22 May 2006

The television will be revolutionized

Digital TV means crystal clear reception from an $8 wire loop antenna. It means beautiful sharp images a meter across with no visible scan lines.

It also means occasionally having to reboot your television.

It’s just the way things are. I have to reboot my cellphone every day or so, or a memory leak eventually causes it to crash. I have to reboot the printer once a month or so. Our answering machine has needed rebooting a few times, too, and the other day I rebooted the car. I haven’t had to reboot my watch, but it does have to sit and calculate for a while when I change physical time zone. I’m sure in a few more years, I’ll be rebooting the toaster whenever it starts burning toast.

Like a Mac, our TV is entirely software controlled, even powering itself on and off when ordered to by the software. There’s no physical on/off switch, just a button that requests that the software turn the set on or off.

Unfortunately, there’s a bug. Every now and again, the software will think there’s no incoming signal, and ask the hardware to turn off the screen to save power. After a second or two it’ll realize it made a mistake, and ask the screen to power up again. It happens very intermittently, I’d guess once every dozen hours or so, but that doesn’t stop it from being annoying. At one point there was a TV episode on the TiVo that would reliably make it happen at a certain point.

So, I wrote to Sharp asking if this was a known glitch with Aquos TVs. They called me back, and had me put the TV into a special hidden maintenance mode. It turned out my TV needed a software update, something to do with a power glitch in Aquos models that support CableCard. I was refered to a local Sharp service engineer, who brought over a couple of flash cards and apparently did the update. So far, so good.

Something about this disturbs me, though. More and more outwardly simple objects that we interact with are controlled by complex software, and we’re apprently still no closer to solving the problem of delivering reliable software. I didn’t feel too bad when the car needed a firmware upgrade, because a car is a really complicated system—especially a hybrid car that needs to control 2 engines at once and trade off energy between them. But TV is conceptually so simple, and it used to involve no software at all. Digital is nice, and all, but because of the need to decode MPEG-2 we’ve quietly lost simplicity of design. And that’s before you even consider the fact that ATSC is a horrible, horrible piece of design-by-committee with 18 different formats.

© mathew 2017