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Is that a Media Center PC--or an end table?

Design specialists dream up the unexpected to help Microsoft get a foothold in the living room. Photo gallery: Redesigning Microsoft's look and feel

Wood paneling and chrome made your dad's station wagon look like a million bucks, and they might also be just the ticket for Microsoft's fledgling effort to put a Media Center PC in every living room.

Those materials dominate one of two sample designs for a new style of Media Center PC, commissioned by Microsoft's eHome division from One & Co., a San Francisco engineering and design company.

One & Co. partner Jonah Becker explained that Microsoft wanted a PC design that an enlightened homeowner might want to have sitting in the middle of a living room, as opposed to stuffed into the back of entertainment center. That's important if consumers are to be comfortable using the PC for the "2-foot experience"--typical PC activities such as downloading and organizing photos and music clips--as well as the more laid-back "10-foot experience" of watching TV or running a slideshow.

Current Media Center PC designs don't handle the 2-foot part very well, Becker said, because they look too dorky for most folks to put next to the couch.

"The existing Media Center PCs are based on existing designs," Becker said. "(PC makers are) not thinking about what it means to have a PC in the living room from an interaction standpoint or an aesthetic standpoint."

Microsoft earlier this week launched a new version of its entertainment-oriented software, Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, with expanded support for interactive television and other functions. The original version of Media Center got off to a slow start, with about a million copies sold to date, but Microsoft is betting heavily on the operating system to keep it in the race to control the digital home.

PC makers, including Dell, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, Sony and Toshiba, introduced a bevy of systems geared to the new software--machines that don't depart very far, if at all, from the traditional boxy PC format. Although Microsoft commissioned the One & Co. designs, it's up to computer makers to decide whether to adopt the new looks.

One of the designs from Becker's company looks more like a 1960s liquor cabinet than a PC, with its ovoid shape, chrome touches and built-in cupholder that doubles as a remote caddy. Becker said the design is intended to help PC makers start thinking of Media Center products as equal parts furniture and high-tech gadget.

"The idea was basically to create a product that's part of the living room, to reflect the materials and the aesthetic of that space," he said. "We wanted something that doesn't need to be hidden in the closet."

That prototype--it isn't actually a functioning PC--would use the television set as a display.

The design company's other prototype is a wall-mounted system with a removable 12-inch LCD screen; it can be managed from a distance with a remote control, or the screen can be detached to function as a tablet for someone relaxing on a couch. Becker said the idea is to have a display option suited to traditional PC tasks such as e-mail and Web surfing, tasks that are often clumsy at best when executed via the screen of a TV set.

"For the most part, Media Center is geared toward media," he said. "The idea with this is that you can also bring some of those common PC functions to the couch."