Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Perils of Home Theater

Anyone who thinks that the computer industry has made things difficult for customers, wait till you look at home theater. There is a major opportunity here to enlarge the market considerably by setting, agreeing upon, and implementing industry-wide standards for interconnection, aimed at making the result easier to install and use, far more comprehensible, and therefore more attractive to the average family.
I am appalled by the lack of understanding of consumers in the home theater industry, by the complexity, by the emphasis on jargon, by the lack of standards (and the competing standards wars), and in general, by the whole mess.

I am putting together a home theater. I bought a high-definition TV set, a receiver, and the 8 speakers required to give THX 7.1 surround sound. And a digital satellite receiver, capable of receiving HDTV signals, even though hardly any are being sent, plus, of course the set-top box controller for the High Definition satellite receiver. And a TiVo digital video recorder to time shift shows. And a progressive DVD player, a VCR, and my old laser-disc player. And, well, that's enough.

So there I was, seated in my brand new home theater, holding a pile of thick instruction manuals plus 7 remote controls, not including the programmable remote control that is intended to replace those other seven, once I learn to program it.

First problem: Jargon. Ordinary human beings should not have to understand jargon like this: progressive, interlaced, 5.1, 7.1, 480i, 480p, 960i, 1080i, 16/9, 4/3, 3:2 pulldown, anamorphic, stretched, expanded, large speakers, small speakers, matrix sound. It is too much. Why should the ordinary consumer have to know all this?.

Worse, the different components fight with one another. Who is in control? My satellite receiver? The DVD player? The Receiver? The TV set? Each wants to control the resolution and the picture format. Do I want the image to be distorted to fit the whole screen or to be shown the way it was originally produced, always wary of those bold warnings included with the TV set that if I watched pictures that didn't cover every bit of the screen, why I would risk getting the dreaded CRT burn-in. And then, if I make the wrong choices, I end up deadlocked, with the components battling the TV set, with the end result being not only no picture on the screen, but the inability to regain control because without on-screen menus, all control is lost. (This happened when I tried to send the output of the High Definition TV satellite receiver to the TiVo and then to the TV set. Thank goodness for the fine print in the manuals that revealed secret button sequences on one of the remote controls that allowed me to get back a picture. I haven't used the TiVo since.)

The smart, programmable remote control is supposed to solve these problems. After considerable study, I purchased the Philips Pronto. Yes, one can program the Pronto to make everything transition gracefully with a single button push, but the required programming is not for the faint of heart. I am still waiting for the equipment installers to do that -- just one more visit, they promise, and it will all be solved.

Copyright © 2001 Donald A. Norman. All rights reserved.

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