Media

How can the Scientific Atlanta HD-8000 suck so badly?

I've been a longtime user of the Tivo, and when my mother got an HDTV, I pushed her to get a PVR. In Canada, the only really workable option for her was to rent the HD-8000 HD PVR from Rogers, her cable company. No Tivo service in Canada, and she wasn't ready for a PC based PVR (And HD ones are still immature.)

Two things I learned from the process. The first was how amazed I was at how badly the HD-8000 was designed. It strikes me as a first generation unit, not something that was designed after people looked at the Tivo and the Replay. Trying to watch a show in the middle of recording it is possible, but really cumbersome. It's very easy to lose your buffer on a live program you were watcing, or to lose your place in a recorded program you were watching. Browsing shows is guide-based, requiring you to browse only a particular day at a time. I could go on.

The other remarkable thing was seeing my low-tech mother's reaction. In spite of all I tell her about the PVR, she still wants to watch TV live most of the time. As a retiree and caregiver, she's home most of the time, and while she intellectually understands what the box does, her habits are so-long set that she really doesn't "get" it.

Which may explain the poor UI on the HD-8000. They don't expect their users to get it either. They expect their users to see it as a fancy VCR, with the ability to pause live TV. (Tivo owners learn that pausing live TV is more of a gimmick feature, in that you almost never watch live TV.)

Watching the recorded HD does make me jealous, though. HD PVR choices here are limited. You can get DirecTV's HD-Tivo for $1000, or build a MythTV box for a similar amount of money. It is the need for the PVR that has stopped me from getting HDTV, which otherwise I want very much.

But my Mother doesn't remember that when called on the phone, she can pause it. Or that you should always record a show you see that you want to watch, to give you the freedom to switch from it and come back later without risk. She is happy with her old habit of switching channels when a commercial comes on, and coming back to the other show later, presumably missing some of it. She is even happy watching low def live, when PVRed hi-def is a few steps away. My mother helps me remember that all users are not like me, which is good.

Serial vs. Browsed, Reader-Friendly vs. Writer-Friendly

Online discussion and collaboration tools are old now, dating back almost 40 years to PLATO, 30 years for mailing lists, 25 years for BBSs and USENET. Yet somehow I don’t feel we’ve got it right yet, and in fact may be going in some wrong directions.

I beleive there are two central dichotomies that make the problem hard to solve.

The first is the distinction between “serial” material which is meant to be read as a stream (though perhaps referenced later) and “browsable” information meant to be read in a somewhat more random order.

E-mail, USENET, RSS feeds and message boards are largely serial. Blogs and web boards are attempts to be serial in a browsed medium, which the web largely is. Wikis are on the browseable side of the spectrum, though of course they contain serial aspects, like the ability to e-mail lists of recently changed pages. (Twitter is a somewhat interesting medium as it is serial but contains so much you simply sample the stream rather than read all of it.)

The second dichotomy is between reader-friendly and writer-friendly. Writer-friendly systems put as few burdens on the writer as possible in order to encourage participation. Reader friendly systems try to make it as easy as possible for a reader to get what she’s looking for out of the system. One of the central quests has been for automated software tools that let the writer not do much work but still let the reader get what they want. A search engine is an example of such a technology.

A professional publication will be highly reader-friendly. If you have a million readers, it’s worth every possible effort on the writer or publisher’s part to make it better for them, especially if they are your source of income. Writers will take the time to write well, organize, categorize and put in links to releated resources. They will create sidebars to deal with other topics or provide introductions to readers not as familiar with the subject matter.

Wikis are writer friendly. Anybody can just go in and edit any page any way they want. No other bounds (at least in the software) exist to encourage people to put material in the Wiki.

While I know the value of browsing, I think serial presentations are more reader-friendly, or at least can be. I don’t have to go looking for what’s new for me if the serial stream is decently managed. But this is not a universal rule.

What is missing, however, is the right marriage of the serial and the browsable. For discussions, and for breaking news, we want a serial presentation. We don’t want to go to a newspaper web site and figure out for ourselves what stories we already saw, or what parts of the stories we already know. We would like the system to know what’s new for us. At the same time, serial streams (including blogs) leave behind worthwhile trails that are meant to be browsed or searched later. But we don’t tend to fill our serial streams with things to help in that department, like links. Nor do we even have mechanisms in mailing lists or USENET to easily update items from the past that will be read by newcomers (either serially or through browsing.)

The marriage, when we find it, will allow people to have productive discussions online, like in a mailing list, but leave behind a useful information resource, with the tangents removed to tagged to be easily avoided, the useful and popular information highlighted, the past cleaned up and edited (though with the truth available.) Perhaps a marriage of Wiki techniques and newsgroups.

It should be able to balance reader and writer friendliness depending on how many there are of each. For example, a system with 10,000 readers and one writer should push the writer to do more, since if 2 minutes work by the writer can save a second for 10,000 people it’s a good trade-off. However, in small systems with few readers you want to encourage participation and not put demands on writers. Ideally you have a quest for fancy tools to get the most of both where you can have it.

I know people want this marriage. People are excited about products like GMail which let them get a better grasp of all the E-mail conversations they participate in. But there is so much more that has to be done. I don’t have the answer right now, but I want to encourage debate and innovation on the topic.

Update: I have added thoughts about how some media are “sampled” (you only dip into them from time to time and see what’s current) and some are subscribed (you read it all, or at least scan it all most of the time) in thinking about Twitter.

More commercial elimination

In the 80s, as VCRs were becoming popular, I saw an interesting product that acted as a commercial eliminator for those who wanted to tape classic, black and white movies that were often on late at night.

The product simply detected when the signal went colour, and would trigger the pause button on your VCR. (In early VCRs this was not even infrared.) The commercials were colour, the movie was B&W and so you got a commercial free movie recorded.

In watching HDTV movies recently, I had the thought you could now reverse this process. The movies are in hi-def, widescreen, but most of the commercials are in regular def, 4:3 ratio. So a commercial eliminator could pull the trick of deleting the old (rather than the new) on these shows. Of course this trick won't last forever. As HDTV grows more of the commercials will move that way. It's even easier to justify if it sells product.

Low blogging the last while, been on the road. In Toronto now for Jerry's Retreat.

PVR Video recording surfing

We all love our Tivo or other PVRs (though my mother just got the Scientific Atlanta 8000HD which does HDTV but otherwise has a terrible UI. It's hard to imagine this was designed after people saw the Tivo or Replay.)

After you use your PVR, you get a large library. Deliberately recorded programs, or in the case of the Tivo "suggestion" mode, programs recorded at random that are similar to shows you have asked to record.

You can browse them like a directory. And once you use the PVR a lot you stop surfing the live TV by and large. So I suggest adding a "surf" mode for the recorded shows. Ie. pretend they are a set of channels that are on now. You would start surfing by seeing the first show live (but with the overlay showing what it is.) You could hit up or down and move to other recorded shows. For surfing purposes, the shows would pause and recontinue where you left off during this surfing session. After a while this would be forgotten for the next surfing session if you liked.

You can already browse through the descriptions, but this mode would give a more familiar feel to looking at the shows. This would be better for the suggestions than the requested shows. For example, I have often got many episodes of a show I watch, in order, and I don't want to browse them and spoil what's ahead. I don't even want to read the descriptions in many cases.

Oh yea, speaking of which, who isn't annoyed at the long delay for channel changes on PVRs, satellite boxes and digital cable boxes. Many of these have dual tuners, so why not do this: If the other tuner is available, start pre-buffering the "next" expected channel in a channel surf, so you can show it instantly. There is a downside to this, which is sometimes you will guess wrong or not have the other tuner and thus have to do the regular slow channel change, and I know that studies show that inconsistent response time is more confusing to users than consistently bad response time. But I think they could come to understand it. Of course, as tuners become cheaper, just have enough that you can always do it.

A new regime of radio regulation

Declan recently wrote an article about abolishing the FCC and selling off spectrum to private owners. It's an old idea, in fact too old, it was out of date even when the book he cites was published.

For starters, there is UWB -- ultrawideband technology that transmits on all frequences at once because it uses what would be viewed as noise pulses, rather than a band at all. The developers of the technology, when they first started telling the FCC about it, remarked that until they were told about it, the FCC would not have been able to detect that it was even _there_, let alone regulate it. They had to tell them it existed.

Owned spectrum would pretty much forbid UWB -- and any other future innovations that were similar.

Other new technologies eliminate interference in other ways, but having dynamic transmitter-receiver relationships that limit power and take advantage of the fact that radio waves don't actually interfere when they cross one another except at the receiving antenna unable to deal with the problem.

Selling off spectrum as a permanent property right forever carves the concept of "spectrum" into law, and that's simply a silly thing to do, knowing what we do now, and knowing what we might be capable of in the future.

Instead, how about a much simpler rule.

You should not broadcast in a way that interferes with other broadcasters.

or simply:

Though shalt not hog bandwidth.

With the following interesting interpretation. It doesn't matter who was there first. Rather, it is the duty of any transmitter to regularly take steps to avoid interfering with both those already doing radio in the area and those who might come along in the future.  read more »

New way of watching series TV

My blog's popular today, so let me expand on an older essay of mine I never blogged before, concerning my new style of watching TV, thanks in part to my Tivo hard disk recorder.

In the past series-based TV has made its money by the series getting fans which watch it every week. The fans watch the good episodes and they watch the bad. As long as they get enough good episodes (or very rarely, all-good) they continue to watch the show. Advertisers buy space based on the popularity of the show (though they pay based on the ratings it actually gets.)

With movies and books, we have some fandom (especially for a big series like Star Wars) but more commonly you choose your movie based on things you hear about a particular movie. You may be brought in by good marketing, but more often you wait and hear good things, and then you go.

I've started watching series TV the latter way. I have my Tivo record the series I am interested in. For many series, there are fan websites where the fans hold polls about how good the episode was, starting the very night of airing.

I look at the poll a few days later, and if the episode was a turkey, I delete it. If need be, I read the summary of plot details found on the fan web site. As a result, my TV series end up with nothing but good episodes. Some series are much more watchable if you remove the bad parts. Life is too short to watch bad TV.

You can read more at the bottom of my essay on the future of TV advertising or below in the blog...  read more »

Undefeatable commercial elimination

I've written elsewhere about the doom of the TV commercial, and as you may know, we represented Replay TV owners in their fight to not be declared lawbreakers for skipping commercials..

Commercial skipping tools have existed for some time, my old VCR has a complex automatic commercial advance. DVR makers have been scared against doing it for a while it seems.

However, an algorithm exists that makes it a fight they can't win. While networks can try to fool automated commercial skipping algorithms, they can't fool large numbers of live people.

One could build a commercial skip (or general "boring parts skipper") in PVRs by having the first party to watch a show be required to manually fast forward over the boring parts. As more and more people do this, patterns will emerge. Combined with automated algorithms looking for the usual (fades to black, standard time periods, changes in sound patterns) it would be possible to get a very accurate measure of where the commercials and other boring parts in a show are. So accurate you could even delete them from disk, though there isn't a great need to do that.

Of course, you would need to use only people without a reputation for dishonesty. If one person's skippings don't match the others, or they do this a lot, don't use them. You could also do collaborative filtering techniques, to see people who skip what you do, or who even pause to watch certain ads (like movie trailers) as you do.

This could apply to not just shows with commercials, but other shows with boring parts. Pauses in sporting events. Boring speeches in award shows and political press conferences. Sharing your skipping with people of similar tastes could cause on-the-fly personal edits of shows ready within an hour or two of airing.

Sometimes you would want to watch first and you become the editor. Most of the time you would just be the beneficiary. If you don't like the editing one group of people are doing, you could switch to another.

Fantasy a risk in moviemaking?

At the Oscars last night (which were pretty boring, with one nice joke featuring Billy Crystal camcordering a new movie) Peter Jackson thanked the Studios for having the courage to back a big fantasy epic like the Lord of the Rings.

But a look at IMDB's list of all-time movie revenues reveals something else. Of the top 25 grossing movies of all time, how many were science fiction and fantasy?

23 of them. Only Titanic (at #1) and Forrest Gump were not. So with that record, how hard should it have been to pitch the generally regarded top fantasy book in history (not counting the Bible) for big box office. Yes, the prior two animated productions had been poor performers, but with modern moviemaking techniques, and skilled people, this was not a risky proposition.

(Yes, the list is in current dollars, which heavily biases towards recent films. Even the constant dollar list is heavily loaded with fantasy and science fiction.)

And the next 25 are heavily loaded that way too.

Car dock for my MP3 player

I like to use our Rio Karma MP3 player in the car, but it's not nearly as good as it could be. So here are some jottings on what an ideal car dock would do for the player.

  • Power and charge the player, of course
  • Offer various options for sending audio to the car, including a built-in quality FM transmitter, a port for a special Cassette sized interface (more below) and various cables for car stereos that have an accessory jack (as mine has for a trunk CD-changer) or plain audio inputs.
  • A wireless remote control to stick on the wheel (not needed if other remote control methods can work.)
  • A microphone.
  • To get really fancy, an 802.11 interface to allow it to sync up with computers inside the house while in the driveway. Though strictly, this would be even better inside the player, not in the dock.

The microphone would perform several roles. One, it would detect the ambient sound level in the car, and boost the music volume as the car gets noisier. No more super-loud when you start the car either.

Secondly, it would listen for the sound of the music the player is playing. It would try to tell if it was playing, so it could detect when the stereo is turned off or switched to something else, or when the car is turned off (if the loss of power from the accessory jack doesn't already reveal this.) When the sound stops (even if this takes 5 seconds to confirm) just pause the music back in time when the sound was first detected to stop. One could then from time to time send out pulses of the forthcoming audio, and if it hears them, treat that as a resumption of play.  read more »

Limit children's hours of TV viewing

Generally, I'm the last person to suggest we use technology to control people's lives and what they view. However, it's also the duty of parents to help teach their children how and when to use the media. Most commonly today you see things like the V-chip, which let parents block their unskilled children from seeing shows with certain "ratings."

A far more useful concept, I think, would be a device which limits the amount of time children can spend watching the TV. What they watch in that context can be mostly up to them, and if they understand the concept of a time budget, it will probably improve not just how much they watch but what they watch.

A PVR like the Tivo, or in particular, the DirecTivo, is the ideal platform for doing this. Children would get their own remotes, or a code to enter on the master remote to start using their weekly budget of TV hours. Once the budget was used up, they could not watch TV for a while. With a PVR, this would not block them from seeing a highly desired show, but it would delay it.

If two children wanted to watch the same show they could both enter their code to halve the amount of TV credit used, encouraging sharing and (minimal) socialization. Siblings would pretty quickly develop a market, trading TV hours like prison cigarettes with one another for real-world things, even money. This need not be discouraged. Random TV surfing would be discouraged, and commercial viewing strongly discouraged.

Adults would have to take the burden of having to enter their own code for unmetered viewing, a price they would pay to cut down their kid's TV hours.

Of course there are also some privacy considerations to consider.  read more »

More on Tivo for Radio

Thinking more about the future of mobile audio (see Tivo for Radio Entry) I start to wonder if XM and Sirius satellite radio are doomed propositions. They seem like a good idea, nationwide radio, 100 channels, many commercial-free.

But how many of the stations does any given listener actually use? I would guess most people only listen to a few of them, just as they only listen to a few on the local dial.

And more to the point, how many need to be live? Very few. Certainly not the classical stations or other music stations. Generally only news, sports and (localized) traffic and weather need to be truly live. Political talk shows should be current though need not be live.

So what this means is that the satellite systems may be way overdone for bandwidth. One might attain all one wants from Satellite Radio with the hard disk based car-audio system, which by 802.11 sucks down all the new content it needs when in the driveway (or when near an authorized 802.11 node.) The live content can come from conventional radio, or the sideband on a TV station or other local transmitter.

(The local radio stations might not be willing to assist so readily in their own demise.)

The selection of Internet Radio blows away even satellite radio. Combined with your own personal music collection it's a no-brainer. The quality is just fine for use in a car. XM an Sirius proudly boast they have 3 classical stations, 3 jazz stations, whatever. Internet radio has hundreds of each type of station, as well as custom stations.

One could build an equivalent satellite network buying just a few hundred kilobits of bandwidth (for all the live talk, sports and news stations, which can use higher compression codecs as they are just talk) from satellites if you need the coast to coast coverage on the live data, or piggyback on other platforms if you just need the major areas.

You could also cut deals with 802.11 hotspot owners to let cars driving by quickly pick up more live news and talk. You laugh, but if you are in range of 5 megabits for 10 seconds, that's enough for 40 minutes of 20kbit talk radio.

XM and Sirius need to pay for a hugely expensive satellite infrastructure. Did they overbuild?

I want my "Tivo" for radio in my car

Recently, we picked up a Rio Karma, which is a 20gb handheld jukebox that plays MP3, WMA and Ogg Vorbis. Particularly nice things about it include the Ogg support and the fact it has Ethernet, so that any machine on our net can transfer music into it. That's about all it does with the ethernet (it also has a small web server to serve the manual and a java transfer app) but I expect it will do more later, like be a streaming media gateway when docked on the stereo, allowing control from anywhere.

We've also used it a lot in the car, where we get to use it a bit like a Tivo for Radio. The Tivo is the hard disk video recorder I have for TV, and is the only way I watch TV now. Every Tivo owner has probably wished they could pause their radio as well.

To start, I download radio shows with some simple linux scripts. Some programs like NPR's "On the Media" and the CBC's Quirks and Quarks let you download shows directly. Kudos and Huzzah to them.

For other shows, you must capture streams and listen later, which is legal. For example, each morning I capture a 32kbit MP3 stream of 2 hours of "Morning Edition." It syncs to the player, and can then be played during the commute. The newscasts are 2 hours old but you can fast-forward, pause and rewind, which is great.  read more »

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