There is nothing like two back-to-back cross country flights to make you think about what should be the next best immersive environment for personal entertainment. Especially when you are crammed into a middle seat between the Constant Squirming Woman and XL Man.
So in the interests of science and research, and in the anticipated hours of ensuing boredom, I took with me various tools to test out last week: a video iPod with a couple of Lost and Desperate Housewives episodes, an iAudio mp3 player with several dozen songs (just for variety's sake), a Palm with the Sudoku program and a couple of books. What I found out is interesting and timely.
It was timely, because my trip came during all this news from theatrical owners. They seem to be taking a page from the recording industry in What Not To Do With Tech. First, the theater owners are feeling a bit peevish and threatened by the efforts of Mark Cuban and others to eliminate their exclusive release window, the delta time between first run and DVD sale.
On top of this, several theater chains are making big investments in digital display technology over the next couple of quarters. They intend to get projection equipment installed that almost is good enough when compared to analog. You won't be able to tell the difference, they say.
Note to theater owners: you are wasting your money with the new digi toys and with fighting Cuban's efforts. Zero release windows are going to happen, just like illegal copies of first-run movies now show up within hours on the streets of Hong Kong, Bangkok, New York and Paris. Invest some money in providing good food that can be inexpensive but still profitable, cleaner auditoriums, and the needed security to eject rude patrons. Bring back bargain matinees and double features so patrons will want to come and won't spend a small fortune bringing their friends. And while we are suggesting things, let's require all Academy members to attend at least ten regular shows per year, rather than special screenings. When the industry insiders have to sit next to the rest of us in the dark, maybe they will understand what we all have to go through to watch their work.
But this isn't a column about the miserable theatrical experience; however popular it may still be. What all the various digital device makers are trying to do is recreate something on the personal entertainment level that can deliver the "ah ha" of watching a great movie in a theater. They have only partially succeeded.
I was surprised at the video quality of the new iPod -- it is crystal clear, the images are mostly bright enough to view in most situations other than bright sun, and I was comfortable enough watching the shows that now I am hooked on Lost (yeah, about time, I know). But instead of ordering more episodes from the iTunes store, I just got the DVDs from Netflix.
That is a telling comment: distribution is still the weak link in the portable video chain. Discovering, downloading, and dealing with the different video compression formats is still a chore. Much easier to just pop on over to Netflix and key in what you want.
The Palm/Sudoko combination is addictive, more addictive than just doing Sudoku on paper. One of my seatmates, XL Man, was doing Sudoku the old fashioned way and wasn't interested in trying out my Palm PDA. He didn't say why, and I was too busy trying out all my tech to really care either. But all told, I probably didn't do more than an hour per flight on the Palm. It gets tiring doing puzzle after puzzle, and eventually the wow factor wears off
And the MP3 player was terrific in letting me catch up with some of my favorite podcasts, along with entertaining me on some favorite tunes during the flight. The nice thing about the iAudio is that you can copy mp3 files to do without having to deal with iTunes. It is just another removable storage device and for ad hoc listening where you don't want to carry your entire library of tunes with you, it is great. Plus, it runs on a single AAA battery which is easy enough to replace.
Speaking of batteries, this is the major challenge when taking all this gear on the road. My pre-flight checklist now has me charging up various things, collecting the right kind of batteries and making sure I have cables galore for everything.
Both the portable players sound systems were made much better by a set of good headphones that had some noise-canceling features. I was using ones from Brookstone but there are better and more expensive ones from Bose. If you do a lot of flying, these are what truly turns the personal audio/video player into an immersive environment, because the headphones cover your ears and block out some of the plane noises, including crying kiddies, annoying seat mates, and that loud rush of air going by the outside of the plane.
So who won my little portable bake off? The book, hands down. I found out that a good book will trump any tech toy, no matter how cute and geeky it might be. And when you consider the number of hours I spent with each toy, the book trumped all of the electronics by a factor of two or three. It isn't any mystery -- the book can be read on takeoffs and landings, doesn't depend on batteries, and can be put down and picked up without too much of a break in the action.
Granted, there is some bias here. I am a voracious reader, and can finish at least one book on a flight. But sometimes you want to leave all that tech behind you and just get involved in a great book.
Happy holidays to one and all, and here's to a great 2006! Yes, I am still doing my job search, and yes, I am still in Los Angeles, despite the vanity cell number. Take care and have a nice break, and there will be plenty of Web Informants to come in 2006.
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