Monday, June 20, 2016

That's (Smart) Entertainment, Part 2: Devices

Previously, On the Internet of Schmoid...

Last week, I blew through nearly seven hundred words to come to the inescapable conclusion that WiFi changed the world.  That Sonos was the first real example of how the Internet of Things was going to change the custom installation world.  And all of that was really earth shaking news to all of you.  But only if you haven't ventured out of your 1990's home theater watching endless loops of the Matrix in the last two decades.  So, um yeah.  Let's move on.

This week, I'm going to step out on a limb and make some actual hard core recommendations.  Two to be precise: Harmony and Chromecast.  Whether these are things that you should buy for yourself or not, that I leave up to you, but they should be part of the consideration set.  The reason I'm going to focus on these two devices in not because they offer the best picture or sound or are even best in their class.  What's more important it that they changed how people think about their entertainment control.

Not The Dating Site

When the original Harmony remote appeared on retail shelves back in the Aughts (The Zeros? The Ohs?  The First Decade of the Twenty-First Century? The Whatevs?), I bought one and it was fan-freaking-tastic.  I was doing a lot of traveling at the time and leaving the then Mrs. Schmoid at home a lot with our (my) entertainment system.  Prior to the Harmony, I would get a couple of calls a week when I was travelling that all started with "The TV's not working.  Again."  No amount of training on which remote to use when and how long to keep them pointed at the system ever did any good (whether that was a result of my communication skills or her listening skills was a major therapy point).  After the Harmony and the first call where I (calmly, patiently) asked her to hit the "Help" button and it walked her through getting everything back in sync, those calls just stopped happening.  Brilliant.

But that's not really what made the Harmony series of remotes truly revolutionary.  Instead it was to re-categorize entertainment into "Activities" instead of "Devices".  I don't want to "Turn on the TV and the receiver and the cable box and then switch a series of inputs", I want to "Watch the News".  I don't want to "Turn on the Receiver and the CD player and switch inputs", I want to "Listen to Music".  (It was the Aughts, remember?  No Spotify or iTunes yet) The Harmony made this happen through macros that were setup on the internet and then communicated to the remote over USB.  (They now do it via your smartphone and do it through the cloud to a Harmony Hub.  Again, brilliant.)

To be fair, activity oriented system control where one button triggered a series of commands (macros) had been around for a while from people like Crestron and such.  But they were really expensive (thousands of USD) and programming them was not something a end consumer was expected to do.  They needed professional installation.  And wires from a control box to the RS-232 jacks on your equipment.  Or IR blasters and repeaters and eyes if your equipment did not have RS-232 control.  Expensive and frustrating if you needed to call someone to fix the programming.  By offloading the programming to their own servers, Harmony was able to offer that kind of flexibility for a couple of hundred USD (and now even less).

That Was Then

But even the Harmony with its help button and activities has been eclipsed by yet another shift in home entertainment control: the Chromecast.  Now, the phone is the remote (which it is the the Harmony One Hub as well) and also the set-top box.  Choose the content that you want to watch and tell your phone to send it (cast it) to the Chromecast dongle plugged into the back of your TV.

What makes this brilliant is not the $35 USD HDMI dongle, its that instead of bemoaning that more and more people are using their phones while watching TV, Google has found a way to embrace it.  This is not some clunky second-screen experience that, instead of adding to the experience ends up dividing attention and confusing.  Instead, it's a way to get the content from the discovery device (the phone) which has access to the shared services (FaceBook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.) where new content is aggregated and gets it from the small screen to the big screen nearly seamlessly.  There are even party games to be played.

Again, that both Harmony and Google have changed how we use Home Entertainment devices is not an earth shaking insight.  Instead, it is the trend in how people discover their entertainment.  No one looks at the TV listings in the paper anymore (are they even there?), few people surf the guide anymore.  Instead, we ask Siri or Google it or just watch it whenever we want because everything worth watching is available immediately.  Google just saw a way to augment the result of that search.

What's the next revolution in home entertainment control?  I hazard that it will be something around first Virtual and then Augmented Reality.  How will we have the shared viewing experience that the current American TV room with its wide flat panel TV and sectional when everyone has goggles strapped to their heads?  Will we cast from phone to goggles and then invite others into our virtual theater.

Almost assuredly yes.

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