Dennis Burger Tag

What a Media Room Isn’t

Last week, the Roundtable’s Michael Gaughn hit me with an interesting question: “How do you build a better media room?” I love that question, because it immediately made me ask another: What even is a media room?

 

Dig through the post history here on the Roundtable and you’ll find plenty of thoughts about media rooms vs. home theaters and the relative merits of each. And from that you can start to draw some conclusions. A media room is definitely a multi-purpose media space—a place to watch films and TV, play video games, perhaps listen to music, but also to read, play board games, do yoga, and maybe even eat supper.

 

But none of the above really gets to the heart of what makes a media room different from any number of spaces in which you could do all of those activities and more.

 

So, what is a media room? Perhaps to get to the heart of that question, we need to describe what a media room isn’t—quite like the old joke about a sculptor who explained his artistic process as taking a piece of stone and carving away anything that didn’t look like a horse. To illustrate this subtractive thought process, let’s take a look at my dad’s entertainment system.

 

Pop has a gigantic 4K TV. He has a pricey surround sound receiver connected to a fantastic GoldenEar in-ceiling speaker system. He has a Blu-ray player, an Apple TV, a TiVo, and even a pretty solid one-room remote control solution, complete with voice control.

 

But calling my dad’s system a media room is a bit like calling my refrigerator a Quiche Lorraine just because it’s got eggs, milk, cheese, and turkey bacon in it.

 

Why, though?

media room

Well, for one thing, he also has a gigantic floor-to-ceiling glass wall that looks out over his pond, flooding the space with sunlight during the day and glaring reflections at night. The gigantic 4K TV? It’s tucked in a corner, in such position that you really have to turn your head to watch it from anywhere in the room. Behind it sits his subwoofer—a nice, high-performance option whose potential is held back by its less-than-ideal positioning. But he refuses to have it anywhere else, for purely aesthetic reasons.

 

Give me an afternoon and a modest budget for some motorized draperies and a few soft bits to dull the harsh surfaces of his room, and I could turn it into a media room. Let me pull the TV out of its hiding spot, rearrange the furniture, maybe put in a good in-ceiling subwoofer to alleviate his concerns about looks, and I could turn it into a damned fine media room—one that still allowed him to look out over his pond at the press of a button.

 

The truth is, though, Pop just doesn’t care enough to warrant the effort. AV performance is pretty much at the bottom of his priority list.

 

So, despite owning all the components typically associated with a media room, he most certainly doesn’t have a media room. What he has is a 21st-century den. And he’s perfectly happy with that.

 

Mind you, I realize I haven’t even begun to answer the question originally posed to me. But I’d love for my fellow Roundtable writers—and even our readers—to pick up the ball and run with it from here. What are the essential elements of a media room? What must it do, and what must it not do? Because I think we really need a firmer grasp on the concept before we start waxing on how to improve it. 

—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.

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.

The Toys That Made Us

In the ongoing conversation about how streaming video is changing our media consumption habits, I think one thing is getting overlooked—the ways in which streaming video is changing the very nature of our media.

 

I bring that up because one of my favorite recent showsa documentary series on Netflix called The Toys That Made Us—strikes me as the sort of thing that wouldn’t have existed a decade ago. Sure, we’ve seen documentaries about toys before, almost all of which focused on one particular slice of nostalgia. But a multi-episode series that isn’t aimed at any particular fandom? One with a decidedly adult bent and a propensity for F-bombs? One that takes off the gloves and uncovers the oftentimes dirty politics that went into creating some of our favorite little pieces of plastic?

 

If I were an executive for any cable network, I would look at the pitch for The Toys That Made Us and insist its creators either narrow their focus or broaden their appeal, or at the very least avoid some of the controversy. Thank goodness I’m not a network executive, then, because having seen the first four episodes of this incredible series, I wouldn’t change a thing.

 

The series kicks off with the granddaddy of all toy lines: Star Wars. Aside from a bit of predictable and unnecessary Episode I bashing that comes off as seriously hipstery, it’s an amazing exploration of the legal deals, design decisions, bickering, and fun that went into creating the toy line that changed everything.

The Toys That Made Us

Here’s the problem, though: Make a show about Star Wars toys and you’re automatically pushing all my buttons. Does that necessarily mean it’s objectively good? Ehhh, I had my doubtsespecially given that the next episode is about Barbie, a franchise I couldn’t have less interest in if I tried. The missus was vaguely interested, though (given that one of her favorite childhood pastimes was staging elaborate Barbie-vs-He-Man battles). So, we gave it a try. What followed was one of the most engrossing 44 minutes’ worth of television I’ve seen in ages. It’s bawdy. It’s tantalizing. There’s forgery and perjury and mail fraud, oh my!

 

Lest you think the entire series comes off as an E! True Hollywood Story, it doesn’t. The tales told here reflect the real history of each toy line explored, with no real agenda beyond getting to the truth. The entire Masters of the Universe toy line, for example, is portrayed as a tail-wagging-the-dog example of pure desperation and marketing hubris. G.I. Joe? While there is some history of the original 12-inch toy line (and the very origins of the phrase “action figure”), the real meat here is on the toys of the ‘80s, which were introduced mostly to capitalize on the new wave of patriotic fervor sweeping the nation.

 

Hopefully the next four episodes, which are due to drop sometime in the early part of 2018, can maintain this level of intrigue and brutal (often profane) honesty. There is the question, of course, about how much more material there is to mine going forward. We know an episode about Transformers is coming in the next batch. There are, no doubt, stories to be told at some point about Cabbage Patch dolls and LEGO.

 

I think what these first four episodes have proven, though, is that nostalgia for certain brands is just the hook. The real appeal of The Toys That Made Us is the very human stories about the people behind the scenes who made the toys that made us.

—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.

Dennis Burger’s Wishlist for 2018

2018 Wishlist--Battlefront II

More than anything, I’m hoping both the gaming industry and Hollywood do some serious soul-searching in the coming year. The conclusion I hope they reach? We consumers have reached a breaking point when it comes to being screwed over. My evidence in this argument? The fact that Battlefront II, the latest Star Wars video game release, currently sits at a 0.9 rating on Metacritic. Not a 9. A zero-point-nine. Nine-tenths of one point.

 

The reality is, it’s not that bad a game. Not mind-blowingly amazing, but certainly solid. Were I to slap a score on it, it would be a minimum of 7.5.

 

So why the abysmal user reviews? Because the game’s developers burdened the release with cheap money-making tactics that fall somewhere on a spectrum between extortion and gambling. At the behest of Lucasfilm, these money-making mechanisms were shut down right after the game launched, but the damage was done. Gamers had had enough. To pay full price ($60 to $80) for a game only to be nickel and dimed to death when attempting to advance through the experience at a reasonable pace is an insult that simply has to end.

 

Gamers feel as if the only way to force an end to such shenanigans is outright revolt. Only the game publishers have the power to decide whether 2018 is an apology tour or a bloodbath.

2018 Wishlist--The Last Jedi

What about Hollywood? I’m not breaking any new ground with this revelation, but we consumers have had our fill of double-, triple-, and even quadruple-dipping when it comes to non-streaming home-video releases. I worry that Disney will attempt, in typical fashion, to release Star Wars: The Last Jedi as a relatively standard Blu-ray early in the spring and follow it up with a deluxe bonus edition late next year. They got away with it for The Force Awakens. They’ve gotten away with it on so many major releases in the past. I’m not sure they will for much longer.

 

Give us the goodies up front. Give us a UHD Blu-ray, for goodness’ sake. Throw in an audio commentary exploring The Last Jedi’s deep and numerous subversive themes. Give us the tribute to Carrie Fisher we’re all longing to see. Give us all of that without holding back, and we’ll snatch up the physical discs gladly, perhaps even in record numbers. But if Disney gives us the standard tease, or forces us to buy multiple retailer exclusives to get all the bonus features that exist out in the wild, it will simply be putting yet another nail in the coffin of physical media.

—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.

Dennis Burger’s Best of ’17

Best of 2017--Baby Driver

Best Home-Video Release: Baby Driver (UHD Blu-ray)

A controversial pick, I know, given that it stars one of the many Hollywood legends to fall from grace this year. But don’t let the fact that Kevin Spacey is a scumbag who couldn’t apologize his way out of a slightly overdone bagel without burning his entire neighborhood to the ground keep you from enjoying one of director Edgar Wright’s most perfect films to date. Baby Driver is a pure expression of cinematic art, the likes of which we rarely see these days. It’s the perfect synchronization of imagery and sound—a beautiful ballet of music and audio mayhem and visuals that you might be inclined to write off as style over substance. Don’t. The film’s style is its substance, and it has the courage to tell a very simple, straightforward story in a sensational yet sincere way.

 

And the UHD Blu-ray is every ounce the home-video release the film deserves. Its HDR imagery is stunning, and the Atmos audio track is a huge step up from the standard Blu-ray’s weak-sauce 5.1 audio mix. As with all Edgar Wright films, the bonus features are simply a treasure, including not one but two amazing audio commentaries you should definitely check out even if commentary tracks normally aren’t your bag.

Best of 2017--Horizon Zero Dawn

Best Video Games: Horizon Zero Dawn and Divinity: Original Sin 2

Ugh, I hate ties in Year-end Best-of lists, but the simple fact is that either of these gems would easily be Game of the Year had they been released in a year without the other. And what makes choosing between them so difficult is that they’re so radically different.

 

Horizon Zero Dawn, a PlayStation 4 exclusive, goes toe-to-toe with the best Hollywood has to offer and comes out ahead in terms of character development, environments, and meaningful storytelling. It’s an open world that begs to be explored. Imagine watching Avatar and being able to step outside the frame to travel into the untamed wilderness however you want, without the limitations imposed by the script or cinematographer or director. That’s HZD to a T. It’s an interactive cinematic experience that simply couldn’t have been accomplished on older technology.

Best of 2017--Divinity: Original Sin 2

Divinity: Original Sin 2, on the other hand? It’s about as old-school a gaming experience as you’re likely to find these days outside of classic console simulators. This top-down, ¾-view roleplaying game hearkens back to an age when computer RPGs like Buldur’s Gate and Ultima ruled the gaming world. It’s gaming in its purest formnot cinematic in the slightest. Not even attempting to be cinematic. Its combat is a brilliant turn-based system whereby the action pauses every time you make a move (the digital equivalent of rolling the dice). There are modern flourishes, of course. The graphics are pretty stunning, and the special effects are brilliant. But at its heart, Divinity: Original Sin 2 is a game that could have just as easily been made twenty years ago, just with fewer pixels and a lot less color. It’s nostalgia incarnate, polished to perfection.

—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.

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

Wolfenstein II

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is either the 9th or the 11th game in the popular anti-Nazi video game series, depending on how much of a purist you are in your counting. And if that statement strikes you as somewhat confusing, well—welcome to the world of video game series reboots. The New Colossus is a direct sequel to 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order, a soft relaunch of the franchise that was followed up by the 2015 release of Wolfenstein: The Old Blood, which was equal parts expansion pack and standalone prequel.

 

If that seems like too convoluted a history for you to even bother with at this point, rest easy. All you really need to know about the Wolfenstein series is that the Nazis won World War II, they’re taking over the world, and it’s your job to shoot them. Imagine The Man in the High Castle if it had been written by Paul Verhoeven instead of Philip K. Dick. There’s a lot more to it than that, of course. This new game draws on characters and themes from much earlier entries and manages to tell a quite personal tale about identity, parental relationships, and indeed the very nature of freedom.

 

But at its heart, the real draw of Wolfenstein II is in shooting Nazis. Tons and tons and more tons of Nazis. Sometimes you shoot them with big guns. Sometime with pistols. Sometimes you have to sneak up on them and whack ‘em with an ax. But in the end, dead Nazis is the first, second, and only meaningful objective in the game.

 

The biggest thing setting The New Colossus apart from its forebears is that this time around the action takes place in the United States—one overrun by the Reich, whose citizens have, for the most part, acquiesced to or outright embraced their goose-stepping overlords.

Wolfenstein II

That has led to criticism from those who see the game as a critique of our current political environment. It’s not intended as such, mind you. Games like this take years to develop and its developers aren’t prognosticators. But the fact that a game about killing Nazis is seen as a commentary on American politics at all, accidentally or not, is certainly worth mentioning. As much as this is a silly, brutal, over-the-top violence-fest, the central message here is that racism is bad. Fascism is bad. But also key to the narrative is the fact that most people aren’t badthey simply play along with their own tribe.

 

One thing I can say about Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus that isn’t even remotely controversial is that it’s an audiovisual tour de force. It’s a game that positively begs to be experienced on as large a screen as possible, with as many channels of sound as you can throw at it. Developer MachineGames has managed to shake up the series with entirely new environments while also hanging onto the same art design and overall aesthetic flair that made the last two games such stunners. And the Hollywood-caliber sound mix is, without question, the most dynamic and raucous I’ve heard in quite some time. Attempt to play this game on your tinny TV speakers and you’re just betting to blow a driver or two.

 

Truth be told, there are times when I wish I could just pop a big bowl of popcorn and watch someone else play the game. It truly can be that compelling. Whether you experience it from the firsthand perspective or as a passive bystander, though, you owe it to yourself to experience this game.

—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.

Stranger Things 2

It’s pretty safe to say that on the list of the most talked-about shows of the past two years, the Netflix-original Stranger Things ranks pretty near the top. On the off chance you haven’t seen it yet, this delightful supernatural mystery is a veritable love letter to 1970s and ‘80s pop culture. It’s a pastiche of Alien and E.T., Firestarter and The Goonies, Poltergeist and Stand By Me, with a heaping helping of Dungeons & Dragons and A Nightmare on Elm Street thrown in the mix for good measure. And it makes no apologies for any of the above. It has all the makings of a cheap rip-off, but avoids being such by wearing its influences proudly on its sleeve and using them as a hook rather than a crutch.

 

Indeed, during the course of Stranger Things 2the latest run of nine episodes, which dropped just in time for Halloween this year—a new character being brought up on the events of the previous year flirts with the fourth wall just long enough to wink at the audience and let us know that, yes, we’re aware the story is derivative. But that’s kind of the point. In its music, its cinematography, its writing, its acting—every element of Stranger Things is an unabashed throwback to the childhood of Gen Xers, who, let’s face it, had the greatest childhood of all.

 

If that’s all it was, Stranger Things and Stranger Things 2 (seriously, don’t call it a second seasonit’s a sequel) would be an absolute treat. Thankfully, it’s so much more. This brilliant series doesn’t just evoke those classic films listed above. And it doesn’t merely measure up to them. It somehow manages to live up to the nostalgia that my generation has for the genre films of our youth, which is a much taller order. In other words, it’s not merely as good as they areit’s as good as we’ve built them up to be.

Netflix Stranger Things 2

And Stranger Things 2 ups the ante with a bigger budget, better effects, and a beastlier baddie. But at the same time, it also manages to tell a more human story. It’s the rarest of all sequels, one that progresses the plot organically, raises the stakes intriguingly, and captures the spirit of what made the original so popular without rehashing it.

 

I won’t get any more specific than that, because every element of Stranger Things and its sequel deserves to be discovered in real time. But I do want to point out one thing some fans may have missed: Stranger Things 2 is one of the very few original streaming series to be accompanied by bonus features.

 

This, for me, is particularly huge because I’m a bonus-features junkie. It’s one of the main reasons I cling to my collection of five-inch discs, in outright defiance of our obvious streaming future. For me, a good making-of documentary is as essential to the home theater experience as popcorn and comfy seating. And while Beyond Stranger Things doesn’t quite count as a behind-the-scenes doc, it does adopt the sort of after-show format popularized by fan favorites like Talking Dead, and it does so quite well.

 

In its seven episodes, which range from 15 to 25 minutes in length, we get some pretty good insights into the making of the series and the thoughts that went into shaping it, and also get a peek at the bonds between its adorable adolescent cast members. Does it live up to the running audio commentary the series deserves? No. Would I still punch a baby for a full-length documentary about the making of Stranger Things 2? Indeed, I would.

 

But I’m really just thrilled to be getting any sort of bonus features at all for a series made exclusively for streaming. Aside from a 25-minute featurette for Sense8, I’m struggling to think of any other similar features. And that’s a shame. Because I’ve accepted the fact that discs are dying, but I just can’t come to terms with the fact that enriching behind-the-scenes materials could possibly die with them. 

—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.

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.

Disney Gambles Big on Star Wars Streaming

Disney streaming service

For Star Wars fans, last week was a gift that just kept on giving. Not only did we learn that Rian Johnson, director of the upcoming The Last Jedi, is launching a trilogy of films independent from the Skywalker Saga, but Disney also dropped a bomb about a new live-action TV series set in that beloved Galaxy Far, Far Away. This is huge for a number of reasons, not least because George Lucas tried and failed to create a live-action show before selling the Star Wars franchise to Disney in 2012.

 

Maybe more significant, though, is how Disney plans to distribute the series. It’s not coming to the airwaves, nor Netflix, which currently serves as the exclusive home to several Disney-produced Marvel series, including the highly acclaimed Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Instead, the Star Wars show—along with Disney’s films and other properties—will reach consumers’ eyeballs by way of a new streaming video service launching in 2019.

 

It should go without saying that I’ll be signing up for said service the minute it launches. But I think Disney is making a huge mistake. Maybe not in the short term, mind you. I think it’s reasonable to expect that Disney’s stock will get another bump and Netflix’s will take another hit as the studio moves all its films and most of its TV shows to its new, exclusive platform.

 

And for what it’s worth, apparently Disney has no plans to evict Luke Cage and the rest of the Defenders from the only home they’ve ever known, so that’s a plus.

 

I can’t imagine many if any people will dump Netflix entirely for DisneyFlix or whatever it ends up being called. But I still think this move is a net-negative for the streaming-video industry, and for consumers in particular. Why? Because we’re already seeing people approaching a breaking point with the continued fragmentation of the streaming market.

 

In other words, I think we’re reaching Peak Subscription Saturation. For me, subscribing to this new Disney service just to get my weekly Star Wars fix likely means I’ll be dumping Hulu. And if I were also a Star Trek fan subscribing to All Access just to watch Discovery, I’d likely be looking at dumping CBS’s streaming service instead. (Spare me your whining, Trekkies—Star Wars is just better and you know it.)

 

The simple fact is that most people are cutting the cord because of the value proposition. Expensive cable-TV bundles that force you to pay for ESPN if you want to watch Cartoon Network are increasingly becoming a breaking point for most people.

 

Could the exact opposite problem start to hurt the streaming market? Could we literally end up with too much choice instead of too little? It’s entirely possible. After all, who wants to pay $6 or $8 or $10 a month just to watch one TV show? Are you willing to pay $100 a month or more just to have all the streaming apps you would need to subscribe to if all the studios and content providers start their own services? I know I’m not.

 

In the end, I have no doubt Disney’s new streaming service will be successful. Playing the Star Wars card is pretty much the same as having an “I Win” button. But if this streaming fragmentation continues, I also know this just as surely: We—the geeks, the nerds, the regular cinephiles, and the TV junkies—will be the biggest losers.

—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.

How Video Games Changed the Movies

video games changed movies

One of the laziest and most ubiquitous criticisms leveled at movies these days is to say they’ve been somehow corrupted by video games. It’s a dismissal based primarily on ignorance—the assumption that video games are nothing more than flashy computer graphics and frenetic action. And while it’s true that more and more movies rely on such crutches (I’m looking at you, Michael Bay), I would argue that video games aren’t to blame. Movies like Transformers are simply a result of cheaper digital-rendering effects and lazy writing.

 

If anything, the influence of gaming on movies has been a net positive, but not in the ways you might expect. The biggest change Hollywood has made in response to the overwhelming dominance of the video-game industry—it is, after all, bigger than the music and movie industries combined—is in the way movies tell stories. Specifically, the way they draw you into the narrative experience.

Video games have long had an immersive edge over movies. With games, you’re an active participant, not merely a distant spectator. Can there be any denying, for example, that the aesthetic of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down was, consciously or not, influenced by video games? And I don’t merely mean its action sequencesI mean even the film’s most pedestrian dialogue exchanges, which are often framed in such a way that the character being spoken to is so close to the camera as to spill out of the screen. The film’s over-the-shoulder cinematography sometimes so closely mimics the camera angles of third-person action games that you almost feel your hands reaching for a phantom controller.

 

It’s not just aesthetics, either. The very narrative structure of games is starting to sneak into movies in inventive ways. Contrast, for example, two very popular “time loop” films—1993’s Groundhog Day and 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow. Mind you, I realize they’re different genres altogether, but that alone isn’t enough to account for the radical differences in the way these films deal with the concept of being forced to repeat the same events over and over again. In Edge of Tomorrow—which, by the way, director Doug Liman has admitted was largely influenced by the storytelling experience of games—the protagonist isn’t merely there to learn one overarching lesson from his repeated days. He literally learns from every death, much as is the case with video games.

 

I would also argue that the upward trend in the length of films has at least a little to do with games. Before you scoff, hear me out. Video games, by and large, spread their narrative over eight, ten, thirty, sometimes even hundreds of hours of gameplay. They’ve trained us to sit for longer stretches of time to absorb a story—and in a way that’s not quite like reading or like binge-watching a TV series.

 

You could argue whether or not that’s a good thing, of course. But what it boils down to is that the influence of games on the current state of cinema doesn’t simply boil down to pretty lights that hypnotize.

—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.