Thursday, November 26, 2009

Design and User Interface Makes or Breaks Your Home Theatre Experience

Let's face it, probably less than 1% of the world's population knows how to get a modern TV working the way it should. It's almost a crime selling ever changing technologies, lined with a multitude of buttons and connections that are sure to impress Star Trek geeks. For most regular people, it's all too confusing. All they want to do is watch High Definition... okay, it would be really nice to get some surround sound, too. What if there was a way to just plug equipment together and press a button to get things going? There is - sort of.

For years, manufacturer have been touting plug and play functionality in their products, but the reality is we're not quite there yet. There seems to be some promise in the new HDMI wire that combines digital audio, video and data signals into one cable but that's really just a start. A respectable home entertainment system requires several components and if you want great value, it's probably going to be made up of several brands. You can do research, purchase the products and hope it all comes together neatly at the end of the day. Those who are tech savvy can do an admiral job of this, but again anyone normal may and end up with disaster. Let's say you managed to make all of the right connections. Everything may look and sound great but what's that on your coffee table? At least five remotes that will make you look ridiculous trying to turn on the TV in front of friends.

Here's where a genuine Systems Integrator can make your day. This is a person you hire to come to your home to discuss the kind of system you want and what your expectations are. You are to admit that you know nothing about any of the equipment you've seen in stores or at your friend's house. You do know that you want outstanding picture and sound but you're not sure if you'll even be able to use the system without a patient assistant.

This is the kind of story an Integrator hears all the time. I'm an integrator and the first thing I do is get to know the client well. How comfortable are they with using technology? What do they watch or listen to? Can they tolerate having a big TV or big speakers in the living room? Once I know some key information I can begin to think about options for equipment and the type of controller they should have for the system. The goal is to design and install a system that is really easy to use, looks great in the room and delivers impressive performance.

Getting all this to happen starts by choosing the right equipment. Nobody can really have intimate knowledge about every piece of equipment out there but it helps to do lots of research and to be closely in touch with the custom installations industry. What also helps is the day to day experience of installing and integrating together many types of components. In time you learn what always works and what to avoid in terms of connection types, brands and methods.

Consumer review sites can offer some guidance in finding some excellent products but they don't recognize many of the challenges integrators face that can render some of these products virtually useless in larger systems that are to function intuitively. For example, I can recall a TV purchased by a client, said to be a top performer, that could not fit into our overall design. The problem was, changing inputs on it required pressing too many buttons, and in such a way that the process could never be automated, even by the most advanced control systems available.

Having the right audio/video equipment, by itself, is still only part of the picture. What makes an exceptional system leaps and bounds ahead of the ordinary is the user interface. In essence this is your remote control. When a talented integrator does a thoughtful job of designing and programming a unified system remote, its function is not unlike what you were used to in the olden days - when watching TV required one remote and turning it on meant pushing a button. The modern, expertly programmed automation remote, is truly a marvel, seamlessly combining the functions of numerous components. The user is presented with a minimalist display of buttons, customized and simplified to do exactly what they're supposed to. It's so intuitive that lessons may not even be required to operate the most sophisticated systems. High-end models show more pizzaz with colour touchscreens and live display of iPod song information or access to weather and other online information.

As a consumer, it may be maddening to realize that buying a flat screen TV alone will not bring home the total home theatre experience. That likely requires a lot of added equipment and some skill to put together. As long as no one figures out a way to package this all into one box, I guess I'll always have a job.

Tristan Leynes
Home Digital
705 - 444 - 5638

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