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Turn Your Phone Into Interactive Museum with Google Arts & Culture App

Yeah!! Turning your phone into a museum seems like impossible just as a lot of tech breakthroughs that were impossible before. Without further ado, let’s check out the app that makes you convert your cell phone into an ultimate source of entertainment:

Google Arts & Culture App

Ranked at 86 in the entertainment category, Google Arts & Culture App has been developed by Google LLC. The app comes with different themes to make your experience richer with categories like culture, art, history, & whatnot. And that too without leaving your house. Isn’t this amazing!!

Since we all are witnesses of the deadly virus “COVID-19” & what impact it has on the world, we have been instructed to not leave home. Let’s invest that time rather spending it & experience the world in our cellphones.

Google Arts & Culture app has larger-than-life collaboration with more than 1200 entities including museums, galleries, & institutions across 70 countries. This collaboration will be helpful to you while trying to exhibit these places online.

Imagine going to a museum or gallery (physically) and exploring every single teeny tiny info that excites you. You go there & check out the mind-blowing art so closely, go through different snaps, video content, & manuscripts to take a glance at history. All those things you can do right there sitting on the comfortable couch and have an amazingly breathtaking experience.

An app gives us better experience when we can customize the app according to us and create our own filters. Google Arts & Culture app lets you do the same where you can find your favorites, create your own albums, & share with your friends without any hassle. 

Google Arts & Culture App Features

Since the app has collaborated with more than 1200 art galleries & museums, the features are also larger than life. Few of the features really bring the best out of your inner art lover and make you learn something new:

Virtual Reality, virtual tours, exhibits, art recognizer, daily digest, personal collection, & whatnot.

All these features including others make the app one-of-a-kind and let you wander around the museum without any FEES. Yeah!!

You can access the Google Arts & Culture App absolutely free of cost & complete your museum visits without leaving home, being your own guide.

The interactive museum app is compatible with all the considerable mobileOS platforms such as Google Play Store (AndroidOS) & App Store (iOS).

Discover Different Features With Camera Functionality

Since the app is all about giving you virtual tours of museums and making the history accessible to you in video content, the camera plays a big role here. 

Let’s quickly understand what these above functions can transform your total experience using Camera:

1. Art Projector

Art Projector is a function that you need to choose once you hit the camera icon on the app. The function is mainly based on augmented reality that will help you set up your virtual gallery at your place.

Just tap on the option and place the artworks on different places to check how do they look there?

Please know that all the cell phones that do not have augmented reality support, the Art projector option won’t work.

2. Pocket Gallery 

Pocket Gallery is also an option that works on augmented reality, however, the functioning is totally different.

This feature lets you checkout the whole collection of an artist from start to finish. And the USP is that, you will be exploring the details like never before, all thanks to AR.

3. Art Selfie

Also Read: How To Recover Deleted Photos From iPhone

4. Art Transfer

A very interesting feature, Art Transfer lets you edit your pics in a way that the essence doesn’t go anywhere but you get a whole new look to your pic.

Later on, you can share the edited pics among your friends and let them know to explore the world.

5. Color Palette

It’s a simple yet cool feature that finds the art for you depending on the colors in your chosen pics. It will open its ocean-of-pics & provide you pictures that relate to the colors and objects in the picture. It’s amazing.

Conclusion

Overall, I loved the app and have started using Art Selfie, Art Transfer, & Color Palette on my cell phone. Soon, I’ll start using Art Projector & check what object looks better at the places I need them.

Don’t wait, just go ahead, download the Google Arts & Culture app & explore your museum experiences without getting out.

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Ankit Agarwal

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Turn Your Kitchen Into A Kids’ Science Lab

Many of these experiments also have the potential to be very messy – but where’s the fun in tidy experiments? 

Grow and eat sugar crystal sticks

Not only can you grow these sugar crystals but you can eat them afterwards. That’s the ideal experiment as far as I’m concerned. You can also grow sugar crystals on a string but chewing on string is considerably less appetising, so invest in a skewer or two, if possible.

To make one sugar crystal stick, you’ll need:

A wooden skewer

A glass or jar

A clothes peg

One cup of water

Three cups of sugar

Food colouring

Method:

Boil up your cup of water and add three cups of sugar.

Stir the mixture until the sugar has dissolved. This will give you sugar syrup.

If you want to make sugar sticks in different colours, add a couple of drops of food colouring to the mixture.

Let the mixture cool for a while, so you don’t crack your glass when you pour it in.

Okay, now you can pour it in.

Take your wooden skewer, dip it into the mixture and then roll it in a little bit of granulated sugar. This will encourage sugar crystals to form on its surface.

Clip the clothes peg onto the skewer, and then lower the skewer into the glass, so that the peg lies flat across the top of the glass and the skewer is suspended, pointing downwards, and about halfway into your sugar syrup. Make sure that the skewer does not touch the side of the glass.

Put the glass somewhere it won’t be disturbed and leave it for a few days to allow the sugar crystals to build.

Check back so your children can see the crystals forming.

When the sugar stick is ready, eat it and tell your children that the experiment didn’t work and that you need to try it again. 

Just kidding.

Make a rainbow in a bottle

There are two ways to try this experiment, depending on what you have in your kitchen. You can either use liquids of various densities, or you can use sugar solutions of different strengths.

The taller and thinner the jar or bottle you use, the better the final result.

For the first version of the experiment, you’ll need:

A tall, thin jar or bottle (a small olive oil or balsamic vinegar bottle is ideal)

100ml of honey

100ml of washing-up liquid

100ml of water

100ml of olive oil

100ml of rubbing alcohol

Food colouring to create five different colours

Method:

 Use your food colouring to give each of the liquids a different colour.

The pouring requires a steady hand.

Very carefully, pour the coloured honey into your jar and let it settle.

Next, add the washing up liquid.

Then the water.

Careful now.

Add the olive oil.

Finally, add the rubbing alcohol and you have created a rainbow in a jar.

If you don’t have all of the above ingredients, you can use sugar and water to create liquids of varying densities.

Get five cups and pour 100ml of hot water into each one.

Add two sugar cubes to the first cup, three to the second, four to the third and so on.

Add food colouring to each cup to make one pink, one blue, one green etc.

Pour the water with the most sugar dissolved in it into the jar first.

Add the next cup (with the second highest volume of sugar) with a very steady hand.

Continue with the next cup.

Behold the rainbow.

Stay in and see the water fireworks

You’ll need:

A jar

Oil

Warm water

Food colouring in different colours

Method:

Fill your jar almost to the top with water.

Pour three tablespoons of oil into a bowl.

Drop small spots of food colouring in various shades into the oil.

Mix it with a fork.

Pour the oil mixture into the jar of water.

Watch the fireworks appear.

Don’t leave the jar full of food colouring, oil and water unattended unless you are interested in a spontaneous, Jackson Pollock-style home makeover.

Make a bouncy egg

You’ll need:

An egg

A drinking glass or jar

White vinegar

Method:

Place your egg in the jar and cover it with vinegar. Put it somewhere it won’t be disturbed.

Check on the egg the following morning and top up the vinegar if necessary. You’ll see bubbles forming around it as the shell is dissolving in the acid. You may also see that bits of shell have floated to the top of the vinegar.

Keep the egg covered in vinegar and check it after two days.

When it’s ready, it’ll feel rubbery.

Take it out of the vinegar and carefully wash away any remaining shell.

You now have a bouncy egg.

A word of caution on this one: there is a raw egg underneath the membrane and if you bounce it too hard, it’ll pop and you’ll end up with raw egg everywhere.

It’s basically human nature to keep bouncing the egg until it does pop, so my feeling is that if you make the bouncy egg, you’re going find yourself cleaning up raw egg at some stage.

Write a letter in invisible ink

You’ll need:

Lemon juice

A paint brush or cotton bud

Paper

An iron, candle or hob

Method:

Get your child to write a secret message on the paper with a cotton bud or brush dipped in lemon juice. (It doesn’t have to be a secret but I think that getting your kid to write a shopping list is a bit lame.)

Let the paper dry.

Choose your heating method: you can use an iron, the hob or a candle and your message will magically appear. If your child has not chosen to write something delightfully observant about your personal appearance, I’ll be surprised.

Now it’s your turn to write a message back. Remember that you’re the adult.

For extra credit, you can use the secret letter trick towards the end of an Easter Egg or treasure hunt. Heat up the paper to reveal the final location of the treasure.   

Blow up a balloon with baking soda

You’ll need:

A balloon

A bottle

A funnel

White vinegar

Baking soda

Method:

First, stretch the balloon so it’s easier to blow up.

Fix the funnel into the end of the balloon and spoon several teaspoons of baking soda through the funnel into the balloon.

Fill the bottle halfway with vinegar.

Keeping the end of the balloon turned over so that the baking soda is enveloped, fit the lip of the balloon over the top of the bottle.

Lift the balloon to empty the baking soda into the vinegar.

Swirl the bottle around a bit to get it fizzing.

You may have to experiment a bit with quantities depending on the size of the bottle you’re using. Just to clear up a common online misconception that could leave some children (and apparently some adults) very disappointed – this will only inflate a balloon, not make it magically float into the air as though filled with helium.

With thanks to super-scientists Angela and Maxwell Burton for their ideas and practical know-how.

How To Turn Google Bigquery Into A Powerful Marketing Data Warehouse

This post was sponsored by Supermetrics. The opinions expressed in this article are the sponsor’s own.

The Martech 5000 supergraphic highlights the big challenge facing marketers. As more products, tools, and platforms arise, so too does the amount of data marketers need to gather, monitor, and analyze.

To further compound this challenge, Scott Brinker, the man behind marketing’s most famous infographic, recently said that, “In some ways, forget about martech 5,000. Welcome to martech 50,000.”

So, what’s the next option marketers have when it comes to gathering big data in a large repository?

The answer is a data warehouse.

What Is BigQuery & Why Should I Care?

Google BigQuery is a fast, scalable, and fully managed data warehouse that enables large-scale analytics.

There are multiple reasons why marketers should store their data in Google BigQuery.

Limitless Data

But in BigQuery, you can store an unlimited amount of data, which means you can transfer literally all your marketing data from every platform into one centralized place.

Access All Your Historical Data

Many native platforms limit the amount of historical data you can access. For example, Google Search Console offers six months of historical data within its native interface.

And while applications built on top of its API increases that figure to 16 months, you still don’t have a full overview of your past performance.

But with BigQuery you can use it to store all your past data, giving a complete overview of your historical performance.

Data From Different Platforms

As we saw in Brinker’s supergraphic, marketers have a lot of data on a lot of platforms.

Gathering all that together in one centralized repository is the only way to create a single source of truth for your marketing performance.

Analyze on a Granular Level

Within each marketing platform, you have a number of metrics and dimensions you can dig into.

However, when exporting your data into BigQuery you’ll often be able to have your data at a higher granularity than what is possible within these native interfaces.

For example, when transferring data from Google Analytics or Adobe Analytics into BigQuery, you be able to get granularity on an event or user level.

So say you run an ecommerce site, this lets you perform a deep path analysis to identify which are the most common page paths of your website visitors and how those paths differ between those who purchased and those who were just browsing.

This analysis would not be possible within native UIs as they don’t provide raw events data.

With BigQuery, it provides a whole new opportunity to really dig into your data and achieve levels of granularity not offered within native interfaces.

How Can I Easily Pull My Data Into BigQuery?

So how can you actually get your data in BigQuery?

Well, that’s exactly why we built Supermetrics for BigQuery.

Quite simply, it’s the first native BigQuery Data Transfer Service app that lets you move data from all your non-Google marketing platforms (including Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Bing, and more) into BigQuery.

In addition, you can also move data from Google platforms that haven’t been integrated with BigQuery, such as Google Search Console and Google My Business, whilst also getting Google Analytics without the needing to pay for GA 360.

At Supermetrics, our mission is pure and simple: to let marketers easily move their data from wherever it is to wherever they want.

All our products are made by marketers, for marketers, and that’s why we wanted to make it super simple to transfer your data into BigQuery.

We eliminated the need to know the technical details of how to move your data and understand the basics of SQL. Instead, you just select what data you’d like to move into BigQuery and Supermetrics takes care of the rest.

Being able to extract the depth of data from your marketing platforms is also a vital component of conducting sophisticated analyses.

That’s why we spent a lot of time and effort to ensure our connectors provide marketers with more metrics and dimensions than any other BigQuery application available.

Furthermore, the data is also pre-transformed by our predefined schemas. This basically means that once your data is in BigQuery, you don’t need to do anything to it and it will be presented in the format marketers need.

How Can I Visualize My Data That’s in BigQuery?

Once you have your data in BigQuery, then comes the fun part: exporting it to visualization and BI tools.

Products like Tableau, Looker, and PowerBI provide robust platforms to turn your data into charts so you can monitor, analyze, and report on your marketing performance.

And in order to create a full end-to-end solution for marketers, we also built a dedicated connector to Google Data Studio so you can take all your data through BigQuery and into Data Studio using Supermetrics.

There are several benefits to the Data Studio connector that comes baked into Supermetrics for BigQuery, as it:

Automatically merges data from multiple sources without needing to write SQL.

Sets data types for all your fields with friendly naming structures (For example, “Account name” instead of “account_name”).

Adds calculated metrics like CTR, eliminating the need to manually define formulas.

Automatically includes time fields like week, month and year, which you would normally need to configure.

BigQuery: Common Use Cases for Marketers

There are endless scenarios for which marketers can use BigQuery, but here are three common ones to help get you started.

Cross-Channel PPC Analysis

Gather data from your PPC campaigns that run across multiple channels to identify which platforms are performing best for each campaign.

With Supermetrics for BigQuery, you can now pull data from heavily used paid marketing platforms including Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Bing Ads into BigQuery so you’re able to do this.

This means you’ll have all of your data in a central location and can create all-inclusive visual reports of your blended data.

This, in turn, will ensure smarter allocation of your performance marketing budgets and improved ROI.

Web Analytics + CRM

It’s vital that digital marketers understand visitor behavior before and after conversion. Prospects often interact with several pages and content pieces across multiple visits before they do convert.

Pre-conversion, all this user data will be tied into a unique and anonymous cookie ID, which can be sent to Google BigQuery.

Once a prospect converts, they’d then have a CRM record ID, which in turn can be associated with their anonymous cookie ID by sending the cookie ID to the CRM upon conversion.

With Supermetrics for BigQuery, you can track both pre- and post-conversion on-site activity from Google Analytics and combine it with enriched data from your CRM to generate an in-depth understanding of your prospective customers.

Attribution Analysis

Modern buying behavior makes attribution challenging.

As we discussed in the previous use case, it’s difficult to attribute every conversion to just one specific channel or touchpoint.

So gathering all the touchpoints someone has with you, across different channels, via multiple sources, and both pre- and post-conversion lets you not only gain a better understanding of your marketing funnel, but also – and more importantly – your customer journey.

How Can I Get Started?

It’s easy to get started with Supermetrics for BigQuery.

Supermetrics for BigQuery is democratizing BigQuery for marketers. If you’d like to try it out you can start a free trial or book a demo with a member of the Supermetrics team.

Image Credits

Why We Turn Stars Into Constellations

“There’s not actually a dinosaur constellation, right?” I asked aloud to no one as I peered up at the stars sparkling in the dark. 

Moments earlier I’d driven through the town of Dinosaur, Colorado. Now, as darkness settled around my car, I thought I spotted a sauropod in the stars through my driver’s side window. I chuckled to myself, feeling silly for seeing dinosaurs where there certainly were none, and chalked it up to the power of suggestion.

But, it turns out, I wasn’t just being silly. I was participating in a human tradition that extends back millennia, says Daniel Brown, associate professor in astronomy and science communication at Nottingham Trent University in England. The night sky, he says, is “an ideal canvas” for viewers to interpret and find visualizations of something that is relevant to their lives. “This is how we normally would start referring to constellations.”

But constellations aren’t just a sketch of every individual’s fanciful ideas. The way that the stars are splashed across the sky invites humans to see certain patterns. In fact, despite viewing the sky from distinct angles, many cultures around the world have identified groupings of stars in remarkably similar ways. Those parallels, and differences, offer a reflection of the astronomical dynamics playing out over the night sky, as well as the values and mindsets of the people who look up at it. 

One constellation, two stories

Constellations have long served as maps for navigation, canvases for storytelling, calendars for seasonal changes, and charts by which to impart knowledge and meaning. 

“Up until recently in human history, we didn’t have structured, written languages. Language was communicated orally,” says Duane Hamacher, associate professor of cultural astronomy at the University of Melbourne in Australia. “But the human brain evolved to be able to memorize enormous quantities of information. One of the ways that is done is through associating a memory to place, called the method of loci—which, he explains, includes the stars.

[Related: What would happen if the Milky Way died?]

By passing on knowledge of the constellations, deep cultural memories persist. Today, researchers have noticed a pattern: Many of the brightest stars are grouped together in strikingly similar constellations across cultures that historically had no known contact with each other. Western stargazers might know some of those star groupings as the Big Dipper, Orion, the Pleiades, and the Southern Cross.

These particular star groupings draw the eye with their brightness and proximity to each other in the night sky, attracting stargazers from both hemispheres, according to a team of researchers from the University of Melbourne. The researchers used a mathematical model to systematically group stars by their prominence and proximity, and compare those groupings against constellations from 27 different cultures around the world. This process tested what is considered a principle of how human visual perception works: The Gestalt law of proximity, which states that objects that are close together are perceived as unified groups, regardless of how different those objects may be individually. In a paper published earlier this year in the journal Psychological Science, the University of Melbourne experts found that those perception principles likely explain why so many different cultures have grouped the same stars together into constellations.

Listening to the ways people around the world make sense of the patterns they see in the stars can illuminate aspects of their culture and what is relevant to them.

But the similarities don’t stop at which stars people visually group together. Humans have often mapped familiar images and stories over those pinpricks of light. And even those stories are often strikingly similar, despite being influenced more by cultural context than the characteristics of the stars themselves. 

For example, says Hamacher, who is an author on the Psychological Science paper, the male figure of Orion is often seen as a man or men pursuing a group of girls or women, whom the ancient Greeks called the Pleiades. A V-shaped grouping of stars, the Hyades, stands between them and Orion. There are subtle differences, he says, in cultural interpretations of this guardian constellation. The Greek version has the Hyades appearing as Taurus the bull preventing Orion from reaching the girls. Meanwhile, some Australian Aboriginal traditions tend to depict Orion as a womanizer who falls in love with the sisters—but their older sibling stands in his way. 

From legends to machines

The period of time when people created stories about shapes in the sky also matters. For example, Brown says, many of the Western culture’s constellations as seen from the Northern Hemisphere are more mystical creatures and tales, based on Greek mythology. Those constellations were described in an anthropology of constellation stories written in the third century BCE, so many were likely identified long before that. Thousands of years later, Western explorers into the Southern Hemisphere documented the patterns they saw in the stars on their travels to include more technical tools, particularly instruments for navigation, like a sextant or a compass. 

[Related: Dark energy camera gives a tasty view of a lobster-shaped nebula]

But what those Western explorers didn’t consider, Brown says, was those groups of stars that had been identified and named thousands of years earlier in the Southern Hemisphere night sky by the people who were already living there—with very different interpretations.

“This is why I always stress that the Western, Greek constellations are just one way in which these patterns can be interpreted,” Brown notes. Listening to the ways people around the world make sense of the patterns they see in the stars can illuminate aspects of their culture and what is relevant to them.

Hamacher and his colleagues are conducting experiments to see what kinds of constellations people make up on their own. In a planetarium, they present audiences with a simulated night sky with stars in fake positions. When modern viewers connect the dots to make shapes, he says, it reflects their culture and geography. “You’re not going to get a lot of Australians who are going to see a squirrel in the stars, and Americans are not going to see a koala,” Hamacher says. 

Constellations without stars

Stars aren’t the only thing visible in the night sky, Hamacher adds: There are also nebulae planets and the moon. And in some parts of the world, the night sky gets dark enough to see the dark voids where starlight is absent in the Milky Way.

In the Southern Hemisphere, those spaces are often traced into what are called dark constellations. Because the air is much less humid in Australia than many other parts of the world, the continent is a particularly good place to see some of the darkest night skies.

Some cultures also see similar patterns in dark constellations, too. For example, Hamacher says, Aboriginal cultures see an emu in the dark space of the Milky Way between the Southern Cross and Sagittarius. In South America, some people also see a large flightless bird called a rhea.

Many stellar patterns only appear during certain times of the year (others, that linger near the poles, are visible all year long). In Australia, the emu starts becoming visible in the evening during the same time of year when the birds are breeding, building their nests, and laying their eggs. Because people would typically go out and forage those eggs, Hamacher says, the seasonal appearance of the dark emu constellation also served as a sort of harvest calendar for people. 

[Related on PopSci+: This Colorado community fought to save its darkness]

Light pollution can be another factor in how different people view the stars. Today, the artificial bulbs that illuminate the night also interfere with starlight, washing out the Milky Way and all but the brightest stars for millions of residents in urban, suburban, and adjacent areas.

“But they don’t fade away entirely. I just need to look into my Stellarium app,” Brown says, referencing one app to help users identify constellations. “We still have access and knowledge about what’s in the sky. We engage with the sky now in a completely different manner, in this kind of virtual way.”

Constellation apps also offer viewers access to night sky knowledge from across the globe. Users can see the various cultural interpretations of the patterns in the stars splayed across their screens as they peer at the night sky. 

“You can learn about so many other cultures because you can look into the sky. You’re straightaway in touch with something that somebody in the depths of the Amazon might see, and that somebody might have seen when they were building the pyramids,” Brown says. “That’s our shared heritage.”

How To Turn Your Ipad Into The Best Digital Photo Frame

You can easily spend between $100 and $200 on a Wi-Fi digital photo frame, but these often have clunky interfaces for syncing photos and the displays can be quite poor. A better solution may be repurposing an old iPad or putting your current iPad in photo frame mode for special occasions.

Apple used to include a handy photo slideshow button on the iPad lock screen years ago, but this feature was abandoned with iOS 7 and later. While I’d love to see this feature return in the future, it’s possible to create a Wi-Fi digital photo frame mode for your iPad using built-in features in iOS today.

My setup uses the 2024 9.7-inch iPad Pro running the latest version of iOS 11, but this guide should work with any modern iPad running a recent version of iOS. Follow these steps and you can update your wireless digital photo frame easily from your iPhone or Mac too. You can also ensure no one can take your iPad out of photo frame mode without your permission. Here’s how:

Enable iCloud Photo Sharing (Settings → Photos →  iCloud Photo Sharing) which is a free feature that lets you create albums that sync with iCloud between devices and can be shared with other iCloud users.

Create a new Shared Album (Photos → Shared → + in top left corner) and give it a name like Photo Frame. You can optionally invite other iCloud users if you want others to add their photos to the photo frame slideshow, then tap Create and your new album is ready for adding photos.

Add photos to your new shared album (Photos → Shared → Photo Frame → +) from your iPhone, iPad, or Mac using the same iCloud account with iCloud Photo Sharing enabled from the Photos app. You can even add multiple photos at the same time (Photos → Select in top right corner → Tap photos you want → Tap Share button in bottom right corner → Tap iCloud Photo Sharing from colored icon picker →  select Photo Frame from Shared Album picker → Tap Post).

Disable Auto-Lock if you want to prevent your iPad display from turning off automatically (Settings → Display & Brightness →  Auto-Lock → Never); you can still turn off the display with the sleep wake button when Guided Access is not active.

Optionally turn off volume, enable Silent Mode, and turn on Do Not Disturb from Control Center if you want to avoid any interruptions. You can add videos to your shared album so volume control will affect audio playback (but not Siri volume which is separate).

Lastly, you need your iPad to remain connected to a power source to pull this off. The 12-watt or higher power adapter and Lightning cable will work just fine. For a cleaner setup, I’m using the Logitech Base stand which charges iPad Pro with the Smart Connector, but only because I already own it (it’s a bit pricey to add just for this purpose).

Setting this experience up manually does require a bit of work to get started, but adding to and maintaining the experience thereafter is quite easy. I would love to see the Photos app have a similar mode built-in, but for now these iOS features make it totally possible with a little upfront work.

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Turn Any Pc Into A Media Center

Your PC already plays music, and your hard drive holds every digital photo you’ve ever taken. And you probably watch hours of video on Hulu, Veoh, or YouTube.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could corral all that stuff within one attractive, easy-to-use interface? One that’s large enough for you to see (and control) from the couch? And, hey, while we’re at it, how about adding TV and DVR features to the mix?

You can do all that and more by transforming your PC into a self-contained media center. All you need is the right software, and possibly some extra hardware, to give your machine new life as a jukebox, a high-def digital photo frame, a movie theater, and a TiVo clone.

You don’t necessarily need to buy new hardware, and the software part of this upgrade could be easier than you think. In fact, if you’re running Windows Vista Home Premium or Vista Ultimate, you’re set: Microsoft baked Windows Media Center right into the OS. Mac OS X Leopard users already have basic media-center software in the form of Apple’s Front Row, though third-party alternatives are also available. And Linux users have several free options, including Freevo and LinuxMCE.

All of those applications scan your PC for photos, music, videos, and the like, and then present them inside an oversize, TV-friendly interface (commonly known as a 10-foot interface, meaning it’s easily viewable from the couch). So when we talk about turning your PC into a media center, we mean installing software that finds, catalogs, and plays your media files–and looks good while doing it.

Note: In this guide, I’ll focus exclusively on ways that you can turn your existing computer into a media center. For a complete guide to assembling a media center PC from the ground up, see Zack Stern’s excellent “Build Your Own High-Def PC.”

Center of Attention

Step one is to choose a media-center program–though as noted previously, you may already have one.

The most obvious choice is Windows Media Center (WMC), which–despite being a Vista-bundled freebie–offers a rich feature set and a dazzling interface. With it you can view photo slide shows (complete with Ken Burns-style pan and zoom effects), watch DVDs and videos, browse your music library by cover art, and connect to various online services (including movie-download stores CinemaNow and Movielink).

WMC also supports up to four TV tuners for DVR-like viewing and recording, and it can archive recorded shows to DVD. Of course, not everyone has Vista Home Premium or Vista Ultimate, and even folks who do might want to check out the alternatives.

The $80 SageTV Media Center for Windows offers a more TV-centric experience than Windows Media Center, including an integrated Google Video viewer and instant commercial-skipping. Pair it with the $30 SageTV Placeshifter add-on, and you can stream all your media (including live and recorded TV) to any PC with a broadband Internet connection.

If you’d rather dip a toe in the media-center waters without spending any money, check out MediaPortal, a free application that’s every bit as powerful as WMC. It can timeshift and record TV, play videos and music, run fancy slide shows, tune in radio stations (both FM and Internet), and even play games such as Tetris. It’s compatible with Windows XP and Vista.

Macintosh users have choices as well, though they’re a bit limited in TV and DVR features. The OS X-bundled, remote-controllable Front Row serves up music, videos, photos, and DVDs, all couched in a dazzling turntable-style interface. But it doesn’t support TV programming, even if you add a tuner. For that, look to MediaCentral, a $30 program that performs all the best media-center tricks and can play/pause live TV too. (Unfortunately, it can’t record shows for later viewing.) Don’t have 30 bucks to spare? CenterStage is a community-developed program that, among other things, can play recorded TV shows now and promises more TV features (including an electronic program guide) in the future.

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