The Perils of Home Theater

Donald A. Norman
Copyright © 2001 Donald A. Norman. All rights reserved.
(A slightly revised version of this essay is to be published in the IEEE Computer magazine in 2002.

Executive summary:

Anyone who thinks that the computer industry has made things difficult for customers, wait till you look at home theater. There is a major opportunity here to enlarge the market considerably by setting, agreeing upon, and implementing industry-wide standards for interconnection, aimed at making the result easier to install and use, far more comprehensible, and therefore more attractive to the average family.

I am appalled by the lack of understanding of consumers in the home theater industry, by the complexity, by the emphasis on jargon, by the lack of standards (and the competing standards wars), and in general, by the whole mess.

I am putting together a home theater. I bought a high-definition TV set, a receiver, and the 8 speakers required to give THX 7.1 surround sound. And a digital satellite receiver, capable of receiving HDTV signals, even though hardly any are being sent, plus, of course the set-top box controller for the High Definition satellite receiver. And a TiVo digital video recorder to time shift shows. And a progressive DVD player, a VCR, and my old laser-disc player. And, well, that's enough.

So there I was, seated in my brand new home theater, holding a pile of thick instruction manuals plus 7 remote controls, not including the programmable remote control that is intended to replace those other seven, once I learn to program it.

First problem: Jargon. Ordinary human beings should not have to understand jargon like this: progressive, interlaced, 5.1, 7.1, 480i, 480p, 960i, 1080i, 16/9, 4/3, 3:2 pulldown, anamorphic, stretched, expanded, large speakers, small speakers, matrix sound. It is too much. Why should the ordinary consumer have to know all this?.

Worse, the different components fight with one another. Who is in control? My satellite receiver? The DVD player? The Receiver? The TV set? Each wants to control the resolution and the picture format. Do I want the image to be distorted to fit the whole screen or to be shown the way it was originally produced, always wary of those bold warnings included with the TV set that if I watched pictures that didn't cover every bit of the screen, why I would risk getting the dreaded CRT burn-in. And then, if I make the wrong choices, I end up deadlocked, with the components battling the TV set, with the end result being not only no picture on the screen, but the inability to regain control because without on-screen menus, all control is lost. (This happened when I tried to send the output of the High Definition TV satellite receiver to the TiVo and then to the TV set. Thank goodness for the fine print in the manuals that revealed secret button sequences on one of the remote controls that allowed me to get back a picture. I haven't used the TiVo since.)

The smart, programmable remote control is supposed to solve these problems. After considerable study, I purchased the Philips Pronto. Yes, one can program the Pronto to make everything transition gracefully with a single button push, but the required programming is not for the faint of heart. I am still waiting for the equipment installers to do that -- just one more visit, they promise, and it will all be solved.

Mind you, I am a pretty savvy technologist. I have an MIT degree. I have a PhD. I was VP of Advanced Technology at Apple. I can program dozens of computers in dozens of languages. I understand television, really, I do. I was the Apple representative locked in that famous room by the FCC when the computer folks battled the TV folks over interlaced signals for high-definition TV (footnote 1). And I am an expert in human perception -- I even wrote textbooks on human vision and hearing. It doesn't matter: I am overwhelmed.

If Home Theater is to take off beyond the early adopters, the technological thrill-seeker, it needs help. Each individual piece of equipment is reasonable: some are even well designed from a usability point of view. But when you combine them into a system, the result is chaos. This is a system problem and it can only be solved by a systems approach.

I'd like to help, but I don't know where to start. I am able to work with the computer and high-tech industry because they understood the issues and the need to simplify life for their customers. Apple Computer has always understood this issue. Microsoft and IBM are leaders in the field. Computer systems may be still too difficult, but the computer industry recognizes this as a major problem and is working hard to solve it.

Unfortunately, the home theater industry is fragmented. Fights over standards make the computer wars look infantile. The emphasis is on jargon and technology. Features dominate. I don't see any understanding of everyday consumers. Remember the jokes about the inability to program the VCR, or even to set the time? No lessons seem to have been learned from that experience. (The solution, by the way, is to make it unnecessary to set the time and to transform "programming" the VCR into pointing at a desired show and saying "that one, please." The Personal Data Recorders such as TiVo solve this problem admirably. Too bad they fight with the HDTV signals.)

Some companies have made a start. As I mentioned, there are programmable remote controls that can be life savers, but that can't be programmed by the everyday person. These programmable remotes which today are essential should be unnecessary. Bose has done an excellent job, but because they don't make everything (no TV, no set-top boxes), they can't solve the entire problem. Bang & Olufsen also has done a fine job, but their stuff is expensive, and requires you to buy their entire package, which is limited. The result is that only the very wealthy or the technically savvy can afford a system.

When everything is working, the result is great. The picture and sound are equal to most movie theaters and better than many. And I control the experience. So was it worth it? Yes.

That's why the industry needs to do things right: the results are truly worth it, both picture and sound. Visitors see sports or movies on my system and want it for their home -- but not at this cost, not with the hassle I went through.

My Prescription

This is a systems problem, and it will require industry cooperation and standards. No single company can solve the problem. It can be done, thereby opening up a much larger audience for new equipment and services. If the market expands, everyone gains.

Start the standards process in an unusual way: start by writing a prototypical manual for the home theater. In doing this, recognize that few people read manuals, so make it so short and simple that it is unnecessary. Then develop the standards that will make the manual true, no matter what company makes the components, no matter what mix of equipment the consumer has bought.

The standards have to be human-centered, aimed at making the installation and usage as painless as possible. First, minimize the cabling, ideally by a single cable or bundle that handles audio, visual, control signals, and power, much in the fashion that IEEE-1394 (FireWire) and USB have done for the computer peripherals industry. Use a daisy chain or hub arrangement of interconnection rather than the point-to-point scheme now in place that leads to a wild jungle of cables. (Yes, The HAVi consortium has started down this road with a Firewire standard and APIs. (See That's a good start, but so far has not resulted in any products: Although an impressive list of companies claim to support the standards, this is common the standards battles. Everyone is always for everything. But in the end, it is action that counts, not words.)

Second, minimize the control problem by making it possible for the viewer simply to select a program source and destination. The appropriate configuration of the equipment should be handled in the background through an appropriate handshaking protocol, much as fax or modems negotiate the optimal common standards for connection. The necessary control information can be transmitted in the header for digital signals or on separate control wires for analog. The viewer should be unaware of the activity.

The goal has to be a set of interconnection and control standards that will grow gracefully as the technology changes, so that future devices can be added to the system without destroying any of the gains. The technology required to do this is straightforward. As with all standards issues, the complexity is in the political process required to reach industry-wide agreement. This will probably require a neutral consortium, one in which all players participate equally. The result must be beneficial for all.

This is a wake-up call to the industry: Do it right and customers will come. Continue as it is, and the home theater industry will remain a small, niche player.

1: Footnote: See my paper
Advanced TV Standards: Into the Future with Jaunty Air and an Anchor Around our Necks

Interlacing: Normal TV uses a form of image compression called "interlacing," in which only the odd numbers of the image are shown in the first 1/60th of a second (a field), and the even numbers the next 60th of a second. So it takes 1/30th of a second to show all the lines (a "frame"). If parts of the image are moving, the odd and even lines depict different locations.

Notice how much better your computer monitor is than the TV screen? Computer monitors use "Progressive" scan, where the entire image -- both even and odd lines -- are displayed at the same time. Modern compression technologies are far superior to interlacing in numerous ways. But the TV industry did not want to give up their old ways even though we argued that progressive images are far superior to the eye than are interlaced ones. It is rather ironic that I am now installing an interlaced system --1080i, for 1080 horizontal lines, interlaced).

Note added October, 2004.

I've changed my mind about the difference between interlaced and progressive signals. This essay was seen by the folks at the national association of broadcasters, and as a result, they asked me to give a keynote talk at their 2004 national convention in Las Vegas. While there, I talked with a number of the protagonists on both sides of the debate and, more importantly, I carefully examined displays in the exhibits of 720p and 1080i displays, in one case with side-by-side monitors displaying the same image (converted into these two formats). Neither I nor the experts accompanying me could reliably tell the difference.

TV has come a long way. The new technologies and displays are astounding.

I have now moved from the home described in this essay to a new one in Palo Alto, California, where I am building yet another home theater, this one in my living room, not within the dedicated room I used to have. (The new condominium is much smaller than my previous house.) So what kind of display will I use? DLP rear projection at 720p.

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