The history of the home theater

A nice, short summary of a longer paper by Jeffrey Tang that traces the history of the home theater in the 70s and 80s.

it was not technological breakthroughs, but rather marketing considerations which led to diverse “product families” centered around three types of audio designs: the cassette recorder, the combination unit (“boom box”), and the personal stereo. Both the producers of audio equipment, and audio equipment users assigned new meanings to these sound machines and to the practice of listening to music.


These fields came together when [Dolby] introduced a home version of its 4-channel cinema playback system, called Dolby Surround. Technically, Dolby’s initial system differed little from quadraphonic sound, a technology that had already failed to woo the music lovers of the 1970s. But where quadraphony had failed as a simple technical upgrade to the home stereo, the new system promised not just improved fidelity but an entirely new kind of experience. Its social meaning was dramatically, and successfully, reconstructed.

Technological innovations enable the social innovations, they do not define the whole of them, even though to the participants at the time it may seem to be only about the boxes. The experience is not just about the boxes, and it's not even about the immediate experience (the interface) of the boxes, the experience is created by the boxes, and part of it (the configuring and tweaking the paper mentions and we've all been through) but it's not limited to them. It's a lesson that product designers should keep in mind, though I think there are few techniques for encapsulating or designing for it.

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My thoughts...

The TV originally provided a sort of an alternative hearth - the gathering place. At some point, TVs began to get smaller and cheaper, and it became socially acceptable to have multiple TVs in the house. In each bedroom, and a videogame TV in a play room and so on.

The home theater emerged as the new symbolic gathering place. I've done so many in-home interviews where the families have pointed with pride to their large-screen TV and audio system as a place to Watch Movies Together. I'm not talking about actual usage here as much as the vicarious experience and display of family values that such a device affords. The powerful visual symbolism of a big TV says several things - income, gadget-savvy male, and also family time. As families feel the dispersement of their members into separate hobbies and lifestyles, this technology promises to bring everyone together, it suggests special events, such as Friday Pizza and Movie Night, etc.

You've got lots of homes where the garage has been converted to a sports and action-film environment as well, sure, but this family story was worth bringing up, I thought.




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