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Ciciora's Corner - Digital Dementia

Tue, 05/31/2011 - 8:25pm
Walt S. Ciciora, Expert On Cable and Consumer Electronics Issues

It is no longer possible to drink and watch TV. You have to be sober to be able to use the remotes!

In two of the last three hotels I stayed in, I had to call the front desk to find out how to use the television. These were major brand flat-screen high-definition models in well-known hotels. And the hotels had free (translation: included in the price) cooked-to-order breakfast, no-charge Wi-Fi all over and Ethernet cables in the room (also included in the price), as well as one or two morning newspapers. So these were not in any way inferior places. They were business traveler hotels.

Walt-S-CicioraThere is something wrong here!

In one hotel, the secret I got by calling the front desk was to press the remote control on/off button “lightly” and wait (and wait, and wait). My problem was I pressed the button like I do at home and, after nothing happened for what seemed like a reasonable period, I pressed it again. Nope, this TV required even more patience.

The call to the other hotel front desk came with the advice to enter the channel number and then press the decimal point on the remote control, followed by the number one. But the remote control didn’t have a decimal point. In that case, I was told, hit the channel up button once. So I’m told to enter the channel number and then channel up once. This seems nuts, but it worked.

Neither hotel had a note in the room or any other way of giving instructions, and nothing was said at check-in. Having spent my whole professional life in television, I have to say this is weird.

At home, I’ve had – still have – a Zenith 35-inch television purchased in 1989. It’s 400 pounds (heavy glass bulb) and just barely makes it through the doorway. It still gives a good picture and works well. After some early issues in the first few months we had it, the television has been troublefree all this time.

But time marches on. Last year, I bought a very nice major brand 55-inch flat screen for just under $100 an inch. If it lasts half as long as the Zenith, it’s a reasonable investment. (And, besides, that’s the same price as one of the custom-made saddles for my wife’s horses. So I need an expensive something once in a while, too. That’s called “social justice.”) The TV is 3-D, but that’s not the reason for the selection. (I don’t really like the 3-D all that much). Just to be sure all would work together smoothly, I bought the same brand surround sound system and Blu-ray disc player.

For someone who has spent a career in R&D on video, I have to say that the picture is fantastic. The only issue is that in some dark areas, there’s some distracting busyness. But that’s a minor point. The sound is better than my aged ears deserve. All of that said, the human interface stinks. The most annoying feature involves the audio. It seems to take more than a minute for the TV/audio system to decide which to use for making sound! Meanwhile, there is no indication of what is going on. This makes a normally patient person very impatient. Switching between the various inputs is also very slow, and the visual menu is not all that intuitive.

The flat screen has a most amusing feature. There is a video camera with face recognition (not individual recognition, just recognition that there is a face out there). It is used for two purposes. One purpose is to adjust the audio so that the “center” of the stereoscopic field is where the people are. The other purpose is to tell people (children?) to move away from the flat screen when they are too close. An alarm tone sounds, and the screen goes black, with white letters telling the viewer to move back. This may be a case of doing something just because it’s possible, not because it’s useful.

An unfortunate consequence of neighbors knowing of my career in television is the requests I get to help with their TV/VCR/DVD/cable box installations. My wife and I recently had a wonderful dinner at a neighbor’s home. She wanted help with her setup. This is a well-educated, very intelligent person with more than average patience. After substantial effort trying to record programming on her new DVD/VCR combo, she gave up and called for help. She ended up with two pages of handwritten notes concerning which remote to use for the TV, the VCR/DVD combo and the cable set-top box. After all of that, she was bitterly disappointed that she could not DVD her favorite movies because of copy protection.

I made the observation that it is no longer possible to drink and watch TV. You have to be sober to be able to use the remotes!

The brainpower in consumer electronics is devoted to better pictures and sound, and none is left over for the human interface. The same seems to be true of the cable box designs.

The human interface designers seem to have “digital dementia.”

E-Mail: Wciciora@Ieee.Org

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