The Mis-Design of Everyday Things

We in the computer business tend to have a complex about ease of use. “Computers are so powerful and yet so arcane” is a constant refrain in our lives. Well, I am here to say that I don’t think that we should feel too bad. I have been investigating the world of HDTV because we are thinking about buying a big TV for Christmas. Compared to what you have to go through to get a decently usable TV, setting up a home wireless network is like falling off a log.

Let’s review. Here’s what you do to set up a home network:

1. Buy DSL or Cable high speed network from someone.

2. Plug Airport base-station into modem.

3. Run the admin program to change the password on the base station. Make it configure its network connection automatically from the cable modem.

4. Turn everything on.

5. Start surfing.

At this point, all the laptops in the house will just connect to the basestation and have high speed access to a glorious world of automatic package tracking. You turn on the laptop and it does a magic dance with the base-station and the data just flows.

By comparison, setting up my home receiver was much more complicated, involving almost a dozen runs of audio and video and power cables. Furthermore, after all that work, it’s still a lot of work to play Xbox. Here’s what I do (assuming the TV and receiver are on):

1. Turn the big knob on the receiver until the letters say “XBOX” on the main display.

2. Turn on the Xbox

3. Put in Halo.

At this point, the video and audio for the game come out of the TV and the speakers hooked up to the receiver. I only have two speakers, no surround sound.

Now let’s consider throwing an HDTV and a single HD source into this mix. First, rather than only needing to understand one interconnect, suddenly there are three:

1. Composite/S-Video

2. HDMI (huh?)

3. Component Video

Worse, most of the receivers in the world do not allow you to easily mix and match devices of different types. I only have devices of type (1) in my house right now. Also, my receiver can only handle either S-Video or Composite sources. So when I get my Xbox 360, my whole user experience above falls apart. I have to run the audio from the 360 to the receiver, and the video directly to the new TV. To play a game I would now have to do this:

1. Turn the knob to “Xbox 360” on the receiver.

2. Pick up the TV remote and hit some button I can’t find until the TV says something like “Component Video 3”, which I remember is where I connected the Xbox 360.

3. Turn on the Xbox 360.

4. Put in Madden 360.

It turns out that the extra few steps here are actually enough to keep anyone else in the house from being able to run the TV. This is because no one but a crazy techical dork can remember that “Component Video 3” is the Xbox and “Video 7” is the normal video from the receiver. TV manufacturers don’t seem to realize this, since every big new TV comes with 15 inputs of various types, none of which will ever be used.

I also looked into what it would take to fix this issue at the receiver end. Surely I could find a receiver that gives me the “simplicity” that I currently enjoy. Reasonably priced receivers do not allow you to run a composite input to a component output and vice versa. This means you have to run two different kinds of cable between the receiver and the TV. And, after going to all that trouble, you get the same shitty interface described above.

To do better than this, It turns out that what I would need is a $500 receiver that can automatically route and up-convert composite video to component video or HDMI (huh?). In other words, to get a simple video routing device, I need to buy something that costs as much as an Xbox 360, and then I have to spend an entire afternoon rewiring everything behind it. The truly mind boggling thing is that even at that price, you can still find receivers that do not allow you to program custom source names. All that money, and they can’t even keep 2K of persistent memory around to store a little bit of ASCII.

Finally, one has to realize that even my “easy” scenario for turning on the TV is really too complicated. Here is how it should really work:

1. Turn on Xbox. Receiver notices that the Xbox is on and sets the input device correctly.

2. Put in Halo 3.

I think we can all agree this scenario is a drug-induced fantasy world. And yet, and yet, this is exactly what happens with my wireless network. I turn on my laptop, and everything just hooks right up automatically. So, computer geeks rejoice! You have managed to build an end to end system whose user experience is significantly easier than turning on a modern television.

Additional Note: Don’t tell me to buy a universal remote control. The universal remote is just an admission that the industry can’t build the right thing. All of this stuff should just work. Anything less is unacceptable.