Ikea Takes on the Living Room Problem

Home furnishings mega-retailer Ikea is intent on remaking the living room. This fall they will start selling Uppleva (apparently the Swedish word for experience; you have to admire its inherent optimism), a home theater furniture system that integrates a flat-screen television, a 2.1 channel sound system, a Blu-Ray/DVD player and wi-fi-based networking. The Verge’s write-up is an excellent overview of what we know so far about this just-announced line.

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The Mad Men Fairytale

I bet I know what many of you will be doing this Sunday night: tuning into the season 5 premiere of “Mad Men,” AMC’s pop cultural (if not exactly popular) hit about the advertising world of the 1960s. Anticipation for this delayed season has been running high; I know at least one person who has been re-watching the previous season’s episodes to ‘get ready.”

That level of dedication astounds me. I count myself as a “Mad Men” devotee, but personally I couldn’t justify spending another thirteen hours of my life simply studying up on it. But, hey, more power to those who can afford the time.

It’s still not exactly clear to me why this show, whose ratings are modest, exerts such a strong pull on our collective imagination. I tried to unpack some possible reasons for this last year when I wrote that “Mad Men” was really about furniture, and suggested that it taps into the interior decorator fantasies that many of its fans hold. I still think that’s true, but I think the larger point may be that the series is not really a daydream that all of its fans share, but rather it’s a daydream of old media. In this age when the old brands that once ruled American commerce are now diminished, and with so much of the coming century feeling unsettled and uncentered, “Mad Men” is a kind of bedtime story that media tells itself about how powerful it used to be. It’s something like the inflated tales of lost motherlands that immigrants tell their children; we’re in an age now when the landscape of “Mad Men” seems like a grand old folktale of kings and queens. This is what happens when old ways die; we start telling nostalgic fairy tales about what they used to be.

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When High-Def Goes Low-Res

It used to be that we assumed companies had access to better technology than consumers did, and therefore understood it more deeply than us, but I think that’s no longer the case. Very often, it seems to me that ‘regular’ people now understand technology better than many companies do.

This occurred to me over the past few days as I traveled to Austin and then Minneapolis. In each city I stayed in a pretty nice hotel, both of which had flat-screen televisions in the rooms. Of course it’s not unusual that hotels will have LCD or plasma televisions these days, but what I’ve found is that no matter how nice the hotel is or how many stars it might rate, they all fundamentally misunderstand what a flat-screen television is for.

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Watching Charlie Sheen

All week long I’ve been wondering if it would be completely inappropriate of me to blog about apparently over-the-edge actor Charlie Sheen, but now I think I’ve found an angle that justifies some comment. I demurred several times on publishing this, but ultimately I kept coming back to my draft and re-reading it, so here it is.

I’ve found Sheen’s recent, furious spate of bad boy antics and megalomaniacal television interviews to be fascinating, and it’s not just a fascination borne from schadenfreude, either. Yes, the man is a car wreck that it’s hard to turn away from, but what an interesting car wreck. I have no doubt that there’s something psychologically wrong with him, and a lot of his behavior is plainly abhorrent and inexcusable. But I also happen to believe there’s an element of genius at work here, too, even if it’s inadvertent.

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The Interactive TV You Already Use

We have been waiting forever for interactive television, but Peter Yared of Webtrends argues that it’s already here. It’s just not happening on our television sets, where we had always imagined elaborate user interface layers would be superimposed onto the channel-tuning paradigm we’ve been familiar with for so long.

Instead, consumers have opted to leave their televisions relatively untouched — and simple — while supplementing their viewing experiences with other digital devices: laptops, smart phones and tablets. You’ve probably done this yourself: in the middle of watching a movie at home you spot a an actor or actress who looks familiar but whose name you can’t recall; out comes the laptop or iPhone, where a quick Internet Movie Database lookup scratches that itch. Or, you’re catching up on the back catalog of a popular television show that’s particularly engrossing, so you go searching the Web for commentary, background material, and hypotheses about why the heck there was a polar bear on that island.

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Mad Men’s Furniture Showroom

Part of the awesome responsibility inherent in having your own blog is admitting when you’re wrong. People should do it more often, including me. So here goes: I was wrong about “Mad Men,” cable television’s zeitgeisty dramatization of life in the American advertising industry at its mid-century peak. I originally pegged it as being tedious and overblown, but now, having just caught up with all four of the seasons that have aired to date, I have to correct the record and say that it is not tedious at all, and that it is in fact, a very, very good show.

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Blu-Ray Blues

It’s been about a decade now since DVDs first became the default delivery medium for movies and I’ve been trying to remember exactly how buggy or inconsistent the earliest DVD players were. I remember vaguely that some discs wouldn’t work with some players (especially DVD-ROM drives built into computers), but as best as I can recollect, I never had a problem playing a single disc. Or if I did, it was just one out of countless discs I’ve owned, rented or borrowed. For me, DVDs have always just worked.

Not so with Blu-Ray, the would-be successor to the DVD format. I was lucky enough to get a Blu-Ray player for Christmas a year ago and when it works, it works great. I can pop in a Blu-Ray disc and watch a movie in beautiful, luxurious high-definition, revealing all sorts of details in my favorite movies that I’d never been able to see before. But it has not been a painless experience. The player has been frustratingly, consistently buggy, making the act of watching a disc needlessly difficult.

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Apple Blinks in the Living Room

AppleTVNo one’s happier than I am that Apple hasn’t thrown in the towel with its living room efforts. After much neglect, the new Apple TV, announced today, is a step in the right direction: sleeker in size, more capable in content access, network savvier in its diskless approach to media, and — the clincher — more wallet-friendly at US$99. That’s a winning combination, I think.

On the other hand, this new generation of Apple TV doesn’t appear to do too much more that I can’t already do with the older Apple TV and the Netflix Instant Watch-capable Blu-Ray player that I currently have in my living room. In fact, it’s telling that it’s still called just “Apple TV” without some new suffix indicating that it’s a second generation product. For all intents and purposes, it’s the same as what I already have.

That’s fair. I’ve always thought the core Apple TV feature set makes for a device that can do well in the marketplace, and its new price point and other alterations give it a fighting chance.

However, when rumors of an Apple TV reboot first started gaining momentum, what I hoped for was that Apple would undertake a bigger challenge than just making it a more attractive device for consumers. Much in the same way that they fixed the mobile space with the iPhone, and much in the same way they’re trying to fix the problem of true consumer computing with the iPad, I hoped that they would also try to fix the living room. This is a challenge that I wrote about in a general way a year ago in a blog post called “The Living Room Problem,” but luckily for those reading now, I’m going to revisit those sentiments here.

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Pulling Over and Asking for Directions

All told, I think I did a pretty good job of ignoring “Lost” for years, in spite of all the raves and recommendations from friends. Mostly, it was out of self-interest; I couldn’t afford the time investment that another hugely complicated television series would require, especially one that seemed to inspire such obsessive fandom. But now, living with a “Lost” devotee as I do, I find I can no longer willfully ignore the persistent phenomenon that is J.J. Abrams’ labyrinthine television saga. I started watching a handful of episodes here and there last season, and when the show’s sixth season debuted on Tuesday evening I joined Laura on the couch to take in its latest two hours.

Here’s my assessment so far: it’s a superbly crafted entertainment but it executes itself haphazardly. I find myself easily drawn into its fundamentally strong storytelling tactics, but even after watching the best episodes, the momentum of the series inspires no real confidence that the next installment will be any good.

And, frankly, I don’t really get what’s happening. What is this show about? A time shifting island? A fractious fraternity of metaphysically-challenged losers? A just-in-time catalog of bogus belief systems? I have no idea, really, but to the show’s credit it’s all good enough to keep me thinking about it. Herewith, then, are some random notes from a Viewer New to “Lost”

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The Living Room Problem

I’ve been trying to think if there’s ever been a consumer experience that’s quite as much of a mess as watching video at home is today. What was once so simple now seems inordinately, hopelessly complex. The old paradigm of simply buying a television set, attaching an antenna or a coaxial cable and turning it on seems like a ritual from a lost epoch, something far less evolved humans settled for in order to enjoy scraps of primitive entertainment. In these more sophisticated, digitally-enhanced times, the living room has become a mess.

Now, watching television requires a complex orchestration of sources, devices, meta-systems, cables, asset management and general confusion. Currently in my living room, I have a veritable cat’s cradle of a setup, including two DVD players, a home theater system, a secondary speaker system, an Apple TV, a MacBook, and a putative ‘universal remote’ that nevertheless fails to obviate the many additional remote controls that linger on the coffee table. (Yes, there’s a lot of redundancy there, but sadly there’s some kind of resigned argument for all of it.).

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