Newsflash: HDTV is too complicated!

HDTV is a trainwreck, and the TV manufacturers seem to be waking up to the fact that they've got to design and sell their products in a dramatically different way. But the TV companies can't do this alone, because it's the whole home theater experience th

In an posting on Crave yesterday, Sony's SVP of Marketing Randy Waynick feels that, as an industry, high definition TV gets a barely passing grade in terms of how it communicates about its products to consumers.

Let's be blunt: HDTV and the next generation home theater it anchors is a trainwreck. What should have been the next great in-home entertainment experience has been marred by an alphabet soup of confusing standards and protocols and dubiously compatible products that consumers should never have been exposed to.

Anyone that has shopped for a TV recently knows how true this is. It used to be that if you wanted to buy a TV most of what you needed to know was the diagonal measurement. That largely dictated the technology (CRT vs. rear projection), and beyond that there wasn't much to think about aside from a side-to-side comparison to check for nuances of picture quality. Hooking the TV up to your existing equipment was, while a chore, not fraught with competing standards and incompatabilities.

That's all changed with the confluence of HDTV, home theater, digital cable/satellite, DVD's, DVR's and gaming consoles. Together these various technologies have ramped up the complexity by several orders of magnitude for the simple task of becoming a couch potato. HDMI vs component connection? Which flavor of HDMI? Blu-ray vs. HD DVD? Buy a TiVo or get the cable company's box? DTS or THX or Neo or acronym acronym acronym?

Here's a typical type of question from the popular AVS Forums, asking about DVD compatibility for a receiver:

HD and Blue Ray DVD HDMI audio. I do not understand if any post processing is done on the 5.1 Lossless PCM channels from these players. Will DD PLIIx or THX 7.1 apply to these? What are the limitations?

Everyday people with jobs, kids and lives to lead should just not be forced to think about this junk.

According to the Crave article:

Citing a study by Best Buy, 40 percent of consumers that own already own high-definition televisions don't know they need HD channel services or HD movies to take advantage of their TV's high resolution.

While Waynick places the blame for this with TV manufacturers, this statistic actually shows that it is a more systemic problem. It's not just TV's and the botched rollout of HDTV with its too many flavors and confusion with digital TV, but it's a whole range of speedbumps that the various players have put in the way of a pleasant buying experience.

This wouldn't be so bad if the risks for consumers were low, but they are not. Buying a new HDTV often requires upgrades to multiple other components, subscribing to new more costly services, probably even changing the furniture in the room or getting an expensive installation done if you want to hang it on the wall. What's more, technology is moving at such a rate that there is a good chance some or all of what you buy now will be incompatible in a few years, or seriously behind the quality curve. Consumers are not dummies, that's why they are staying neutral in large numbers on the Blu-ray vs. HD DVD debate - they realize they could be seriously in the hole if they bet wrong.

That's why emergent brands like Vizio, Polaroid and Funai, as cited in the Crave posting, have done well: they deliver the cachet of a flat panel HDTV with lower risk due to their lower price point. But if companies really want to open consumer demand they need to do a hard reset on how they design, market and sell the TV ecosystem.

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Tech Culture
About the author

    Adam Richardson is the director of product strategy at frog design, where he guides strategy engagements for frog's international roster of clients, envisioning and creating new products, consumer electronics, and digital experiences. Adam combines a background in industrial design, interaction design, and sociology, and spends most of his time on convergent designs that combine hardware, software, service, brand, and retail. He writes and speaks extensively on design, business, culture, and technology, and runs his own Richardsona blog.

     

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