Sunday, December 11, 2005

...my wife will be able to work the TV

When TV's were invented, they were created to do one thing - capture audio and video signals that were being broadcast over the airwaves and turn them into a moving picture accompanied by sound. There were only two things that you ever hooked up to a television: electricity and an antenna. Things changed quickly though in the 70's and 80's. Along came video game systems, VCR's, cable TV, home computers. This introduced a small problem. How do you hook all of this stuff up to one TV? Assuming you had the right combination such as cable, a VCR, and a Nintendo, you were safe. You could run the cable through the VCR then run the VCR through the Nintendo RF converter. The VCR could record the cable at all times and if you turned on the Nintendo, it would always take over the screen.

Well, things have gotten much worse over time. In addition to the devices mentioned above, we now have TiVo's, camcorders, DVD players, cable boxes, HDTV tuners. RF converters are still around but we also have composite video, S-video, component video, DVI, HDMI. To make matters even worse yet, the popularity of home theatre and surround sound systems has broken the audio out of most of these video formats. We have analog audio, coaxial digital, s/pdif, optical digital, and a number of oddball proprietary formats. How do you hook all of this stuff up to your TV? If you have a separate sound sytem, how do you also hook it all up to the sound system? It's a bloody mess.

My HDTV has 8 inputs and I'm using most of them.

1) Antenna - I don't actually use this but it picks up over-the-air broadcasts.
2) Video 1 (Coax) - TiVo
3) Video 2 (composite video + analog audio on the front panel) - occasionally used for camcorder or other portable device
4) Video 3 (composite video + analog audio + s-video) - VCR
5) Video 4 (composite video + analog audio + s-video) - Macintosh mini
6) Video 5 (component video + analog audio) - HDTV Cablebox
7) Video 6 (component video + analog audio) - XBox
8) Video 7 (HDMI) - upconverting DVD player

This is a fair setup but it has it's problems. For example, the Mac mini should be on a DVI to HDMI converter and I should be viewing it in high resolution. As-is, the text is hard to read and I have limited screen real estate. Also, I have old game systems that I'd love to have hooked up for nostalgia. There just aren't enough ports level on my TV. Technically I could buy a switch box but AV switchboxes that are capable of converting between the multitude of formats are very expensive - especially if they support high definition. Plus, I'd be adding another level of complexity to an already complex system.

So far, we've only talked about my video setup. I also have a surround sound system. It has two optical inputs, two analog inputs, and one digital coax input. That doesn't match my TV so what do I do? Luckily my TV has an analog audio out. Unfortunately, the sound quality from it is attrocious. It produces a very loud background hum. Essentially, I'm forced to only use my surround sound system when I'm watching a DVD (using one optical input) or watching cable (using the other optical intput). I also have the TV's analog out run into one of the analog inputs but I rarely use it because of the annoying hum.

There are two other minor problems to be considered here. HDMI carries audio and video in one cable. How to you split it off to separate sources? Of course, any device that has an HDMI output is likely to have other outputs as well but it's no guarantee. And what is the cost of having so many inputs and outputs of various types on my devices? It certainly raises the price of these things.

So, it's a bit ugly but I've waded my way through these rapids and gotten everything more or less connected to my TV and my sound system. It may have been a bit confusing and there may be a lot of wires running around behind my entertainment center but all is good otherwise right?

Operating all of these devices requires 6 remote controls.

My wife, having not hooked all of this together is hopelessly lost. She can switch between the cable and DVD player but that's about it and if anything is left at all outside the normal configuration, there's no guarantee she'll even be able to do that much. In some cases, she may need to change settings on multiple devices in a coordinated fashion to get the desired result (for example, switching video source on the TV, switching audio source on the sound system and setting audio output settings on the desired device). I believe we have the technology to fix this mess if the big players are willing to come together and work on it. Unfortunately, I think we need yet another audio/video format to do it.

Problem #1
You don't know how many devices people will be hooking up to their TV.

They may have just a cable box or they may have 20 different electronic devices that they want to use. I suggest this should be solved in the same way that it was solved for firewire. Allow devices to be daisy chained together. Not only can I hook an indefinite number of devices together but I can do it with less cord. Devices that are stacked on top of each other can be connected with short 6" to 12" cables.

Problem #2
Selecting signal sources has to be coordinated across multiple devices.

This may be a little tricky but it should be perfectly doable. Every device should be registered as a signal source and/or a signal reciever. Recievers can be set up in groups so that when a signal source is selected they act in a coordinated way and all switch to that signal source. In addition, signal sources could provide a lower resolution preview video so that rich graphical menus could be created by TV manufacturers.

Problem #3
Too many remotes

This is by far the toughest problem here to solve because each device may have specialized functions. I think the ideal solution is probably to put those functions onscreen. Create one remote with nothing but volume, channel, cursor arrows, and enter/cancel buttons. Allow the devices to communicate with each other over the daisy chained data cables to share menu text and user selections.

If some sort of a system like this isn't adopted, things are only going to become more and more confusing as we move into an era with even more home audio and video devices. And if you don't believe we'll have more, my new speaker system actually hooks into the TV to provide configuration menus. Who'd have thought?

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