Monday, December 12, 2005

Digital convergence: death knell for civilization?

For a few years now, many of us have been salivating over the prospects of "digital convergence": technology that will unify all media (radio, TV, etc.) on computer platforms. Well, I'm here to tell you that digital convergence is starting to look like a VCR blinking 12:00 because its clock isn't set.

The story begins with our hero and his family tiring of watching a 15-year-old 29" (75cm) TV from a distance of 15 feet (5 meters). The only things making the situation tolerable were the fact that we don't watch much TV and that, because of our nearsightedness and the distance to the screen, it wasn't so noticeable that the right side of the screen was purplish and the left side was greenish. So, we decided to get a new TV, a bigger TV, a digital TV.

Considering the current flux in HDTV pricing and technology, we decided on a 52" (130cm) rear projection micro-display model, to keep the price down. I'll keep the brand secret, but it's a large Japanese company. the TV is big, and the picture is much better than our old TV. That's the good news. The bad news is that, even after almost a week, there are still some issues with the TV setup that I'm not sure of. That's right, someone with a PhD in Computer Science and almost 30 years' experience programming computers, including Unix system administration and device driver development, has trouble setting up his new TV.

Lest you think I'm some special kind of idiot (well, you may still conclude that, but I'll try to dispel it), let me describe what I've gone through. First and foremost are the problems of the TV user interface and manual. The TV's user interface is composed of a series of approximately 100,000 menu screens, with items grouped more-or-less by topic (by the way, the user interface runs under Linux, not that that really matters in terms of user interface design). The only way to move from screen to screen is to scroll up or down the items of the current screen, one by one, until hitting the end, at which point the next screen will pop up. The screens are arranged in a loop, so, as any CS major will tell you, the worst-case distance to your desired menu item is N/2 button presses, just like a circular, doubly-linked list. The manual even has a listing of the menu screens. Unfortunately, the listing in the manual seems to be four-dimensional, as I still cannot figure out whether the shortest distance to a menu item is "up" or "down".

The TV has four sets of inputs, and each has different capabilities, in terms of combinations of component, composite, S-video, HDMI, analog audio, and two types of digital audio connections. It also has two sets of outputs: one with video and audio and one with audio only (one with a choice of analog or digital audio, one with only analog audio). In my case, I have a older, analog (Dolby Pro Logic) surround sound stereo system. One nice feature of this TV is that its built-in speaker can be used as the center speaker for a surround system, and I planned to take advantage of that. I also have a TiVo with integrated DVD player and a VCR.

I planned out how to hook everything up. Unfortunately, the manual's connection instructions only include a set of "quick start" examples; there's no detailed information on any non-obvious distinctions among the different inputs and outputs. Anyway, I filled in the blanks in my own mind, hooked everything up, and then prepared to enjoy some "Stargate SG-1".

Everything works fine when the video source is the TiVo, DVD, or VCR. But, when the video source is the TV itself, there's trouble. First of all, when the TV is set up so that its built-in speaker will act as a center channel for a surround sound system, no audio is output to the stereo when using the TV tuner. Since the center channel must come from the stereo, that means there's no sound at all. This necessitates going into the menu system every time I switch between external devices and the internal tuner to switch the speaker mode.

Then there's the tuning itself. Our basic cable comes with a limited selection of digital programs, including local stations' HD broadcasts. Our cable company lists them as having three-digit channel numbers, but the TV accesses them via channel/subchannel numbers that seem to have no relationship to the cable channels. My intuition is that the TV's channels are physical numbers, while the cable company's channels are logical numbers. The cable company representatives don't seem to understand what I'm talking about; my emails bring back only repeated references to a URL that lists the channel lineup by "logical" channel number. So, I'm left scanning about a hundred channels myself to figure out what each is.

Meanwhile, my parents' VCR still blinks 12:00, assuming that there has been a power outage since the last time I visited them (which, considering the fact that they live in Florida, is quite likely). I can't see the typical TV watcher being able to install these things, or having the patience to go through their setup. The fact that consumer VCRs have been around for something like 25 years and most are still too difficult or annoying to program for most people bodes ill for digital convergence. And I'm not sure Apple can save us...

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