s a small project but it was very rewarding working on the encryption algorithms as well as deciphering the API protocol. Credit where credit is due though, this project really wouldn't be possible if other projects like pianobar for Linux had not blazed the trail.
What are some of your favorite plug-ins?
My favorite plug-in these days is probably still MP-TVSeries. I would never have stuck with MediaPortal if it were not for this plug-in and I still use it on almost a daily basis. I also of course love Moving Pictures but I guess that is a given. I want a mostly hands off solution for my movie collection and this is what Moving Pictures provides. I also really enjoy Online Videos which I mainly use for movie trailers. All credit goes to the Online Videos team, but I really love the integration with Moving Pictures.
I also use Pandora Musicbox for most of my music listening needs in MediaPortal and I use Fanart Handler to retrieve nice artwork for the currently playing song.
What are some of your favorite skins?
Over the last month or two I have been using Avalon on my main HTPC which I think could still use a bit of polish in a few places, but in general is absolutely gorgeous. I love that it takes the cool blues of a traditional Windows Media Center type theme but then makes them it’s own.
I also use StreamedMP on my secondary HTPC and in the past I used it for quite a while on my main system before switching to Avalon. I really love this skin and I think the package Damien (ltfearme) and the team have put together is really exceptional. I think StreamedMP really raised the bar on what to expect from a MediaPortal skin.
In the past I was a big fan of Monochrome and Indigo so I am very interested in trying out Mustayaluca mainly because of Psycho Reptile’s involvement. I think I really want a bit of color in my skins these days though so I will probably hold off for a while.
What future MediaPortal projects do you have planned?
The first item on my future plans list is another update or two to Moving Pictures. There are a few features that have been long asked for that I really want to get implemented in the near future. Search and in-GUI import management are the big ones. I also would really love to improve follw.it integration in Moving Pictures and MPTV-Series, possibly giving it it’s own plug-in as well.
I have also tossed around an idea for a new Channels style plug-in. Basically a plug-in that generates TV channels for you from your local media. Something that generates a schedule with both movie and TV series content built upon a set of rules and learning algorithms. Imagine something like the normal MediaPortal TV Client, but 100% backed by local media. The channels could be theme based and schedules could be automatically adjusted based on viewing habits. I realize this would really only be useful for people with fairly large movie and TV series collections but I think users like this are becoming more and more common. And I also think a lot of people sometimes just want to sit down and “veg out” in front of the TV. This is something that Moving Pictures and MPTV-Series do not really offer and is something that may not be possible at all for people who have “cut the cord”.
This “Channels” plug-in is not something I am actively developing, it’s just an idea I have had in my head for a while. I think it would be a cool plug-in though; if done well it is a plug-in I could see myself using quite often. If I start a new project in the near future this is definitely a potential candidate.
What are your top 5 favorite movies of all time?
These are in no particular order and my answers would probably change depending on the day of the week you asked me, but here goes. Back to the Future will always be on this list for me. This is partially a nostalgic pick but I am also a huge sucker for any movie involving time travel. There are obviously many picks with more interesting time travel plots but I think Back to the Future does something right that a lot of sci-fi movies mess up. The science fiction serves the story and not the other way around. At it’s roots Back to the Future is about the people more than the DeLorean and I think that is a big reason why it’s so great.
Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys makes the list as well. I know, I know another sci-fi / time travel movie, but I just can’t pass this one up. The story is convoluted but so interesting and the acting is spectacular. In my opinion one of Brad Pitt’s best performances. Side note, not many people realize that 12 Monkeys is based on a short from the 60s called La Jetée. Anyone that is a fan of 12 Monkeys should really check this out if the opportunity comes along. It is so atypical and unusual but so interesting.
Next I’d have to go with something from Tarantino. I think on some days I would pick Kill Bill, but today I am going to have to go with Resevoir Dogs. I know Tarantino is not for everyone but I really love the dialog, the wit, the homages and yes, even the violence.
Then The Fountain. I love just about everything Darren Aronofsky does, but this film resonated with me the most. To me this is the ultimate film about life and the acceptance of death (although The Seventh Seal is pretty great too!) Every one of Aronofsky’s films are so different so I am not sure I could even say this is actually my favorite film of his. How do you compare this to Pi or Requiem for a Dream or Black Swan? These movies are all so different and all great. But The Fountain is the one I keep coming back to the most.
And finally, because most of my picks are more or less pretty recent, I am going to have to wrap things up with Casablanca. I would really like to think this movie is timeless because it’s an amazing film. It makes me so sad when I see people even in my own generation brush it off because of it’s age or because it is filmed in black and white. Anyone who has not checked this one out is doing themselves a disservice.