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.).

Management Training

And that’s just the hardware. We recently canceled our cable television service which in theory should have moderately simplified our video selection. However, it’s still left to us to manage iTunes movie rentals (which are time-limited), iTunes TV show purchases (which are not time-limited but which must be preserved on hard drives somewhere), two Netflix queues, various streaming video setups, Hulu queues and any additional video we might have acquired from, ahem, anonymous sources. Needless to say, each one of these content types entails an entirely different user interface, none of them consistent with one another, and nearly all of them requiring some combination of remote control chording and technical acrobatics in order to actually use. The worst indictment, of course, is that I’m the only member of my household who knows how to use the system, and I can barely explain it to anyone else.

It’s tempting to say that at the heart of this problem is a lack of good design, or a surfeit of bad design. To be sure, each component of my system represents the work product of a small cadre of design talent, some of it better than others. But the truth, I think, is that there’s too much design going on here, and not enough coordination to match it — there’s not enough business innovation at work in the living room.

The digital revolution has brought us choice, but it clearly has done almost nothing to help us with the act of making sense of those choices. Somewhere along the way, manufacturers, software publishers, content creators, licensors, everyone began to work on the assumption that content consumers are just as happy to be managers of content, that along with the freedom of digital entertainment, we want to also keep track of everything and be responsible for making everything work together. That just seems completely wrong to me.

Down to Business

The crazy thing is that I’d bet that right now, today, we have the right technology smarts and certainly the right design smarts to solve this problem. But the missing leg of the stool, a rational, user-focused business model, is still sorely missing. This is the free market at play, industrial competition in full effect: every device manufacturer, content creator and software publisher is competing to create the most commercially competitive subset of video entertainment or peripheral, but doing so in nearly complete isolation from one another.

Fundamentally, they’re all incapable of getting on the same page and creating a coherent, consistent, transparent user experience for the teeming masses. In this current state of continual volatility in the business models driving home entertainment, there are so many market-driven, irreconcilable differences between all of the constituent parts of a home theater setup that a resolution to the mess seems discouragingly unobtainable. What’s needed is a consortium or a standards movement or an open source project, but one that spans across the many industries and players that are involved, and that can somehow resolve some of the biggest intellectual property challenges facing media today. Somehow. Design has done what it can for the time being; to get over this hump, it’s a business problem. And, as with almost all unresolved business problems, it’s the end users who suffer.

  1. Ahhhhhh! (as in refreshing.) is at its best when I sit back and say, after reading a post, “Couldn’t have said it better myself.”

    Now, bring on the innovation! As a web-tv/Hulu/Netflix/sketchy-source consumer of video entertainment (who staunchly abstains from cable tv), I feel completely ready to give my hard-earned dollars and brand/product loyalty to a company who can solve this problem, once and for all.

  2. 1) If there was a standard set by the current crop of leading TV industry players, it would undoubtedly suck (the TV hardware industry, the lowest common denominator in this ideal consortium, is 10, maybe 20 years behind in the world of user experience design). Apple and others (Tivo) would be forced to violate the standards egregiously just to make something of quality. What we need is a good old fashioned monopoly or duopoly (or trebopoly?) here (mac/pc, Sony/Nintendo/Xbox), based on the good old fashioned Internet, and replacing *all* of the existing dinosauric hardware and cable players. It would also need a robust open-source-y cavalcade of third-ways (Boxee and hopefully others) churning out the 10-foot lean-back UX innovations.

    2) Dude, you’re having a baby. I think you can handle *one* Netflix queue where you share the password and the responsibility for prioritization. 🙂

  3. In the UK at least, I think most viewers would happily accept the expansion of the BBC iPlayer as the the defacto standard, rolled across commercial channels as well. This has been recently mooted, but subsequently binned by the powers that be, leaving us with inferior competitive offerings, trying to reinvent a wheel that the BBC have already made round.

    As for me, I’m stuck with no cable availability, poor analogue signal, poor digital signal and will probably be forced down the freesat route (one off payment, free channels).

  4. There’s also the unpredictability of where the content you want is located.

    Since the television and movie industries are so mysterious and dictatorial with where their content may be accessed, we all need as many services as possible to cover all the possibilities. But, since all of these services are their own universe, there’s no easy way to search them all at once.

    The alternative – buying a program on a DVD, for example – seems ludicrous to me. You’re telling me that I need to walk 6 blocks to a Blockbuster if I want to rent a movie tonight?

    The movie industry needs to come to terms with rental – something the music industry doesn’t really offer – and either embrace it wholeheartedly, or eliminate it altogether.

  5. Chris: I tend to agree, a monopoly of some sort would help here tremendously, so long as it’s not grossly anti-competitive. Of course, it comes down to Apple; with a little bit of effort, they could really reshape this market, but they seem disinterested in the prospect, or at least preoccupied. But what an opportunity.

    Evan Sharp: I have to assume you’re joking when you call the idea of walking 6 blocks ludicrous. Made me laugh.

  6. Exactly.

    I’m about to move into a house where the only place I can mount a TV is above the fireplace. That looks nice and slick and all, but my problem now is, “where the heck do i put all the other crap?” TiVo, DVD player, Apple TV, etc.?

    Now I need a big piece of furniture to store all these devices nearby.

    It’s a step backwards — like in the 70s with those big giant TVs encased in decorative wood boxes. Only now everything’s exposed. Sigh.

    I’m actually considering throwing in the towel and having no TV at all (gasp!).

  7. For me, Apple did such a great job with music. It sucks that the labels forced DRM in there for a while, but FairPlay was actually pretty fair. We have a pretty complete solution for buying new music over digital channels, we can import our music from previous formats (CD) and other digital formats (MP3, etc).

    There are flaws and things to complain about, sure, but for me they 99% “solved” music by showing us the way forward while still letting us deal with the past (CDs).

    I was really hoping they’d repeat this performance with the AppleTV and video. Maybe they still will, but right now the AppleTV is an interface to *some* of my video content, not all of it. it’s not backwards compatible. There’s no Apple-supported way to import a DVD into my AppleTV or connect a hard drive.

    My guess is Apple hasn’t been able to convince the film industry to take a leap forward in the same way they did with the music world.

    In the meantime, we hardly ever watch “TV” and don’t have cable. We mostly buy, borrow or hire content on DVD and watch it on our own schedule.

  8. What about the possibility of an up-and-comer solving this problem? A small, agile company seems to be better suited to just solve it by completely re-aligning (rather than just re-designing, as you say) than a big, bloated company, even if they were able to do some sort of consortium or open source standards project with other big, bloated companies.

  9. I am actually in the process of ripping all my DVD’s and setting up an iTunes server type computer in the house. I think the Apple TV has the best interface to present my content, I just can’t get my content in there easy enough.

  10. @Nathan: I think your comment sums up thte whole thing perfectly. You’re going to rip all of your DVDs and setup an iTunes sever to ship your media around your house.

    An admirable, but unbelievably complex solution in an age when we can put people (and monkeys) on the moon.

  11. The problem is that the companies don’t *want* to play nicely together. They want to be able to control their interfaces (potentially to create the next killer app), they want to control their advertising, they want to control their distribution.

    Try watching Lost on Hulu… you get pushed over to the ABC website (whose video interface is terrible)

    Technology/standards aren’t the problem.
    There are already products such as Boxee and Roku Player (even MythTV) out there.
    All the playlist/show/movie/channel information could be pushed into XML allowing consumers to choose or create their own unified frontends.

  12. Along the lines of what Khoi was saying about collaboration among companies, here comes a piece by Mark Hurst saying that those who collaborate (even with competitors) create more successful communities than those that seek pure dominance. So hopefully the nay-sayers against the idea that businesses would ever do such a thing will finally accept that collaboration is often better for everyone in the long run.

  13. “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”

    I suppose that this thought is a sign of the times, in and of itself.

    This is exactly how I set up my system, because I chose not to invest any money into anything more complex/advanced.

    Just because the technology is available doesn’t mean it needs to be invested in or used.

    Twitter is now ubiquitous, but hardly mandatory or even useful. Yet, somehow, I do find myself using it even though daily I recognize it as an necessary burden.
    I know many people with digital cameras, who have had them for years, realizing they are supremely frustrated with the technology—digging through years and years of files (aka photos) trying to find something worth saving, the freedom from film actually became rather crippling.

    Although I am not trying to say that this is the case with your situation—but just in general—it seems that our multitude of choices, technological and otherwise, we are in a hyper state of buyers remorse where we are trying to justify our choices and purchases on a constant basis.

  14. This article explains the primary reason why I don’t watch TV anymore. Movies are an occasional thing for which I can tolerate some finagling of input sources, cables, etc., but if I can help it, I’ll see it in the theater or on my laptop.

    There are some open source movements to get the various sources to play well together as David mentioned – Plex comes to mind ( But as with most open source, you get what you pay for.

    I look forward to the day when we don’t need technological bandaids and things work together in the most obvious way. Of course that will never happen because it’s counter intuitive to the prehistoric thinking of the companies distributing the media (who will throw any legal tantrum necessary to ensure immediate control is never lost for bigger-picture gain).


  15. I’m with Ross on this one. It doesn’t have to be remotely as complicated as you’ve made it. Pick and choose, my friend. One does not (typically) carry multiple cellphones because you like some of the features on each, right?

    That said, I agree that there is a product that should be made to solve (some of) your problem. Alas, unless you want a cable-like monopoly running/ruining it all, it will never happen.

  16. I guess I avoid this problem by not having a TV. When my last one died, I didn’t see the point of replacing it. My laptop has been the movie player for years, hooked up to a larger LCD and plugged into the stereo when guests are over. Hulu, Apple, Netflix and sketchy-source media offer what I’m looking for without too much confusion. A $30 converter allows the PS2 to plug into the LCD monitor.

    That said, it’s definitely not ideal, just a different jumble. The only technology player with any balls, innovation and focus these days seems to be Apple. What they’ve done with the (equally obstinate) music industry gives hope that whenever they decide to really focus on Apple TV, they’ll pull off what you’re looking for in Livingroom Media Management.

  17. I feel like existing systems are close-to-ideal, that is, if they’re a computer. I’m close to what Nate’s talking about, save that we’re using a large LCD TV rather than a monitor. I’m not really interested in an in-between device, with a new and unique set of UI challenges.

    We’ve got a simple Mac Mini hooked up straight into a mid-range 30-something inch screen directly with DVI. So the Mini plays DVDs when we need them. There’s iTunes, Hulu, Netflix, and Netflix on demand (which, minus my cringing when I installed Silverlight to use it, has been flawless). There’s a Wii under there we turn on every now and then. We don’t have cable. We don’t have Tivo. Streaming iTunes about the house with Airport express. Centralized iPhoto libraries. An easy place to sync up an iPhone. All the same software I’m already familiar with.

    The most frustrating part of this entire proposition is that the wireless keyboard and mouse suck rechargeable batteries dry fairly quickly. They don’t hold their charge long on their own, so you can’t really stage them up.

    For the 2 movies and maybe 5 or 6 shows I watch each week, this has been a solid set-up.

  18. I’d really recommend you have a look at AVI.

    They are not popular with the hi-fi or AV crowd but for people who want to live in their living room rather than a corner of the hi-fi store its a superb answer – oh and the guys who make this stuff are proper engineers so it sounds sublime. Your system will end up a lot simpler and you don’t even need to buy the subwoofer

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