Tech

CES Impressions 2018

CES 2018--Altered Carbon (Netflix)

I can now join the ranks of pretty much every journalist I talked to at CES who’s affirmed it’s become impossible to do a comprehensive show report. CES has gotten too big for any one human to cover it all.

 

Clearly, home entertainment AV products and manufacturers are no longer the focus, although exhibitors like Samsung, Sony, and other big guns were present, headphones and Bluetooth audio systems were abundant, and there was a floor or so’s worth (rather than a hotel’s worth as in years past) of high-end audio companies at the Venetian.

 

Much of what I saw and read about was all about “connectivity,” the Internet of Things, “smart” this and thatjeez, even Bluetooth hair-care systems and yadda yadda. Well, even though I’m a tech head, I don’t care about most of these things. I care about having an emotionally moving entertainment experienceand the products and technologies that can deliver it.

 

There were many times when this Baby Boomer felt alternately intimidated and overwhelmed by all the new tech, as opposed to being in my comfort zone attending AV-oriented shows like Rocky Mountain Audio Fest and CEDIA and checking out the high-end rooms at the Venetian. Perhaps CES by its very nature now presents a skewed picture of what’s really happening in home entertainment. The show used to be more representative of “our” world. Google “media room” and you’ll get about 1,230,000,000 results. That’s not a typo. So there’s lots of real world interest in the subject. Hmmm.

 

A bright spot (more like a bright acre or two) was the proliferation of virtual reality and augmented reality exhibits in the South Hall. Total home entertainment immersionnow that appeals to me, and judging by CES 2018, I have plenty of company. This isn’t just a gamer-geek novelty anymore.

 

Much was made of the power failure in the Central Hall on the second day of CES. The irony was lost on no one. It made me realize that any consumer electronics product is worthless unless it works. After the show, I visited a friend who spent much time yelling at his smart-home control so it could “hear” him. The man-machine interface ain’t perfect yet. Will CES 2028 have a Brain Implant Device Pavilion?

 

Seems like “artificial intelligence” has become the consumer electronics buzzword du jour. But how much of it is merely hype? This is something I want to investigate. Having your refrigerator create a shopping list or having a car with facial recognition isn’t exactly the same as IBM’s Watson or even Sophia the Robot.

The most subversive booth I saw was the Netflix exhibit promoting the upcoming Altered Carbon sci-fi series (shown at the top of the page). It featured highly advanced future tech that was completely fictitious. As I left the booth, I wondered how many people thought it was real.

 

What was the Big Picture here? I don’t know if anyone can see it anymore. Literally. Maybe a few years from now, publications will be sending AI-enabled robots that unlike us mere humans might actually be able to cover the whole show.

—Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

CES 2018: Beyond the Usual Suspects

Most people equate CES with fancy large TVs with crazy high resolution. But if you go beyond that, to the back of the main exhibition halls or over to the Sands Expo Center, you can find off-beat products and prototypes, and ideas that aren’t always reality—yet.

 

VR was everywhere this year, and there were plenty of robots to entertain us. Wearables are evolving—instead of trying to do all things, they’re branching out to take on specific tasks; and they’re finally beginning to show up in places beside the wrist. As expected, voice control also dominated the show.

 

Here are a few of the more unusual products I found.

CES 2018--Mira VR goggles

The Mira Prism VR unit ($149) has clear goggles and uses your smartphone as the processor so you’re no longer socially isolated when you experience VR. That made it different from the countless other VR units on display at CES—and for a girl who gets a bit motion-sick, a more likable experience.

 

Spire was one of my favorite finds this year. It makes wearables, well, wearable. The units are small devices that fit onto your clothing, like your bra. They’re sold in packs of one, three, or eight, and last up to a year and a half with no battery to change or charge—ever. The unit syncs to your phone when in range, but can retain information up to 24 hours if you’re not within range. The best part is you leave it on your clothing, even in the washer. I would love to test this item when it begins shipping in March.

 

Another wearable was Geo Sentinel’s Alzheimer watch. This device can collect and transmit data in real time, from heartbeat to blood pressure, and helps make sure your loved one doesn’t wander away.

 

The $100 Styx bracelet calls for help if you’re ever in trouble. I’m sure any parent would feel better if their daughters had this on their wrists when leaving for college.

 

Vivant launched an app called Steety that lets you share information with your neighbors about what’s happening around you. Did that mailbox get knocked over? You may not know what happened, but maybe Jim next door does and he can share it via the app.

ShadeCraft’s Sunflower is a remote-control outdoor umbrella complete with sensors that automatically open and close it. It also turns itself to keep you in the shade as the sun moves, and a neat bonus is that the shading fabric is made from 3D printing.

CES 2018--Hease robot kiosk

Hease is a robot kiosk that interacts with a client when they come into a building—not replacing the secretary, but providing information while simulating emotional reactions.

 

There was even a company named VocalID that collects, transforms, and regenerates voices. Anyone ever seen the Black Mirror episode where a loved one passes and a company takes their voice data to allow the person to still communicate with you?

CES 2018--Hypnos sleep mask

Want to keep those New Year’s resolutions? Dreaminzzz’ Hypnos eye mask ($99) uses light and vibration to help you sleep and teach you to breathe, and promises it can help you break your addictions.

 

Help was available in all shapes and sizes at CES. From the robots to Bite Helper, which promises to ease pain and itchiness from insect bites using thermo-plus technology.

CES 2018--Xoopar speakers

An honorable mention must go out to Xoopar for cutest mini speakers, which are shaped as little aliens in multiple colors. I can’t promise great sound because the area was packed, but man were they endearing.

 

Why put pictures of your children just on your phone? Now you can print them on your finger nails using a mobile printer by O’2Nails.

 

Another device that caught my eye was Grobo, a pod that allows you to grow great cannabis automatically. Because, why not?

 

But of all the fun, brilliant, surprising ways to use technology, my favorite at the show was Opcom’s Cube, a hydroponic herb and vegetable wall that lives inside your home. For $700, you can own your own wall and eat healthy all year long. Opcom also has a smaller unit for vine growing called the Grow Tent ($500).

—Heather Sidorowicz

Heather Sidorowicz is a frenzied mother of two who happens to also own an audio/video
technology company (Southtown Audio Video) in Buffalo, NY. When not designing or
selling or project managing or pretending to do financials, you can find her attempting to
stand on her hands at the yoga studio or writing in the third person.

My New Tech Resolution

There are two people in my life whose book recommendations I never ignore. The first is my daughter, with whom I share a brain. The second is my friend and mentor Brent Butterworth, who is, without question, the smartest human I know. So when he casually dropped a reference to Robert Lustig’s The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains in a conversation last week, I immediately rushed out and bought it. What followed was two days of outright fascination, a bit of righteous anger, and a ton of self-reflection.

tech gadgets--Hacking of the American Mind

I mention this merely because that book was weighing heavily on my mind when I read Adrienne Maxwell’s missive about all the technology that enters our lives during the Holidays, and the stress some of it brings with it.

 

What could those two things possibly have to do with one another? Well, perhaps it’s worth explaining what the book is actually about, because its title is a little vague. In its 352 pages, Lustig digs deep into three of the primary limbic pathways in our brains and bodies: cortisol (stress), dopamine (pleasure), and serotonin (contentment). I won’t spoil the meat of the book, since it deserves to be read with a fresh mind, but one of the key takeaways is that we as a society have, through no fault of our own, been conditioned to conflate pleasure with happiness. And that conflation is, very literally, killing us.

tech gadgets--Roku Ultra

Adrienne’s post also hit home with me because I had my own experience with tech-related elation and stress this Christmas. One of my favorite gifts this year was a Roku Ultra, a desperately needed upgrade over my tired and overheating Roku Stick, which served me well for five years but has recently become more a source of frustration than streaming bliss.

 

Here’s where the problem begins, though: The Roku Ultra supports the latest in Ultra HD and high-dynamic-range video, but to unlock all of that video goodness it also requires the very latest in digital copy protection, which my TV supports but my surround sound processor lacks. And the Roku Ultra doesn’t have dual HDMI outputs as my Ultra HD Blu-ray player does, so there’s no workaround!

 

As soon as I unboxed it, I felt my cortisol-fueled dopamine pathway begin to kick into overdrive. I need to replace my surround sound processor, too, if I want to get the most out of this little black box!

 

In the end, of course, that’s ridiculous. I’ll eventually replace my surround processor when the time comes. For now, I’m perfectly content with the faster operation, fewer lockups, and more reliable streaming provided by the new Roku. As I should be. I wasn’t unhappy with my old Roku because it lacked the latest in video format support—I was unhappy with it because I needed to reboot it every day. The new box solved that problem. So why did I immediately find myself wanting more?

 

I don’t want to give the impression I’m anti-technology here. Someone whose home has its own operating system has no place going on any sort of anti-tech rant. My point in all this is that, going forward, I’m going to focus more on tech upgrades that alleviate frustrations from my life rather than give me a quick dose of dopamine and long-term stress.

tech gadgets--Ecobee thermostat

My Ecobee thermostat, for example? It gives me all sorts of fascinating readouts and data to peruse. It feeds my dopamine pathways by rewarding me for making slight tweaks to my programming, informed by the charts and graphs it generates each month. In the end, though, all of that fuss saves me mere pennies. My time and energy are better spent letting it do its own thing. In other words, as with most of the technology in my life, I’m happier when it disappears—when it doesn’t call for my constant attention.

 

I’m generally not one for New Year’s resolutions, but I’m making one this year: Any new tech I add to my home (and believe me, there’ll be plenty) must meet that criterion. It must remove stress from my life, not add to it. So, instead of that shiny new iPhone X I’ve been drooling over and absolutely don’t need? I think I’ll add a motion sensor to my shower instead, to automatically turn on the bathroom vent fan when I bathe, which I always forget to do on my own (much to the displeasure of the missus). Instead of upgrading my Control4 remote in the bedroom to the latest model? I think I’ll add a second remote to the media room, so my wife and I stop bickering over the one in there now.

 

In other words, all new tech purchases this year will be made with an eye toward happiness, not pleasure. Because I never realized before just how much those two emotions conflict with one another.

—Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Merry Techfest!

tech gadgets--walkie talkies

If your Christmas Day was at all like mine, you spent about one hour opening gifts, one hour eating items with the word “candied” somewhere in the description, and eight hours performing some manner of tech support.

 

Yes, it was another tech-centric year in the Maxwell household, complete with Apple Watches, Echo Dots, and even some old-school walkie-talkies—which, judging by the amount of neighborhood chatter we eavesdropped, are making a huge comeback with the kiddos.

 

Somewhere around Hour Five of staring at LCD screens, rebooting routers, resetting passwords, and explaining to the eight-year-old how Stranger Danger applies to the world of short-range radio, I had a bit of a Charlie Brown meltdown. Is this really what Christmas is all about?!

tech gadgets--Echo Dot & Apple Watch

OK, I might be exaggerating. In truth, the Apple Watch and Echo Dot are some the easiest devices I’ve set up lately. (I’m looking at you, Xbox One X.) I think my frustration really stemmed from the question that nagged at me all day long: Do we really need any of this stuff, or have we reached the point where we’re just buying tech for tech’s sake?

 

The Apple Watch is cool, but it’s just a pricey conduit for the iPhone located 10 feet away. Have I really gotten so busy (lazy?) that I can’t just walk over and pick up my phone to access the exact same information? Yes, but waiting for that fingerprint recognition to unlock the screen takes soooo long . . .

 

As for the Echo Dot, Day One left me feeling like it was a nifty parlor trick. Perhaps as I more fully integrate the device into my life over the next few weeks and months, its worth will become more evident. I have several friends who absolutely love their Echo products. Voice control has become an indispensable part of their whole-house control systems.

 

The problem is, I don’t own a whole-house control system. I’ve got a couple of smart Lutron Caseta lighting switches and a smart Honeywell thermostat—both of which support Alexa, so integration was a snap. Admittedly, it was fun to be able to say, “Alexa, turn off the living room lamp” at bedtime. Of course, my very next thought was, “I really need to add more smart home products to make the most of this thing.”

 

I guess I know what to put on next year’s Christmas list.

—Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer
than she’s willing to admit. She is currently the managing editor and video specialist
at HomeTheaterReview.com. Adrienne lives in Colorado, where she spends far too
much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough time being in them.

Frank Doris’s Wishlist for 2018

Since this is a wishlist, I’m going to put it out there without regard to the possibility or impracticality of any of it.

 

Carbon Nanotube Loudspeakers

If the mass of a loudspeaker driver could be eliminated, the driver wouldn’t have any inertia and the speaker would be instantly responsive to the audio signal from the amplifier. Talk about clarity and lack of distortion!

 

Many have tried to make a massless (or close to it) driver, including the Hill Plasmatronics speaker (which had to be connected to a tank of helium!) and a demo at a trade show years ago (sorry, I can’t recall the name of the company) where two ultrasonic beams were aimed at the listening spot, causing the lower-frequency interference patterns to make audible sound—or something like that. And of course a primary reason for electrostatic and planar-magnetic speakers is to avoid the relative sluggishness of good old magnet-and-cone dynamic drivers. So I don’t think we’ve heard the last word in speaker technology.

2018 Wishlist--carbon nanotube speaker

Carbon nanotube speakers hold promise. A thin film of carbon nanotubes acts as the speaker diaphragm, which moves back and forth to heat the surrounding air, causing it to expand and contract to produce sound waves. (Neat, huh?) Such speakers could weigh very little (I’d never have to schlep around a heavy guitar amp ever again!) and could be made into interesting shapes and integrated into car interiors, for example.

 

As far as I know, no one’s created anything close to a Wilson Audio Alexia or Magneplanar 30.7 yet using carbon nanotubes. But wouldn’t it be great if someone could come up with something as good . . . or even better? Maybe it’s just an engineering problem or something.

 

A La Carte Everything

Perhaps Jeffrey Lyons can say differently, but I don’t have subscriptions to every movie and TV provider out there. I don’t want to either. The science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon formulated Sturgeon’s Law, which states, “Ninety percent of everything is crap.” And who am I to argue? But some providers won’t let me download just single movies or TV episodesI have to subscribe to their whole service.

 

I’d be happy to pay a download or viewing fee that lets me watch movies or TV shows a la carte, the same way you can buy a single song from iTunes. And such a resource should be one-stop shoppingthat is, just click and buy without having to go to HBO or Netflix or Amazon or whatever site has what I want. I don’t know what would be involved in getting the cooperation of all the providers, and I don’t carejust make it seamless for me, the customer. Maybe it’s just a licensing problem, like finally getting the rights to the original Batman TV series after decades or something.

 

Hi-Rez Audio Everywhere

Wouldn’t it be nice to live together in the kind of world where we belong . . . er, sorry, had Brian Wilson on the brain for a second there. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to just download any piece of music and know it was in hi-rezwhether high-bit-rate, MQA, or whateverand have a device that would just play it without you having to configure it or worry that it was compatible?

 

It’s almost 2018, and I’d like my music in hi-rez, everywhere, all the time. Do we really have to settle for listening to sonically compromised formats anymore? Maybe it’s just an engineering problem, like getting the announcers’ voices in sync with the picture on remote cable-news broadcasts or something.

2018 Wishlist--Autostereoscopy
Universal Autostereoscopy

Autostereoscopy refers to displaying stereoscopic images, which creates the illusion of 3D without glasses, goggles, or any other type of headgear. It can and has been donelook at the Nintendo 3DS or 3DS XL. While this might not be appealing to manufacturers of VR headgear, it would be very appealing to me, someone who wears glasses and doesn’t want them getting in the way of VR goggles. And I know I’m not the only one.

 

I know the technical challenges are formidable, or perhaps even impossible. But maybe it’s just an engineering problem, like getting quantum computing to work or building a faster-than-light drive or creating a wormhole network to connect galaxies and parallel universes. Hey, George Lucas isn’t the only one who can think big.

—Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

Can Alexa Cure Technophobia?

Alexa

I’ve had a few friends hop on the Amazon Alexa bandwagon recently, and invariably they all ask me the same sort of questions: “What are all the skills I need to install ASAP? How do I control my TV with this thing? Will she work my receiver? Can I teach her my favorite TV channels? What lights should I buy? Should I replace my thermostat?” In other words, they want Alexa to do everything, and they want her to do it now.

 

They ask me because they know I’m a huge proponent of home automation in general and of voice control specifically. My Control4 system forever changed the way I interact with my entertainment, and Alexa has changed the way I interact with my Control4 system.

 

So perhaps it’s a little surprising when I give all of these Alexa home-control newbies the same advice: Slow down. Take a deep breath. Stick your toe in the water and find what works best for you before you turn every aspect of your home-entertainment control over to this digital voice assistant.

Alexa

And I say that for two reasons. First, there’s a lot that Alexa—and indeed, Google Home and similar digital voice assistants—can do, but that doesn’t mean you need them to do it all. Fill your Alexa app with too many skills, and soon you’ll find yourself tongue-tied trying to remember the words and phrases that control your lights, your TV, your Dish Hopper DVR, etc.

 

Second—and perhaps more importantly—voice control is still in its infancy. Rayva Roundtable compatriot John Sciacca and I are both Control4 programmers, and we often share programming tips and tricks. We’ve had tons of conversations that began, “How could I get Alexa to . . ?” only to end with, “So, yeah, probably not worth the trouble.”

 

We both agree that voice control, amazing as it may be, is pretty limited in many respects. Most things people want to do with voice commands could more easily be done with the press of a button.

 

Where we disagree is that I’m pretty okay with that. In my own home, Alexa has full control of my lights—I can’t remember the last time my wife or I actually touched a dimmer or light switch—and I have a few voice commands set up to fire up my home theater system and tune to a handful of favorite TV channels. Most of those simply serve as a convenience for those times when I’m on the floor, snuggling with our four-legged little boy, and don’t feel like getting up to grab the remote.

 

So how can I justify saying that Alexa has changed the way my wife and I interact with our home if our voice-control commands are as simple as all that? In many ways, I think it’s because Alexa has made my wife more comfortable with technology by giving a personality to these impersonal black boxes.

 

A year ago, she was a veritable technophobe. These days, she’s tinkering with skills integration just out of curiosity—coming up with new ways to manage our grocery list with Alexa, for example. And as a result, she’s thinking more about the ways in which all of our control and entertainment devices connect.

 

She’s asking more questions. She’s using our Control4 system more, and in ways that have nothing to do with Alexa but can be directly traced to the fact that Alexa has made her more comfortable with control and entertainment technology.

 

There’s something to be said for that, I think. Even if voice control isn’t the main course when it comes to home-entertainment control, it’s certainly the spice that makes it more palatable for some people. And for now, that’s enough to really excite me.

—Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Cookies for the Cable Guy Pt. 2

rural Internet

Of all the talk about the “digital divide” in this country, the divide most people think of is the one separating the broadband “haves” and “have nots”—in other words, the issue of people’s access to the hardware, wires, broadcast frequencies, and ISPs for high-speed broadband service.

 

What I’ve yet to see generally discussed is the difference in mindset between the “haves” and “have nots” about the Internet. The folks in Silicon Valley have done an incredible job of marketing the idea that technologyand, especially, the Internetcan solve all of humanity’s problems. As a result, the Internet (and its highly contagious “Internet of things”) has managed to seep into every aspect of what we think of as modern life.

 

For the most part, the broadband “haves” are on board with the concept of ubiquitous—and sometimes mandatory—high-speed Internet access. But those of us slumming in the “have not” digital dustbowl don’t care if our garbage can has a voice-controlled lid and a built-in scanner that indicates whether a piece of trash is recyclable or not. We couldn’t care less about cutting the cord and using one of the plethora of streaming video services.

 

But it’s a different story when something as important as education assumes the student has access to fast Internet.

 

My daughter’s high school issues laptops to every student, and has replaced the pounds of printed textbooks with access to virtual ones. It makes the students’ backpacks much lighterbut for kids who have irregular Internet access at home, it piles on significant amounts of stress when they try to finish homework or study for an upcoming test using an obstinate (and sometimes hostile) Internet connection.

 

TV shows, movies, and commercials often portray modern life as mostly homogenous with the built-in assumption that everyone has the basics—such as running water, electricity, TV, some form of transportation, a cellphone, and Internetand we tend to create our real-world expectations accordingly. The educators who decided to rely on virtual textbooks are no exception. But—NEWSFLASH—high-speed broadband Internet isn’t ubiquitous yet. Until it is, we all need to be careful not to be deluded by a mindset that naively assumes it is.

 

All of which brings us back to chocolate chip cookies and the irrepressible excitement I described in Part One. After 10 years of suffering in the neglected digital backwoods of America, we were going to be brought up to speedliterallywith the rest of the 21st century.

 

The installers were coming to finish connecting a fiber-optic line to a new modem that would give us near-gigabit download speeds. Whereas our previous fussy Internet access caused homework and studying to take much longer than it should have, now the only thing holding back my daughter is her typing speedwell, that and the ability of her mind to absorb and comprehend the information. (As a bonus, she’s also now able to binge-watch old episodes of The Office.)

 

Although my family has finally made it out of the digital ghetto, there are still millions of good people struggling to keep up. Proposing a hardware/infrastructure solution to bringing broadband Internet to the underserved areas is beyond the scope of this piece. On the other hand, until the underserved-access issue is taken care of, I strongly suggest that the majority of the population that does have reliable, fast Internet avoid being lulled into a false sense of digital equality.

 

Once the digital divide has been bridged, the gaming and streaming-video services will have access to a market that’s currently untapped. More importantly, who knows what kind of discoveries, inventions, businesses, stories, and visions of the future might come about from those additional eyes and ears having unhindered access to what is, at the moment, the ultimate tool in our technological tool chest? I’m pretty sure that whatever it is, it’ll be even better than homemade chocolate-chip cookies.

—Darryl Wilkinson

During his 33 years of tenure in the consumer-electronics industry, Darryl Wilkinson
has made a career out of saying things that sound like they could be true about topics
he knows next to nothing about. He is currently Editor-at-Large for
Sound & Vision, and
sometimes writes things that can be read—if you have nothing else to do—elsewhere.
His biggest accomplishment to date has been making a very fashionable Faraday
cage hoodie.

Chocolate Chip Cookies for the Cable Guy

fiber optic rural

Like many teenagers, my 17-year-old daughter can be prone to doing crazy things. A few weeks ago, for example, she baked a couple batches of chocolate-chip cookies from scratch. That may not seem so weird at first—but she baked them to give to the electric company’s cable-installer guys after they’d installed our new fiber-optic Internet connection. She even wrote thank you notes explaining how excited she was to be able to finally rely on using the Internet at home.

 

In all my years in the consumer-electronics industry, I can’t say I’ve ever heard of anyone being so thrilled about the prospect of an installer coming to their house—and, yet, there’s my daughter, a giggling, screaming installation-crew fangirl.

 

To put things into perspective, we live in an area just to the north of the middle of nowhere, tucked away anonymously in the bowels of flyover country. We’re not totally uncivilized. We have indoor plumbing, electricity, and even a landline telephone connection. The power goes out often enough that we have flashlights stashed around the house, plus battery-powered lanterns for those times when the house is dark for an extended period.

 

The phone connection, however, has such poor sound quality and reliability that Alexander Graham Bell is embarrassedly rolling over in his grave. Adding insult to injury, the phone-line repair guy once actually laughed out loud when I asked him about the possibility of getting DSL service. (It turns out we’re the very last phone connection on the line.)

 

When it comes to cellphone service, we’re more likely to see a ghost in the house than we are to see even one bar of signal strength on our phones—regardless of the provider. Cable TV is something we and our neighbors don’t talk about because as far as we’re concerned, it doesn’t exist.

 

For rural families who’d like to have a taste of what 20th-century communication and entertainment technology is like (forget about this century’s offerings), the only solution is to subscribe to satellite for both TV and Internet. Until a couple of weeks ago, I had at least one neighbor who only had satellite TV and drove to town when they needed to check their email.

 

I’ve had satellite TV for years, going back to well before I decided to live on the frayed edge of the technological grid, and I’ve never had a major complaint. Satellite Internet, on the other hand, was an unknown for me before moving here from the big city a decade ago. Had I stayed there, I wouldn’t bear the deep psychological scars satellite Internet usage has left on me . . .

 

I won’t bore you with the technicalities of why satellite broadband Internet sucks. It’s not the providers who are the problem. It’s the nature of the technology and implementation involving high latency and transmission of packets, and some other stuff I don’t care to understand. As a result, websites were often annoyingly slow to load—even with download speeds that averaged 10-12 Mbps—and access to corporate VPN servers (or using a subscription VPN service) became well-nigh impossible.

 

Our data cap of 15 GB/month was a particularly distressing feature. (To be fair, satellite ISPs aren’t the only ones that impose data caps.) With app and OS updates, connected device updates, file downloads, and a movie or two, you can blast through 15 GB of data in just a couple of weeks—and we usually hit our limit by the middle of each month. Once we passed that threshold, our access speeds would drop to near dialup levels for the rest of the month—leaving us to beg for scraps of leftover Internet in the nearest grocery-store parking lot.

—Darryl Wilkinson

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Darryl’sand his daughter’sadventures with fiber-optic Internet.

During his 33 years of tenure in the consumer-electronics industry, Darryl Wilkinson
has made a career out of saying things that sound like they could be true about topics
he knows next to nothing about. He is currently Editor-at-Large for
Sound & Vision, and
sometimes writes things that can be read—if you have nothing else to do—elsewhere.
His biggest accomplishment to date has been making a very fashionable Faraday
cage hoodie.

Movies Not Quite Anywhere

Movies Anywhere

While there are many reasons to debate the merits of physical ownership versus streaming media, I ran across a new one this morning that was so egregious, I needed to share.

 

Last week, a new service sprang into the world called Movies Anywhere, which lets you buy movies and watch them, well, anywhere. Regardless of the format you buy the movie in—whether disc or digital—if the purchase comes with digital rights, the movie will be added to your Movies Anywhere account so you can then view it on a phone, laptop, tablet, or TV. There’s no charge to join, and since I already had a hundred or so movies in my UltraViolet locker thanks to purchases at the Kaleidescape store, I signed up to see how the service worked.

 

Joining is easy, and once you link your other existing accounts like Vudu, Apple iTunes, Disney Movies Anywhere, Google Play, and Amazon Video, your library is imported and ready for viewing. I also installed the Movies Anywhere app on my Sony 4K TV—a process that was incredibly simple and fast using an onscreen 6-digit code that linked my TV to my account.

 

The first issue I noticed was that my new copy of Spider-Man: Homecoming didn’t appear in my library. While it was added to my Vudu account almost instantly and appeared in my Kaleidescape library within about 10 minutes, 24 hours later, it still hasn’t appeared in my Movies Anywhere library. So, for right now, Spidey is Movies Not Quite Anywhere.

 

As far as quality goes, it’s difficult to know exactly what you’re getting with the service. One thing is for sure—it’s not 4K. According to the company’s help page, “Movies Anywhere does not currently support 3D, 4K or HDR formats. However, eligible UHD Digital Copy codes will flow to your connected Digital Retailers, some of which support UHD.”

 

Regarding HD, “Movies Anywhere will automatically display the best video quality based on your device’s capabilities, supported software installed on your device, and your Internet connection speed.” The minimum Internet connection speed is 2.8 Mbps, meaning that there is some massive compression going on here. Movies seem to have Dolby Digital audio, but, again, there aren’t any specs I can find that list which movies carry which soundtracks.

 

But, again, this isn’t a streaming-versus-owning discussion as relates to picture or sound quality.

So this morning, my daughter Lauryn and I decided to watch an old Disney favorite, Wreck-It Ralph. Wanting to take Movies Anywhere for a spin, I pulled it up on my TV and we started watching. About 45 minutes into the movie, Lauryn noticed something. “Hey, that sign is blank. It should have said something.”

 

“Huh?” I said, not really paying attention to what was happening on screen.

 

“Yeah. Rewind it.”

 

So I did, and sure enough, there in the Nesquick Sand, the sign was blank (see above). “Wow, that’s weird,” I said. “I wonder if they lost the rights to show that or something . . ?”

 

A bit later, the same thing happened when Vanellope presented Ralph with a “medal.” The writing on the medal is the entire gag and the emotional payoff, but it’s completely missing from this version.

 

Now that we were aware of it, we noticed multiple instances in the movie where writing was just . . . gone.

 

Is this post-release tinkering à la George Lucas, some nefarious loss of licensing, or just some missing digital element? It doesn’t really matter. Since the digital version will be the one millions of people will live with and watch Anywhere, it becomes the official version that lives onunless you own the physical copy. Then you can view Wreck-It Ralph whenever you want. Unwrecked.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Video Displays: How Good Is Good Enough? Pt. 2

video display innovations

The Avatar sequel is reportedly being shot at 120 frames per second—5 times the
frame rate of the traditional 24 fps.

In Pt. 1, I discussed how improvements in color space and dynamic range are bringing video displays closer to the abilities of the human eye. Here I’m going to discuss the impact of spatial resolution and refresh or frame rate.

 

Pixels get all the attention when most people pick out their TVs. 2K, 4K, 8Khow many K’s do I need? But just because a display can put more pixels on the screen doesn’t mean they’re better pixels. 

 

Everyone has had the experience of going to the eye doctor and straining to see if that E is pointing up or down, or left or right. As you go from the top line to the bottom, there’s a point where you can no longer determine which direction the E is pointing. This is how the eye doctor determines your sensitivity to spatial resolution.

 

My eyes aren’t quite as good as they used to be, but on a flat-screen TV, I can see pixels on a 1080 display when I’m standing about 3X the picture height back. On a 4K, I can’t see pixels until I get inside of 1.5X the screen height. With projectors, you need to be even closer to see pixels as a result of the natural smoothing affect of convergence and optical lenses.

 

If I’m staring at a spreadsheet, those pixels and distances are pretty accurate, much like staring at those E’s at the eye doctor. But if I’m watching a movie, I’m not straining my eyes to see pixels but instead want to take in the whole image, so I’m moving further back. 4K allows me to sit comfortably about 2X the screen height back, which is as close as I’d ever want to watch a movie. So for the future, don’t give me more pixels, give me better pixels!!!

 

So far, I’ve been talking about pixels, but unless I’m only talking about spreadsheets, I need to understand more about how the human eye sees motion. After all, I want to watch movies!

video display innovations

James Cameron, of Avatar fame, was one of the first Hollywood producers to push HFR (high frame rate). The original movie spec was 24P, and it was chosen because it was the lowest refresh to allow acceptable audio quality. This means that the entire image on the screen is refreshed 24 times per second.

 

If I’m watching two people sitting across a table from each other talking, slow frame rate doesn’t bother me. But if I’m watching a plane fly across the sky, or Matt Damon jumping from one building to another in a chase scene, I need faster refresh rates. When you look in the sky and see a plane fly by, you see it move in a nice, smooth continuous motion. But when you watch a movie in 24P, the plane will seem to jump across the screen as it moves from frame to frame. Your brain naturally tries to smooth this out, but when you watch two scenesone with HFR and one withoutyou appreciate the difference.

 

The critics say HFR makes images seem “soap opera”-like, but honestly, isn’t that the way we see things in real life? When we walk through everyday life, does the world look more like a soap opera or a movie? (I did say “look” and not “feel.”)

 

So currently we hover between 24P for movies, and 60P for video. Experts seem to feel that the threshold for the human eye is around 120Hz (which is what the Avatar sequel is rumored to be shot in). Let me please note that HFR means the movie or content was shot or captured in this high frame rate, not just displayed at faster refresh.

 

Many flat panels tout 240Hz or even 600Hz refresh, but that is just refreshing the same content on the panel and is intended to fix deficiencies in the panels, not in the quality of the movie. HFR requires a lot of bandwidth, so improvements here are costly, but they have a big impact on the way we see images. So expect this to take a little longer than the other items discussed here.

 

In the past 10 years, we’ve seen improvements in all aspects of display performance that affect visual acuity. In the next 10 years, we will see even more improvements. The most important thing is that it’s not just about resolution. Getting to 8K will not bring us to the ultimate display.  In fact, most people won’t see any improvement from going from 8 million pixels to 33 million pixels. If we all want to watch video and have it replicate real life, we don’t really need more pixelswe need better pixels. Give me pixels with more color, more contrast, and refresh them on the screen faster. In the meantime, give me content that will really take advantage of all that my current 4K UHD display can handle. 

—George Walter

A 25-year veteran of the video-display industry, George Walter has been a vice president
at Digital Projection, where he founded its residential division, and a board member for both
CEDIA and Azione. George is the President of Rayva.