Off-the-shelf technology taking bigger role

Turning your home into a digital entertainment center used to be the exclusive role of professional installers with complex and expensive equipment at their disposal.

Nowadays, though -- thanks to Apple, Sony, Microsoft and others -- the do-it-yourself crowd can assemble an epic home theater with off-the-shelf components.

Bedford, Texas, resident Jerry Johnson began building his home entertainment system about six years ago.

He has a BenQ SP920 video projector connected to a 7.2 Onkyo surround sound receiver. That's just the foundation.

Johnson also connected his Sony PlayStation 3 video game console and a Windows 7 PC to his network to send videos to his projector, and he has recently started using the new HBOgo app to watch videos over the Internet on mobile devices.

He also listens to digital music from online services such as Pandora and has been testing an app from Onkyo to wirelessly stream tunes from an Android device to his stereo.

Johnson doesn't have any formal technical or engineering training but said the equipment available now is simple enough for anyone to figure out.

The average person could set up a similar system, he said. "A lot of people don't want to. But you can network everything together."

Johnson also said his wife indulges his regular itch to swap out new components, which is possible because of the modular nature of modern technology.

"Once you get started, you're always upgrading stuff," he said.

Johnson estimated that he has spent about $4,000 on his equipment through the years, substantially less than professional home theater projects that often start at $10,000 or more.

And even the pros, while thriving, are starting to use the same retail technology that has become part of most people's lives.

At Lewisville, Texas-based Diem Digital Interiors, for example, the engineers and installers make a science out of home theaters.

They can suggest the optimal shape of a room for the best sound quality (rectangles are better than squares), measure to within inches the best place to put your speakers, and calculate which seat in a room will have the best viewing angle.

They also tie everything from your thermostat to your home security system into a single customized software interface that can be controlled from any screen in the house.

A lot of times, those screens are devices that customers already have in their pockets.

Byron Baird, vice president of sales at Diem, said it's often easier to put the home theater and home automation controls on iPhones and iPads, since customers are already familiar with that hardware.

"You've already got those devices in most homes," he said.

Cody Crossland, a sales engineer at Diem, said that many times, customers are already using entertainment software that they want integrated into the high-end systems Diem builds.

"I have all my music in iTunes. How do I get that throughout my house?" is a common question from prospective customers, Crossland said.