A hacker in your living room: researchers have shown how internet-connected TVs can be remotely manipulated.
Do you inflict new technology on the rest of your household?
Most of us have to share our lounge room with someone, which means you need to show a little consideration when it comes to introducing new tech. As a tech reviewer my family puts up with a lot, but I try to make sure that at least the DVD/Blu-ray player is always hooked up to the television – even if I've disconnected and/or broken everything else.
It's not that my wife and young children aren't tech-savvy enough to navigate their way through our sea of devices and pile of remote controls, it's more that they shouldn't have to. If my wife disconnected the car battery every time she parked in the driveway I'd be rightly annoyed, even though I could fix the problem. It's just rude to regularly cripple something which everyone in the house relies on.
The new Xbox One is a classic example of this phenomenon, because it's designed to reside at the very heart of your lounge room. It's actually meant to sit between your PVR and your television, supposedly enhancing your viewing experience – although few features work in Australia yet. Meanwhile it's almost certainly going to get in the way when someone flops down on the couch and just wants to watch something. Scott Stein's hassles with the Xbox One in his family lounge room really struck a chord with me, because most tech reviews tend to gloss over the fact that any lounge room upgrade is actually a change management project – at least if you value household harmony. If you've ever supplied emergency over-the-phone tech support to someone shouting "I just want to watch bloody television!" then you'll know what I'm talking about.
Every lounge room device I've tested with voice or gesture control has been more trouble than it's worth, particularly because it's too easy to accidentally trigger voice commands. One minute you're watching Homeland, the next minute your so-called Smart TV is firing up the Twitter client for no apparent reason. It's even worse if your kids discover they can shout "Skype!" from the next room and launch the app over the top of the movie you're watching. Just today my wife was on the phone in the lounge room and suddenly the Xbox One started blaring out music. I'd left it running while I went to the next room and she somehow launched a game with a voice command, even though she didn't use "the X-word".
Once you own voice-activated home entertainment gear you're forced to tip-top around it like a sleeping baby, afraid to use "the X-word" or anything that could be mistaken for it. Gadgets like Microsoft's Xbox One and Samsung's Smart TVs need a "TV mode" which tells it to go away and leave you alone until you deliberately wake it with a button on the remote or use a long and specific voice command. I know it goes against the idea of an always-on device at your beck and call, but the truth is that most homes don't want that. You might be excited about your shiny new console, but the rest of the house doesn't want to fight with it when they're sitting back to watch television.
The most important gadget in my lounge room is the aptly named Logitech Harmony universal remote control. I can program it to execute a complicated string of commands with a single button press – for example the Watch TV button powers up my television, switches it to the right channel, turns on the HDMI switch, sets it to the right input and then configures all the buttons to control the TiVo. There are similar buttons for watching the Blu-ray player, Windows 7 media centre or Apple TV.
The Logitech remote is fantastic because anyone can drive my lounge room, no matter how complicated I make it. I recently upgraded my home theatre amplifier to one with HDMI switching and now the Blu-ray player runs through it, which means the amp needs to be on if you want to watch a disc. Normally this would be a major disruption to a lounge room, but it was business as usual once I added that extra step to the Watch DVD/Blu-ray button on the remote control. It's not that my family is stupid, I know they could go through all these steps manually, but they shouldn't need to go to all that trouble just to watch television in their own home. It's our lounge room, not my lounge room.
That brings us to a problem with games consoles, they don't always play nicely with infrared universal remote controls. PlayStations rely on Bluetooth, although there's an IR adaptors for the PS3 (but apparently not the PS4). Thankfully Microsoft is a bit more considerate and builds an IR receiver into the Xbox One. The new console is already in Logitech's database, so I can configure my Harmony remote to switch on the Xbox One and then drive it from the stick. Strangely the "Power On" command won't wake the console but the "Power Toggle" command will, so there's a bit of fine-tuning required.
Even though I can tell the Logitech remote to wake up the Xbox One, I have no intention of leaving my TiVo connected to the game console's HDMI input. If all you want to do is watch television it doesn't actually add anything to the experience, at least not in Australia. All it does is add the likelihood that the Xbox One will misinterpret a word or gesture and get in everyone's way.
How do you handle high-tech change in your lounge room? Are your loved ones sick of your gadgets?