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Do It Yourself Rear Projection Home Theater PC

Front view at night with fan lights on
Introduction
Background
  My Original Front Projection Setup
The Apartment
The New House
Rear Projection Home Theater
Why Rear Projection?
Floorplan
Layout, Design, and Construction
Equipment & Materials
  Projector
Screen
Mask
Home Theater PC
Video
Audio
Remote Control
Cabling
Investment Summary
Gallery



Introduction

Recently, I have been involved in a project to install a rear projection home theater in my new home. Having read on the Internet about many other do-it-yourself attempts at such a project, I came to understand the many potential problems I was to face. In the end, I am exceptionally pleased with the result, so I have taken the time to document the project so that others may learn from my experience. Perhaps I can even provide inspiration to others that are considering such an endeavor.

I should note that my home theater is anything but “high-end”, yet, in my opinion, it sure looks it. Besides the requisite electronic equipment (projector, A/V receiver, speakers, etc), I have less than $1,000 invested in this setup. That’s excluding any estimate of the value of my own labor hours, which would certainly push that figure up considerably.

In the end, I have a crisp 60-inch diagonal standard definition picture with 5.1 surround sound in the primary sitting room of my home. Short of high definition, I have an exceptional picture with exceptional sound for TV, DVDs, video games, or simply music, and it is fully functional day or night. Shy of an investment in excess of $10,000, I strongly doubt that anyone could buy anything better.

This is a long write up, with lots of information. Feel free to use the links in the outline above to skip to whatever interests you most.

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Background

  My original Front Projection setup

In the late 90’s, I setup my first home theater anchored by a 60” Mitsubishi big screen TV. I purchased an A/V receiver with 5.1 surround sound, a DVD player, and some speakers. I was set.

In 2000, I moved to a new house that had a finished daylight basement and a room already setup for a home theater. While the room had two windows, the blinds did a pretty good job of blocking light in the daytime. The previous owner had painted the walls dark blue, and already had wiring run for surround speakers. It was pretty easy and straightforward for me to setup my system in that room.

When the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001 occurred, I was working out of my house. Suffice to say, I spent a good bit of time watching CNN in the days and weeks that followed. After a few months, I began to notice that I had developed a “burn-in” problem. No matter what channel I was watching, I could see the faint CNN logo up in the corner. I was aware of burn-in problems on computer monitors, but I hadn’t really understood the risk with a big screen TV (rear projection cabinet). While it was a bit annoying, I wasn’t ready to spend the money to upgrade.

In 2003, the Mitsubishi set died. With power on, I couldn’t get any picture – nada. The unit was out from under warranty, so I called for repair. The repair company told me that the main circuit board would need to be replaced, and that would run about $700. I had only paid about $1,200 new in 1998, and a new one in 2003 was about $1,000. Considering the $700 repair wouldn’t fix the burn-in problem, I just couldn’t bring myself to spend that much money repairing an otherwise defective big screen TV.

So I went online and started researching my options. My original focus was on similar big screen TVs. Some plasma sets were beginning to hit the market, but the starting price was north of $5,000, and that was much more than I was willing to spend. High Definition sets were also available, but HDTV content and tuners were limited and expensive, respectively, so I ruled that out for the time. Somehow, I ran across the idea of a Home Theater Personal Computer (HTPC), combined with a projector (you know, like I had often used in the office to project Powerpoint presentations). The idea of combining my television and movie viewing with the growing music and video content on my computer intrigued me. Once this piqued my interest, I found the Internet website Projector Central.

There I learned about the difference between LCD and DLP projectors, and learned that relatively inexpensive projectors targeted toward businesses could make excellent home theater projectors. While I went shopping online for a new TV, I decided I didn’t need a TV at all!

I bought a projector for just under $1,000, mounted it upside down on my basement’s drop ceiling, ran a VGA cable to my PC, and an S-video cable to my A/V receiver, which had both DirecTV satellite and cable TV (through a VCR) running into it. For a screen, I bought a 4’x8’ sheet of bathroom paneling from Home Depot, cut down to 4’x5’ and hung it on the drywall (I forget the actual product name, but it has a smooth white surface, and looks like dry-erase board material). That material was too shiny, which hot-spotted badly, but two coats of flat white paint solved that. Viola! HTPC front projection home theater!

I was quite pleased. All was well in my life.

Until my job situation changed and my new job was many miles away. The commute became old, quick, and I decided to move closer to my work. That meant moving “in-town”, and I knew space would be at a premium (for a similar price).

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  The Apartment

The first stop wasn’t a house at all, but a 1200 square foot two bedroom apartment. To say space was at a premium would be an understatement. Based on the limitations of the only living space, I was able to setup my projector, but only pointed at the wall opposite of where I would have wanted it. That meant I only used my projector for DVDs, when the investment to move the furniture around was worthwhile. Otherwise, I watched TV on my standard 36 inch tube TV.

While I was in my apartment, I did upgrade my PC. Instead of my hodgepodge HTPC, I bought a new Dell desktop running Microsoft Windows Media Center 2005. That system truly integrated all my PC video and audio content with the my TV and DVD experience. At that point, I retired my VCR and standalone DVD player altogether.

Suffice to say, after staying in the apartment for over a year, I had gotten to know the area and was more than ready to move into a house with a little more space and privacy.

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  The New House

In the area of interest (ITP [Inside The Perimeter] Atlanta), and constrained by my budget and other desirable features (like a two car garage), finding a new home with a full, finished daylight basement just wasn’t in the cards. And, as any family man can tell you, adding the criteria that the house has a good location for setting up a projector also wasn’t going to happen. I’d have to make do.

The selected two-story house was on a slab (no basement whatsoever). It is quite spacious, at about 2,400 square feet, with three bedrooms, two and half baths, a big living room, a comfy den, and a large sunroom.

After deciding on the house, but before moving in, I began think about where I would put the projector. The living room is large with vaulted ceilings, with a loft bedroom overlooking. It simply wasn’t laid out in a manner practical for a projector – front or rear. The next biggest living space is the sunroom, but as the name suggests, it is quite bright in the daytime. It has windows on three sides and two skylights in the ceiling. Way too much ambient light for any sort of projector setup – unless you wanted to limit your viewing to hours after sunset. Neither of those would work.

Floorplan of the relevent portion of the house The best option available was the den. It wasn’t as spacious (about 15’x15’). It had a fireplace at one end, and was open to the breakfast area, sunroom, and kitchen opposite the fireplace. In the other dimension, one wall is exterior and has three windows, and the wall across from it is an interior wall with nothing on it. This is the wall I began to focus on for projecting my new home theater.

My original intentions were for a front projection setup. But as I began to plan it, I also began to run into some logistical problems. Those problems led me to consider a rear projection setup. Behind the wall I wanted to use is the laundry room, specifically, the space that would be directly above the washing machine and dryer. The room was a little deeper, as it also housed an “ugly closet” for the water heater. I found the idea of a rear projection setup desirable, so I began considering the logistics. In the end, I solved them all. This sort of setup only works here due to the floorplan of the house. While something similar may work for some, it certainly wouldn’t work for everyone.

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Rear Projection Home Theater

  Why Rear Projection?

The most obvious problem with a front projection system is the fan noise of the projector. My unit isn’t too bad about fan noise, so that wasn’t a deal killer. The next most obvious problem, or perhaps I should say drawback, as it is all about trade-offs, is aesthetics. Having a projector hang from the ceiling in your den just doesn’t look that great. Combine that with the fact that the room has a ceiling fan, and the projector would have to hang down quite low.

But perhaps my biggest challenge was going to be the cabling. I knew I needed to run at least two cables to the projector – the power cord and a VGA cable, at least (also might need/want an S-video cable and a USB cable for remote control of the computer mouse through the projector).

To overcome the aesthetics issue, I could consider a quality projector mount (not cheap). Even then, I would either have to drape the wires across the ceiling, or run them in the ceiling. The ceiling of this room was not particularly accessible, so running the wires in the ceiling meant tearing down some of the ceiling drywall, and the eventual repair. I ruled out that option. I could have considered a cable concealing system, but most of those aren’t designed to hide something the size of a VGA cable, much less VGA combined with power.

After taking all of these logistical issues into account, I began considering a rear projection setup. Obviously, fan noise and aesthetics were superior in a rear projection setup. While I couldn’t re-purpose the laundry room, I could perhaps dual purpose it. The whole idea of a rear projection system generated a new set of questions:

What is in the wall? With front projection, I would just hang my screen on the wall (or paint it on). But with rear projection, I would have to cut through it. I would have to remove the studs and build an internal “window”. Is it load-bearing? Is there plumbing in the space (copper or PVC)? Is there electrical? Some of these could have been show-stoppers for me.

Where will I mount the projector? To get a 60 inch diagonal picture, I knew the projector needed to be at least 7 ½ feet from the screen. Problem with that is that the laundry room is only six feet wide, and the garage is on the other side. Another option would be to use a mirror (or two) to bend the projection image back to the screen. But that would require front reflecting mirror(s) and the capability for finely tuned adjustments. That would add complication and expense I would rather avoid.

And if I mount the projector about 8 feet directly behind the screen, I would have to cut a hole between the climate controlled laundry room and the garage, how would I deal with the inevitable temperature and resulting draft situation? Cutting a hole in an interior wall wasn’t too scary, but cutting a hole to the garage added new complications.

What material would I use for a screen? I originally assumed that I could use something really cheap, like a bedsheet. But some online research suggested that this issue wasn’t so easy to solve (cheaply). While a bedsheet might work for a backyard movie night for the neighborhood kids, it wouldn’t work that great as a (quasi-professional looking) home theater. The research suggested I could spend big bucks on a fresnel/lenticular screen (like $5,000 and up). For that kind of price, I could just buy a large screen plasma flat panel and be done with it. I knew I could also buy rear projection screen material. My research suggested that you get what you pay for, and I would likely be needed to spend over $1,000 for something of reasonably high quality. I also ran across options like sand-blasted glass, acrylic sheet, mylar, shower curtain material, and even wax paper! After researching this issue, I figured it to be the biggest question mark.

What material would I use for a mask? This question isn’t really specific to a rear projection setup, but once I started down the rear projection path, I like the idea of a very flat appearing TV built into the wall, so I knew I wanted something very thin.

Where would I put the equipment (such that I could operate it with a remote from my sofa)? I liked the idea of “hiding” all the electronics back in the laundry room. I also knew I could control most everything with my MS Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE) remote, and it had a 12 foot cord on the infrared (IR) receiver. I could control everything, that is, except the power to the projector.

What about ambient or reflected light behind the screen? While I knew the laundry room had no windows, it did have white walls. Was that a problem? And if I cut a hole into the garage, the garage doors have windows (and, on occasion, are open). Was that light going to be a problem?

After any and all design trade-offs, would I have a good watchable picture, even in the daytime? Nighttime watching only wasn’t really an option. For this to work, it needed to be viewable during daylight hours on a sunny day. Considering my den is not as bright as the living room or sunroom, which helps, it does open up to the sunroom, and has three westward facing windows itself that get plenty of afternoon direct sunlight. There was risk that if the picture washed out in high ambient light, I would still need a traditional TV in the room for daytime TV viewing. That would have been significantly sub-optimal.

Regardless of these issues, I proceeded with my plan for a rear projection setup. I’m not sure that was a sane decision, perhaps more driven by some level of obsession. But I must credit the little lady, for having the faith and trust for me to start cutting holes in the walls of our new home without knowing exactly how I would solve all the challenges above.

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  Floorplan

In the diagram above, north would be to the right. At the top of the den, you will notice the three westward facing windows – that’s the back patio just outside them. The fireplace is on the southern exterior wall. The brown and beige blobs at the bottom in the garage represent our two cars. The blue circle in the laundry room is the water heater in its own closet. The den has a ceiling fan that is not shown, but centered on the space of the den.

Layout of the projector In this next diagram, I have removed all the furniture and such, and diagramed the layout of the projector and the screen. As you will notice, the screen is almost centered on the wall in the den, between the door to the garage and southern exterior wall. It is a little offset toward the center of the den, which helps make it more accessible, but isn’t too noticeable as being asymmetric.

For my rear projection project, I was fortunate to have the laundry room behind the wall that would have been my preferred wall for a television regardless. The room is relatively cool in the summer (compared to the sunroom, at least), and I expect it to be warm in the winter (at least with the gas logs lit). It isn’t that large, so I don’t think I could have gone much larger than 60 inch diagonal anyway. I can’t seat more than four comfortably, but that works for me, as I have rarely needed to in the past few years.

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  Layout, Design, and Construction

Since my primary purpose for this RPTV was essentially to replace the television, and since I wasn’t going to be using a HDTV setup, I elected to go with a standard TV 4:3 aspect ratio.

As I mentioned earlier, my original front projection system had a 60” diagonal, and that was all I was looking to support in my rear projection setup. To get a 60” diagonal, I knew that the picture would need to be 4’x 5’ (36”x 48”). I assumed I would need a frame to hold whatever screen material I selected, and I decided to make the frame out of 1”x 2” poplar. To make sure the frame would be strong and square, I would use metal corner brackets with mitered corners. I figured I could use an inch of additional screen space between the picture and the frame, to help provide some room for the corner brackets, and to give me a little wriggle room. Therefore, I constructed the frame to have outer dimensions six inches wider than the picture (42”x 54”). That is an additional inch of screen material, plus two inches for the wood frame, all the way around.

Now I knew the “hole in the wall” between the laundry room and the den would need to be at least this large (technically, it could have been a bit smaller, but I wanted the screen surface to appear flush with the den wall). With the exterior frame dimensions, I could determine the placement of the hole above the washer and dryer. I would have like to have mounted the screen lower than it is, but the plumbing spigots for the washer limited how far down I was able to go. Even without cutting into the wallboard, I could see my next problem; a standard 110 volt outlet in the laundry room for the washer was just above the plumbing spigots. I could either go higher, or move the outlet. I ended up moving the outlet. There was no other visible problem.

So I began cutting small holes in the drywall from the laundry room, and looking in the wall between the studs. I did find more electrical wires. I should have known, as there was an electrical outlet in the den directly below where I wanted the screen. The den electrical outlet was wired on a different circuit than the washer, so I actually had three romex wires in my way (one to the washer outlet, which was a dedicated circuit, the other two were part of the den’s electrical outlet circuit).

Projector in the garage

The studs on the wall were a standard 16 inch center. Since I had to go 54” wide, I knew I would need to cut through three studs. At the far end of the side toward the hallway to the garage, I ran into another wire – a phone cable. The phone outlet was on the wall in the den, but since I wasn’t using that phone outlet, no problem, I could easily rewire it and stash it in the wall above the screen. As I suspected, though, I did find a 3 inch PVC pipe, which apparently is the vent pipe for the washer drain. Luckily, it was just outside my screen dimension, though just inside the fourth stud toward the southern exterior wall. Being outside my screen placement was great, but it would concern me in terms of how I would build the interior window with proper support, particularly if the wall were load bearing (click on the diagram for a larger image).

Through some investigation, I was able to determine that the wall was not load bearing. At that point, I decided I could proceed, even if the “window” wasn’t going to be supported as strongly as I would have preferred.

But I also determined that the wall between the laundry room and the garage was load bearing, and I really didn’t want to cut studs in a load bearing wall. So I double checked my dimensions to determine how large the hole in the garage wall would need to be, and whether there was a stud in the space I needed. Turns out, the hole needed to be a bit less than 9” by 12”, and I was lucky that directly centered behind my screen, the 16” centered studs were not in the way. That was just luck. If there were a stud in the way, I would have had to shift the screen toward the hallway to the garage (due to the PVC pipe in the other direction), and if I had to move that way, I would have had to cut through a fourth stud in the wall between the den and the laundry room. But I was OK with luck.

Now that I was confident on the screen position, I used a dry wall saw to cut the drywall in the laundry room on the wall to the den. Once I had my 42” x 54” hole cut, I was able to move the washer outlet (see this picture for its new location on the other side of the PVC pipe). I was able to stash the phone cable in the wall above the screen. And I un-wired the electrical outlet in the den, pulled the romex up, tied the wires back together (to complete the circuit), and rolled the wires up between the studs in the wall above the screen. (Note: I know this wouldn’t meet code, but to do so, I could have cut a hole above the screen in the laundry room, installed a new electrical box, and patched the electrical cables in that box, and all would be well. I elected not to do that, but it wouldn’t take much to go back and “fix” it).

Now I was ready to move on and cut the same 42” x 54” hole in the drywall on the den side of the wall. Other than dust, no problem. Next I needed to cut the studs out. I only had hand tools and a circular saw, so I elected to borrow a reciprocating saw from a friend. Once I had that saw, zip, zip, zip, zip, zip, zip, and the three studs were gone. It was now easy to have a conversation with anyone in the den while doing laundry!

Next came the hole in the wall between the garage and the laundry room. That was just two drywall cuts, but I did have to deal with the fiberglass insulation. At this point, I used a piece of scrap wood to make a temporary hinged door so I could close the hole when I wasn’t using the projector.

Next I hung the projector. The lens needed to be about a foot away from the wall, which meant the rest of the projector would extend about two feet from the wall. I spent some time with the manual for the projector to determine what height it needed to be in order to properly hit my screen. I first used some of that standard white wire shelving stuff from Lowe’s, but it only extends 16”. So I bought some steel strapping and built an extension to the shelf, and used drop ceiling hanging wire and supports to provide extra stability. This part of the assembly doesn’t look very good, but hey, it’s in the garage, it’s cheap, and it works fine.

At this point, I was ready to test the viability of the system, except that I didn’t have a screen. Based on my research, I knew a basic opaque shower curtain would work, at least temporarily. So I bought a five-dollar shower curtain and stretched and stapled it to my poplar wood frame. I temporarily mounted the frame in my “window”, wired up the projector, and flicked the switch.

After a few basic adjustments (like zoom, focus, and placement), WOW! A pretty damn good picture. I wasn’t expecting much from a shower curtain, but I was quite impressed. It did hot spot a bit, but not as much as I would have expected. It wasn’t something I could live with permanently, but I was definitely encouraged that this whole thing could pan out.

At this point, I had a basic, working, rear projection home theater. It was rough, didn’t look that great, but I took a break and sat down to watch some TV.

All the work above took a few weekends. Over the next couple of weekends, I worked on refining a number of elements, before I got to work on the permanent screen.

First, I wanted to clean up the looks of the hole to garage from the laundry. I bought a 4”x 4” sheet of ¼” poplar. I trimmed it down a bit, and cut a 8 ½” x 11 ¼” hole in the middle, and then used Liquid Nails to attach it to the wall in the laundry room (the wall to the garage). Since the cut drywall leaves a very rough edge, this thin board helped provide a clean line for the hole, plus it provided a better surface for mounting a hinged cabinet-like door, so I could seal off the hole when the projector was not in use, and didn’t have to go into the garage to do so. For the cabinet door, I bought a 12” x 12” piece of ½” solid oak. Added some hinges and a knob, and mounted it over the hole. I also mounted a cabinet catch, and some window weather stripping to make sure I had a good seal.

I also built a temporary “black out box” for the space between the projector lens and the garage wall. The garage doors have windows on them, so I was concerned about light from the garage getting into the screen and diminishing the picture. The black out box is shaped like a rectangular megaphone, and I made the temporary one out of corrugated cardboard. Once cut properly, I put bends in the cardboard where necessary, and taped the two edges together to form the box. I spray painted the inside of the box with flat back paint, and attached the box to the garage wall with a combination of packing tape and pushpins. As I said, this is tempoary, although I haven’t decided on a final design. Frankly, I’m not convinced that this is even critical.

Next I worked on some of the wiring for the home theater. For my front left speaker, I was able to use the hole that was there for the phone cable that I had removed. Simple enough. Temporarily, during this transition, I cut a new hole, under the water heater (which is mounted in it’s closet on a sub-floor one foot off the slab foor) for the front right speaker. Temporarily, I had the surround speakers and the cable TV coax running through this hole. Then, to run the surround speaker wire, I removed the trim running along the carpet on both sides of the fireplace, as well as along the exterior wall below the windows. Since my receiver has a “B” speaker set, and since I had some indoor/outdoor speakers that were not currently in use, I went ahead and pulled two more speaker wires to pull outside to the patio. I was able to run all four of these wires under the trim, around the fireplace hearth, and under the trim again to the back of the room. Using fish tape, clothes hangers, and patience, I was able to fish the speaker wire up through the walls for both the surround speakers, and my outside patio speakers.

I had to move the cable TV coax cable, from where it previously entered the house in the den, and moved it to enter the house under the water heater. I also had to cut another small hole between the laundry room and the garage to tap into a power outlet for my UPS system that supports both my projector and my HTPC.

I cut another hole, directly above the screen, between the laundry room and the den, built a small shelf in the laundry room, and mounted my center channel speaker there. To cover the hole in the den, I built a small frame with ¼” round-over molding, and stretched black material (from an extra, logo-promotional black golf shirt I had lying around from a now defunct dotcom startup) over it.

While using my temporary screen, I noticed that the projector remote would still work, right through the shower curtain! Cool. That led me to believe that my MCE remote control just might work through my permanent screen, and then I wouldn’t have to cut another hole just for the IR receiver.

The only thing left (for now) was the permanent screen and the mask, and I’ll describe that in the next section.

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  Equipment & Materials

    Projector

In the background section, I described how I came about deciding to buy a projector. I should note that already owning the projector was likely the impetus to build a rear projection system – I doubt I would have even considered it otherwise.

When I came across the Projector Central website, this article was one of the first that I read. It got me interested in DLP technology, and I researched that some more. I became comfortable that, for the money that I was willing to spend (about $1,000, no more than $1,500), it was the best solution for me to have a home theater setup.

Based on what was in the market at the time, I decided to go with the Infocus X1. The X1 is targeted toward the business market. Infocus also made the Screenplay 4800, which was technically identical, but charged more since it was marketed to the home theater enthusiasts. And the price was right, just under $1,000 in mid-2003.

The Infocus X1 is a DLP projector, native SVGA (800x600). It is 1,000 ANSI lumens, with a 2,000:1 contrast ratio. To understand more about why I selected this model, read the review I read at the time, and remember that I was only going to have to pay $1,000.

This projector was “low end” “entry level” for home theater back in 2003. It continues to serve my needs quite well today. However, today, you can buy a comparable model for half as much, or a higher quality model for the same $1,000.

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    Screen

I believe the screen is the crux of the rear projection system. The screen can make or break it, regardless of the quality of the rest of the system. As I mentioned before, I did a lot of online research, and still never got comfortable that I had found the right answer.

I ruled out a fresnel/lenticular screen pretty quickly, simply due to cost. If I were looking to spend that kind of money, I would have just looked at flat panel plasmas. I became convinced that a really cheap solution wouldn’t work either, in fact, I became convinced that my temporary shower curtain was as good as it gets below $100. If I were willing to spend around $1,000 or more, I felt I could have found a decent solution from the reputable projection screen companies, either a material screen or a rigid one.

As I was in do-it-yourself mode, I narrowed my choices to either a rear projection fabric (from one of the reputable screen companies), or an acrylic sheet product, which just hit the market earlier this year. I was unable to find examples of either of these products in use near me, so I was going to have to purchase blind, so to speak.

The major advantage I saw in a fabric, is that I might be able to mount my center channel speaker directly behind the screen, and avoid yet another hole in the wall. Of course, the corresponding disadvantage is that the laundry room, about once a week (and normally during prime sports hours), gets a little noisy in and of itself. I also had some concerns with its longevity and maintenance (if it needed cleaning, how would I do that?).

The major advantage I saw in acrylic sheet was that it would block the sound from the laundry room (but, of course, I would have to cut a hole for the center channel speaker). I was more comfortable that acrylic sheet would be more durable and easy to clean.

I decided to go with acrylic sheet.

I found two products, that I concluded are likely identical, or practically so, from two different manufacturers. The first was Plexiglass Vision, from Arkema Industries. The second was Acrylite RP, from Cyro Industries. I had not read any online reviews from anyone that had used either of these products, and I knew they had just recently hit the market. During a google search, I ran across this press release regarding the Plexiglass Vision product. While researching acrylic sheet for rear projection, I found the corresponding Cyro product.

I wasn’t sure where to get this stuff, and I knew that neither Home Depot nor Lowe’s carried it. I first called a few local plastic distribution companies here in Atlanta. They all carried acrylic sheet, but none of them carried this specialized stuff. And there weren’t able/willing to special order a single sheet for me (they would have been happy to help if I needed a pallet load). I called the marketing rep for Plexiglass Vision (listed at the bottom of the press release), and asked him if he knew of any distributor in the southeast that had this stuff in stock. He took my name, and told me he would get back to me. In the meantime, I followed the distributors link off the Cyro website, and ended up finding an Acrylite dealer in a nearby town. Turns out, they didn’t have any in stock at that location, but did have a sheet in the Queens, NY warehouse. I ordered on the spot.

At this point I should mention that I did hear back from the Plexiglass rep within another day. He found some Plexiglass Vision at a distributor in Florida. When I talked with them, I determined I could have ordered the size I needed for about $200 (plus freight shipping and taxes). Oh well.

Specifically, I got the 3mm dark grey Acrylite RP. Since my room often has a lot of ambient light, I went with dark grey to help with contrast in high light conditions. Since I was going to mount it to a frame, I figured the thinnest would work for me.

The stuff comes in 49” x 97” sheets. I had the option of buying a whole sheet, or waiting a few weeks of them to cut it to size, and I could just buy what I needed. At this point, I was anxious and impatient, and went ahead and ordered a whole sheet. The whole sheet cost me almost $300. Freight shipping and tax added another $100.

It took less than a week before a large truck stopped in front of my house. Off rolled a 4’ x 8’ pallet with my one sheet of 3mm dark greyAcrylite RP. It was protected between three sheets of corrugated cardboard top and bottom, and strapped to the pallet. The delivery driver wasn’t willing to take the 4’ x 8’ pallet with him, since it is non-standard. The Acrylite RP is also protected with a paper coating on both sides, and I had already read that it should be left on while working with the material. My Internet research suggested that acrylic sheet is really easy to work with, and I found that to be true.

To cut the Acrylite RP, I used a circular saw with a blade that was made from fine cuts on paneling. With the blade depth adjusted to just barely pass through the material, I cut it directly on the pallet and cardboard, which provided an excellent work surface.

Once cut to size, I mounted it to my frame. I drilled holes around the perimeter, through the Acrylite RP and into the frame, every six inches. I used small screws to secure the acrylic to the wood frame. I did over tighten one screw at a corner, and the acrylic sheet cracked. It was just the corner that cracked, though, and wasn’t going to be visible or problematic.

With the help of a friend, I was able to mount the Acrylite RP and frame in the hole in the wall and secure it with L brackets. Once it was secure, I pulled the paper coating off of each side, and immediately became concerned. This dark grey looked almost black. And from one side, it appeared to have small cloud-like patterns discernible. Oh well, let’s fire up the projector and give it a try.

Wow. I mean, WOW! It is really quite impressive. My little 1,000 ANSI lumen projector really lights up that dark grey stuff. I get a great picture, with white whites and black blacks. I cannot discern any hotspotting. From sitting straight in front of the screen, it is incredibly bright. As you move to the side, it does lose brightness, and I would guess that about half of the brightness is lost at about 60 degrees (where flush is 90 degrees, and perpendicular is 0 degrees). I conclude that this stuff may not be the best for wide angle viewing, but that isn’t a concern for me.

When viewing mid day, on a sunny day, with the blinds in the den closed, the picture does wash out a bit. But it is still very watchable. I keep the brightness on the projector set at its default, 50%, and don’t have any problems. I have thrown up some test patterns, and adjusted the contrast to around 60%, and I can make out 3% differences in contrast (when the room is dark). The picture doesn’t have significant wash-out or glare when the four sixty watt light bulbs from the ceiling fan light kit are turned on. Frankly, I did not expect this stuff to work this well, but I am sure happy it does. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

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    Mask

At this point, I have a great picture on a nice screen. But the picture only comes to about 3 inches from the edge of the screen, and then you see a ragged drywall cut. The picture looks fine, but the system doesn’t. I need a mask. Bad.

Again, online research tends to suggest some type of frame, with black velvet stretched across it. However, I had a desire for a very low profile mask. My screen is essentially flush with the dry wall, and I wanted a very professional look from in the den. My initial design called for a six inch black mask all around the picture, which would result in outer dimensions of 4 feet by 5 feet. So one option would be to build a wood frame with 1” x 6” lumber, then stretch black velvet over the frame. I didn’t care much for that option. First, I didn’t like having the 1” plus depth from the wall. I couldn’t think of another material that is considerable thinner, sufficiently rigid, and still could be used to attach velvet. I couldn’t find velvet wide enough to do it without seams, and I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to hide the seams to my satisfaction.

Discussing this dilemma with another friend, who happens to be in the sign business, led him to recommend Sintra to me. Sintra is another plastic product, but made of PVC instead of acrylic. It also comes in a 3mm thickness, in 4’x 8’ sheets, and in a flat black color.

I ended up purchasing the Sintra from the same plastics supply company where I got the Acrylite RP. In this case, however, they had Sintra in stock at their local warehouse, so I picked it up instead of having it shipped. When I got there, they actually didn’t have any 4’x 8’ sheets in stock, so they sold me a 4’x 10’ sheet for the same price - $50. The 4’x 10’ sheet had exactly enough material for two masks, so I felt comfortable that even if I screwed up on my first effort to cut a hole in it, I would have another chance.

Turns out, the Sintra was really easy to work with. I was able to cut the material with a standard razor knife, taking about six passes to cleanly cut through the 3mm material. Once cut, I was able to attach the mask to the drywall in the den with Liquid Nails.

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    Home Theater PC

My Home Theater Personal Computer (HTPC) is a Dell Dimension 4700, 2.8 GHz Pentium 4 processor, running Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE) 2005, Service Pack 2, with 512 MB of RAM. The video card is an ATI Radeon X300SE, the TV capture card is an ATI eHome Wonder, and the audio card is a Creative Soundblaster Audigy 2 ZS. The PC has an 80 GB SATA drive for the operating system and program files. It has a 200 GB SATA drive which serves exclusively for recording TV from MCE. It has another 200GB EIDE/ATA drive which holds my personal video collection and other data. It also has a NEC DVD-RW drive as well.

For Media Center, I have loaded the bronze version of the NVIDIA PureVideo decoder. For DIVX and XVID, I loaded ffdshow. The PC has relatively little other relevent software loaded on it – it’s sole purpose in life is to an HTPC, and I leverage MCE for that function. About the only other thing the PC does is play computer games on the big screen.

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    Video

At a physical level, I only have two sources for video. One, is “sneaker net”, and that is where I carry a DVD into the house (which is rare these days). The only other physical path is through my cable service – with two logical sources - digital cable TV and broadband Internet. Most of my video is recorded off the cable channels by MCE, but some of my video is downloaded from the Internet, and usually with Bittorrent technology.

I am a fan of the wide screen 16:9 aspect ratio, but little of my native content actually comes in that format. I have a pet peeve for standard aspect ratio video that gets stretched on 16:9 screens – making everyone look overweight. Alot of the widescreen material I have is actually in 4:3 with letterboxing. And that’s OK. When I do play material that is native widescreen (some DVDs and some downloaded content), I can change the projector to 16:9 mode and create my own letterbox effect.

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    Audio

If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t have bothered with the Creative Soundblaster Audigy 2 ZX soundcard, because I’m really not asking it to do anything. All audio from the PC gets sent out of the PC via SPDIF. This provides for a digital signal from the PC into my Onkyo AV Receiver TX-SR303, and the receiver does all the necessary digital audio processing, including Dolby Digital and DTS. The receiver feeds a 5.1 speaker setup. The front left and right speakers are Bose 301s on stands. The center channel speaker is a Bose VCS-10. The left and right surround speakers are KLH AV 1001B bookshelf speakers. My subwoofer is a Yamaha YST-SW215. A pair of Advent Marbl 5 ¼” two way indoor/outdoor speakers hang on my back patio and are fed from the receiver’s “B” speaker outputs. All speakers are fed with 12 gauge speaker wire.

I have no other components plugged into my receiver.

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    Remote Control

To control the components of my system, I’m down to two remotes. While both my cable box and receiver have remotes, I have no need for them. The only two remotes I need are my MCE remote and the projector remote. The only real need I have for the projector remote is to power the projector on and off (without having to go in the garage and through the power switch). The MCE remote does everything else. It changes the channels. It controls the volume. I can even enter my MS Windows XP logon password with the MCE remote.

But perhaps the coolest thing I didn’t expect is that the infrared remotes work just fine with the infrared receivers behind the screen! That is to say, with no visible infrared receiver, I can just point my remotes (either one) at the screen, and they work.

Of course, the projector’s infrared receiver is mounted on the projector, right next to the lens. This is handy since my black out box is just large enough to accommodate the infrared receiver and the lens. The MCE infrared receiver is on a 12 foot USB cable, so I actually ran it up in the same space as the center channel speaker. So, actually, the MCE remote signal goes through the shirt fabric covering the center channel speaker hole, and not the screen. But previously I had mounted the infrared receiver on the rear laundry room wall, and it worked quite well through the screen as well.

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    Cabling

I figured I would detail the cabling, just in case someone is interested.

Starting from the outside in, the cable service comes off the utility pole in the front yard via an RG6 coaxial cable. Before it comes inside, it is split five times, with a separate run going to each cable outlet in the house. I re-routed one of those outlets from the den to the laundry room. Once in the laundry room, the cable is split again, with one coaxial connection going to the Motorola cable box, and the other connection going to the cable modem.

Following the cable modem, a CAT5 ethernet cable connects the cable modem toaan 802.11b/g wireless access point/router, with a 5 port 100Mbps ethernet switch. Another CAT5 ethernet cable connects my HTPC with this switch. As many as five other computers in the house connect to the WIFI access point.

Now following the cable box, coming out of the cable box and into the HTPC video capture card is a standard RG6 coaxial cable, carrying both video and audio. The HTPC has standard mouse and keyboard cables connected, as well the ethernet cable mentioned previously. It also has a USB connection for the MCE infrared receiver (which includes a mini-RCA jack for an infrared emitter that is taped to front of the cable box, allowing the PC to control the cable box). It also has a USB cable that runs to my APC Back-UPS LS 700 Uninterrupible Power Supply (due to the limited capacity, only the projector and the PC are on the battery backup), which will gracefully shutdown the PC in the event of a power failure. I also have two USB RF recevivers for two wireless Logitech RumblePad 2 gamepads.

From the sound card in the PC, I run a digital audio coaxial cable to the receiver to carry all of the audio for the system. The PC video card outputs to the projector on a 12 foot VGA cable.

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Investment Summary

The entire system - audio, video, HTPC, projector, and screen - is well under $5,000. Since I bought many of the components over years, I’m sure the current value is under $3,000. In other words, if you went and purchased comparable slightly used equipment off of eBay, I suspect you could get the same setup for under $3,000. I’m quite comfortable with my “poor mans RPTV”. Below is a summary of the estimates of my original investments, as well as an estimate of each components current value.

Component  ModelPurchase Price  Current Value
ProjectorInfocus X1$1,000$500
HTPCDell Dim 4700$1,700$1,200
ReceiverOnkyo$300$200
SpeakersBose/KLH/Advent  $900$450
SubwooferYamaha$300$150
ScreenAcrylite RP$300$300
MaskSintra$50$50
LaborMy own???Priceless
Total$4,550$2,850

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