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The Perils of Home Theater


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#1 of 40 gregstaten

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Posted August 03 2001 - 08:35 AM

The following article is posted to the Home Theater Forum with permission of the author. I found it a fascinating read and thought it would make for an interesting discussion.

-greg

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THE PERILS OF HOME THEATER

DONALD A. NORMAN

Executive summary:

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.

Mind you, I am a pretty savvy technologist. I have an MIT degree. I have a PhD. I was VP of Advanced Technology at Apple. I can program dozens of computers in dozens of languages. I understand television, really, I do. I was the Apple representative locked in that famous room by the FCC when the computer folks battled the TV folks over interlaced signals for high-definition TV (footnote 1). And I am an expert in human perception -- I even wrote textbooks on human vision and hearing. It doesn't matter: I am overwhelmed.

If Home Theater is to take off beyond the early adopters, the technological thrill-seeker, it needs help. Each individual piece of equipment is reasonable: some are even well designed from a usability point of view. But when you combine them into a system, the result is chaos. This is a system problem and it can only be solved by a systems approach.

I'd like to help, but I don't know where to start. I am able to work with the computer and high-tech industry because they understood the issues and the need to simplify life for their customers. Apple Computer has always understood this issue. Microsoft and IBM are leaders in the field. Computer systems may be still too difficult, but the computer industry recognizes this as a major problem and is working hard to solve it.

Unfortunately, the home theater industry is fragmented. Fights over standards make the computer wars look infantile. The emphasis is on jargon and technology. Features dominate. I don't see any understanding of everyday consumers. Remember the jokes about the inability to program the VCR, or even to set the time? No lessons seem to have been learned from that experience. (The solution, by the way, is to make it unnecessary to set the time and to transform "programming" the VCR into pointing at a desired show and saying "that one, please." The Personal Data Recorders such as TiVo solve this problem admirably. Too bad they fight with the HDTV signals.)

Some companies have made a start. As I mentioned, there are programmable remote controls that can be life savers, but that can't be programmed by the everyday person. These programmable remotes which today are essential should be unnecessary. Bose has done an excellent job, but because they don't make everything (no TV, no set-top boxes), they can't solve the entire problem. Bang & Olufsen also has done a fine job, but their stuff is expensive, and requires you to buy their entire package, which is limited. The result is that only the very wealthy or the technically savvy can afford a system.

When everything is working, the result is great. The picture and sound are equal to most movie theaters and better than many. And I control the experience. So was it worth it? Yes.

That's why the industry needs to do things right: the results are truly worth it, both picture and sound. Visitors see sports or movies on my system and want it for their home -- but not at this cost, not with the hassle I went through.


My Prescription
This is a systems problem, and it will require industry cooperation and standards. No single company can solve the problem. It can be done, thereby opening up a much larger audience for new equipment and services. If the market expands, everyone gains.

Start the standards process in an unusual way: start by writing a prototypical manual for the home theater. In doing this, recognize that few people read manuals, so make it so short and simple that it is unnecessary. Then develop the standards that will make the manual true, no matter what company makes the components, no matter what mix of equipment the consumer has bought.

The standards have to be human-centered, aimed at making the installation and usage as painless as possible. First, minimize the cabling, ideally by a single cable or bundle that handles audio, visual, control signals, and power, much in the fashion that IEEE-1394 (FireWire) and USB have done for the computer peripherals industry. Use a daisy chain or hub arrangement of interconnection rather than the point-to-point scheme now in place that leads to a wild jungle of cables. (Yes, The HAVi consortium has started down this road with a Firewire standard and APIs. (See http://www.HAVi.org.) That's a good start, but so far has not resulted in any products: Although an impressive list of companies claim to support the standards, this is common the standards battles. Everyone is always for everything. But in the end, it is action that counts, not words.)

Second, minimize the control problem by making it possible for the viewer simply to select a program source and destination. The appropriate configuration of the equipment should be handled in the background through an appropriate handshaking protocol, much as fax or modems negotiate the optimal common standards for connection. The necessary control information can be transmitted in the header for digital signals or on separate control wires for analog. The viewer should be unaware of the activity.

The goal has to be a set of interconnection and control standards that will grow gracefully as the technology changes, so that future devices can be added to the system without destroying any of the gains. The technology required to do this is straightforward. As with all standards issues, the complexity is in the political process required to reach industry-wide agreement. This will probably require a neutral consortium, one in which all players participate equally. The result must be beneficial for all.

This is a wake-up call to the industry: Do it right and customers will come. Continue as it is, and the home theater industry will remain a small, niche player.

----------

1: Footnote: See my paper Advanced TV Standards: Into the Future with Jaunty Air and an Anchor Around our Necks

Interlacing: Normal TV uses a form of image compression called "interlacing," in which only the odd numbers of the image are shown in the first 1/60th of a second (a field), and the even numbers the next 60th of a second. So it takes 1/30th of a second to show all the lines (a "frame"). If parts of the image are moving, the odd and even lines depcit different locations.

Notice how much better your computer monitor is than the TV screen? Computer monitors use "Progresive" scan, where the entire image -- both even and odd lines -- are displayed at the same time. Modern compression technologies are far supreor to interlacing in numerous ways. Bu the TV industry did not want to give up their old ways even though we argued that progressive images are far superior to they eye than an interlaced ones. It is rather ironic that I am now installing an interlaced system --1080i, for 1080 horizontal lines, interlaced).


#2 of 40 James Nguyen

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Posted August 03 2001 - 08:56 AM

Where was this article originally published?

I couldn't agree anymore with the author, though I wonder if the momentum of the a/v arena can be slowed anytime soon. Just like the serial bus and ISA slots (and floppy drives now that I think of it) are relics that still barely cling to life in the computing realm due to the necessity of backward compatability, I envision things like RCA connectors for video to last a good long while as well.

Some day, some day....

I'd love to see more of the author's articles though.

#3 of 40 Steve Schick

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Posted August 03 2001 - 09:25 AM

Quote:
Mind you, I am a pretty savvy technologist. I have an MIT degree. I have a PhD. I was VP of Advanced Technology at Apple. I can program dozens of computers in dozens of languages. I understand television, really, I do. I was the Apple representative locked in that famous room by the FCC when the computer folks battled the TV folks over interlaced signals for high-definition TV (footnote 1). And I am an expert in human perception -- I even wrote textbooks on human vision and hearing. It doesn't matter: I am overwhelmed.

1. PhD? Overwhelmed? I have a BS and have no problem deciphering, using, connecting all this technology. I just read the manuals and literature. Maybe I'm just a natural?!?

2. I am sure I make a lot less than this guy.
If he is having problems with this, maybe he should hire someone to do this for him?

------------------
You liked the movie? ......Try it on a nine foot screen.

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#4 of 40 Neil Weinstock

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Posted August 03 2001 - 09:39 AM

I agree with the article completely. If you attempt to truly understand the issues involved in putting together a home theater, it's pretty complex. Controlling the system is way too complicated, though with judicious use of a universal remote (love my new HTM MX-500) much can be simplified. Programming the remote can certainly be a chore, requiring the support of on-line forums such as Remote Central.

I think that centralized digital control over the entire system is really what's needed, as suggested in the article. USB or the like between all components and the receiver (best candidate for the central system controller.) The receiver should be able to tell everything else what to do to implement the desired command from the remote. I guess a couple of companies offer something similar as long as you buy all their components. Needs to be standardized.

I pity the novice who just wants to set up a system without having it be a research project. For the most part, those on this forum relish the challenge and find it all interesting, but that does not apply to all consumers.

At least the results are worth it! Posted Image

#5 of 40 James Nguyen

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Posted August 03 2001 - 09:40 AM

Quote:
I am sure I make a lot less than this guy.
If he is having problems with this, maybe he should hire someone to do this for him?

Regardless of his personal ability to set up operate his home theater, he does raise at least one very germaine issue--that the competing and conflicting standards of the industry makes the joys of home theater ownership anywhere from a minor nuisance to a major ongoing torment and headache.

For Joe Six Pack, dealing with aspect ratios is too much. Knowing the difference between RCA composite, Component YCbCr / YPbPr, S-Video is too much. The ins and outs of Dolby Surround, Dolby Digital, DTS, DTS-ES, etc. etc. is too much to take in. The transition to HDTV is too much.

Make the experience simple enough for J6P and the manufacturers have even more incentive to invest more time and effort to what is currently for all intents and purposes, a relative niche market. More options is always a good thing.

Though I don't know what direction the standards bodies are going, the PC industry does serve as a good example. Universal color coding of connectors, of connection layouts, simplification of connection types and so forth.

It's too easy to just dismiss the difficulties that one experiences in setting up a home theater as a right of passage, as something that is somehow meant to weed out those "unworthy" of HT ownership. And in my opinion, it's hurtful to the community as a whole. Everyone should have the right and accessability to enjoy the theater experience at home.

Okay, I'll climb off my soap box now. Posted Image

#6 of 40 Brian OK

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Posted August 03 2001 - 10:21 AM

This fellow makes some valid points ..... but I just don't share his bewilderment over assembling a complete HT system.

If you don't enter this home theater realm with some innate passion to understand what it takes to "make it click", then back to the VCR with you. Kinda like " no soup for you". I mean, honestly, this fellow doesn't expect some homogenized recipe to just fall into his lap, does he? Thus his reference to Bose and B&O.

He swoons over the remote as if a palm device is just "gonna make it all work".

Don, roll up the sleeves and crack open the manual, and learn it. It is more fun that way.

Home theater, and, yes, all it entails, is not a TV dinner. But no effort enjoyment is a common mantra these days.

His mention of the lack of industry standards .. definately valid points.... but what we see is the reality, the same old way it was, and it will most likely always be fragmented

BOK

[Edited last by Brian OK on August 03, 2001 at 05:24 PM]
BOK

#7 of 40 erikk

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Posted August 03 2001 - 10:26 AM

I agree with a lot of this. I tried setting up my parents a HT with one of those HTBs and after setting it up, which I thought was really easy, I realized that even with an everything in one set up its really hard for the average joe to use a HT on a regular basis. Let alone use it correctly.

But theres one problem with his logic that will NEVER fly with HTPhiles. Daisy chaining. Are any of us going to be willing to deal with signal switching (rerouting) quality based on our cheapest component? And considering how much debate over wire quality/type making a difference there is, how on earth are we all going to agree that this type of wire (regardless of quality) is going to give us the best signal tranfer capabilities.

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#8 of 40 Robert George

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Posted August 03 2001 - 10:41 AM

While certainly an interesting read, thisa article serves to prove a truism...home theater is not for everyone.

Any hobby that deals with technology, especially some of the most complex technology consumers deal with on a routine basis (ie, digital/hi-fed video) will have its more technical side. That is where the true "hobbyists" reside. Home theater is not a hobby that should be aproached casually to be done correctly.

#9 of 40 Chuck C

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Posted August 03 2001 - 10:44 AM

The article was very indicative of your average entertainment lover; he raised some excellent points. The fact is, home theater is becoming a science, and just like computer technology, one needs to do some advanced research to understand more than just "oh a TV and a DVD player connected with 3 RCAs." I would not be surprised if home theater classes arise at universities.

It's too bad that so very little people know about the awesome power of HT. If I had to guess the percent of people who don't know about 5.1 surround and all that other HT "jargon", I'd say it's close to 90%. What else is sad is that, for example, perhaps an installer came out to your house and told you to press certain buttons even though you don't even know what it means, you just know it sounds and looks good. Then your left wondering about all the do-dads on that $1,500 system you bought. That's why more and more HT newbies emerge each day.

I could go on forever about this subject! But the bottom line is that DVD is only five years old. After all, isn't the home theater sprall of late due to DVD? It's an exciting time, and I'm just glad I'm up to date.


------------------
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[Edited last by Chuck C on August 03, 2001 at 05:49 PM]

#10 of 40 Jeremy Hegna

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Posted August 03 2001 - 11:00 AM

One thing that wasn't mentioned is the "copyright issue."

In my opinion, this is the most important issue to come to a common ground on in order to get a firewire type connection scheme. The opportunity for J6P to digially recreate the movies he's watching and re-distribute them for pennies on the dollar is what is holding this type of connection back.

I agree with the content, though. It will continue to be a niche hobby until it's as easy to get everything to work as it is to hook up a VCR.

Jeremy

#11 of 40 Aurel Savin

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Posted August 03 2001 - 11:04 AM

I agree with the author 100%.

Basically in order to set-up a kick ass HT you have to be either really "into" HT, where you kinda know everything and you "get" what everything does and how it connects ... OR ... have alot of money and have someone do a pro install.

When I worked at a local electronics store 5 years ago, I loved to sell components and high-end stuff ... but if a customer came by and from a 5 minute conversation I got the feeling he would never "get it" ... off to the HT IN A BOX I went. That is probably the simplest way to get someone into HT.

As far as the "lingo" ... I agree ... there is too much confusion and in reality the differences are unnoticable to the common man ... DTD, DD, Dolby II, DTS-ES, etc ... all sound the same to 90% of the people! (and the scary peart is sometimes they do! Posted Image)

The market definetelly needs a better solution.

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RIGHT ... CHEERS!

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#12 of 40 Steve T

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Posted August 03 2001 - 11:15 AM

If it weren't for all you guys, I'd be in the same boat as the author of that article.

#13 of 40 JohnFR

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Posted August 03 2001 - 12:43 PM

Many good points. IMO a lot of the frustration being experienced by the Dr. could be avoided if manufacturers would simply write better and more comprehensive owner's manuals. Sure, some manuals are pretty good, but it seems to be some sort of hallowed tradition to include poorly written, confusing and incomplete manuals with expensive components. How about giving you two manuals with, e.g., your new HD TV, one short cursory one with an overview of features, and a thicker "reference" manual that descibes all features and functions in full detail.



#14 of 40 Bill Kane

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Posted August 03 2001 - 02:35 PM

Dr. Norman, a well-known "curmudgeon" in the world of Human-Centered Design, has turned his blistering laser on home theater, deciding at home, obviously, to upgrade his entertainment center, then had to hire a tech because he didnt have the time to learn.

(Greg, what's the source and date of this abstract?)

Well, Don Norman is a SYSTEMS guy after all who is looking at a TECHNOLOGY solution. He is correct that HT isn't there yet. But it will come with with the yr ATSC 2006 "deadline" push. See, my jargon already.

The poster who noted DVD is only 5 years old is on-point. Those of us who feel like early adopters find if difficult to cede to those who want a package, however sophisticated.

Sure, I had to lurk-and-learn to gain familiarity, and to this day I still stumble over that rock band, Anamorphic and the Squeeze. If it weren't for this forum and others, I wud be lost.

If HT isn't a hobby, it's certainly an enthusiasm; I suspect people will learn as much as they need then move on to other things. It's ony of many interests for me and I know J6P wants to compartmentalize it even more. Me, I don't care if Wal-Mart sells Denon amps. All of this will only grow until manufacturers find the key to selling packages to newbies. See every day on this forum, over and over, "Help, What Are Cables?" and "Help, which is better Onkyo or Denon, Sony or Yamaha" or even, "Building my house tomorrow, how do I wire for HT?"


Here briefly is a critique on this subject by MIT physics grad Eric Nehrlich '94 found in an internet Google search for Donald A. Norman. For computer, read home theater.

The Invisible Computer

"Donald Norman is a famous technology curmudgeon. He ca,e to prominence with the book The Design of Everyday Things, wherein he roundly condemned how badly designed most appliances are. In his book, his target is the personal computer. I used to think he was just a whiner who was too stupid to know what was going on, but recently, I've come around to his point of view. Computers DO suck. They are too hard to use, and they're only getting worse...He has an interesting vision of information appliances, each well-designed for a specific purpose. Unfortunately, I think he is vastly underestimating the infrastructure necessary to bring them into existence. He hand-waves and presupposes a universal message protocol for all information appliances to communicate..."

edit: all my smilies ended at the bottom!
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]

[Edited last by Bill Kane on August 03, 2001 at 09:55 PM]

[Edited last by Bill Kane on August 03, 2001 at 09:56 PM]

#15 of 40 gregstaten

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Posted August 04 2001 - 06:56 AM

Bill, I'm not sure when it was first posted (other than it was sometime this year). I originally read it on the OpenDTV mailing list (about a month after it was posted - I'm that far behind on my maillists).

Don Norman's website (with additional articles and links) is http://www.jnd.org/

I found this article to be an interesting read, especially considering that I'm about to start building a screening room in my house. The projection booth will be full of bleeding edge products (JVC G-15, Panamorph lens, HTPC) and I'm spending a lot of time thinking about how to make it work as simply as possible (GF acceptance factor and all that).

I'm going to build an interface for most of the controls via the Proto (or ProntoPro) but there are still plenty of geek-out tricks that I'm probably gonna be playing with for a while (using YXY to tweak WinDVD so everything is displayed properly via the Panamorph, etc).

It is great that an enthusiast can take the time to tweak a Pronto or similar remote, build lots of macros, and make the whole system work transparently, but it can certainly be overwhelming for those that don't have the inclination to tweak.

-greg


#16 of 40 Bill Kane

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Posted August 04 2001 - 07:25 AM

greg, thank for responding. I wud've thot all of this wud spark a hot, provocative thread, since it cuts to the heart of HTdom. Just recently, a poster on another forum (HTT?) proudly proclaimed "I Am Not An Audiophile" and flushed a few more low-maintenance folks. Maybe this should've started out in After Hours Lounge.

Still, in your "geekdom" references above, I must admit that every device/system you mention is TOTAL Greek to me.
The point is, we don't have to know all about everything, but when the time comes, yes, we gotta bone up 24/7.

I find it useful to read the HTPC, DTV-HDTV, DSS-Satellite forums just to get a handle on the terminology (I have none of this gear/technology in my house)...how is it said, "You don't know that you don't know until ..."?

bill

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[Edited last by Bill Kane on August 04, 2001 at 02:29 PM]

#17 of 40 DanH

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Posted August 04 2001 - 09:02 AM

I think he's right on. You have to be willing to invest a heckuva lot of time in study and hanging around these boards to get a system set up right.

Having said that, hanging around with you guys is a lotta fun so it ain't all bad! Posted Image

Dan

#18 of 40 DaveF

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Posted August 04 2001 - 01:36 PM

Quote:
Any hobby that deals with technology...
I think that statement captures the problem and suggests the solution: "Home-Theater" needs to move past the 'hobby' stage and enter the 'consumer' stage.

Imagine, you want to buy a new set of kitchen appliances, blender, mixer, waffle iron, etc. You must choose, install, and use, you must first understand:
- Gear ratios, motor output, and power consumption, and how this relates to the sharpness and subsequent chopping rate of hard and soft vegetables
- Thermal expansion coefficients of the various waffle mixes (prepared), and how that relates to the volume of Belgium and regular waffle makers
- Will the food chopped in one mixer be useable in the blender or the oven you already own?

Another good example are automobiles. I don't know anything about fuel/oxygen ratios, ignition timings, gear ratios, CAMs, octane ratings, etc. What I do know is that I turn the key to start the car, press the gas pedal and the car goes.

Arguably, that's the current state of Home-Theater. Yes, it can be figured out sometimes easily. But it's still needlessly complicated. It needs to move to a form more similar to that other consumer goods. Plug in receiver. Connect to TV & DVD. Press play. Movie appears.

I don't think it's as bad as Mr. Norman makes it out to be, but it's far more complicated than it needs to be.



#19 of 40 RAF

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Posted August 04 2001 - 03:31 PM

Quote:
"Home-Theater" needs to move past the 'hobby' stage and enter the 'consumer' stage.

It already has.

They are known as "Movie Theaters" and those who do not wish to enter the wonderful, wacky, frustrating but emminently rewarding world of Home Theater don't have to live with all the excitement and confusion of this. With what many of us have spent on our "hobby" we could probably go to the movies for the rest of our lives many times over.

And if we are just interested in movies in the home there are alternatives such as Pay-Per-View, etc.

But we choose a different, individualized path.

Am I the only one who is not overly thrilled for HT to enter the "consumer stage?" The least-common denominator factor concerns me, for one thing. Right now I have at least a small feeling that my opinion matters. Once the consuming masses take over watch what happens to quality control and other such issues.

I suppose that there is some general interest in articles by learned gentlemen who are labelled as curmudgeons or even luddites and these things appear from time to time. This one is well written. However, it does not alter my opinion that such writing where the "I'm smart, and since I can't understand 'X' it must be at fault and must be changed" thesis is promulgated only sells newspapers (or whatever) and doesn't really do any great service to the advancement of HT.

Standardization of the type suggested also brings with it a degree of sterility and inflexibility that doesn't appeal to me at all.

Besides, this would take a lot of the fun out of it!
Posted Image

2 Cents from another person with "credentials"

Posted Image

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RAF
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#20 of 40 Robert George

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Posted August 04 2001 - 03:38 PM

Ah, but Dave, you make my point. Being proficient with basic kitchen appliances does not make one a gourmet. Knowing how to operate an automobile does not make one a "gearhead". Owning a television and a DVD player is not a home theater.

Home theater is, by its nature, complex because it deals with complex technology. Converging several different components from different industries (with different design philosphies) is just not a simple thing. On the other hand, if it was easy, then everyone could do it and it wouldn't be much of a challenge to those of us that see it as a "hobby".

Home theater is not a right, it is a privilege, and privileges must be earned.


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