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People don’t care about music quality anymore. Is video next?

May 14, 2010

My father-in-law is a retired researcher at IBM who did some pioneering work on voice recognition and digital signal processing back when there was no voice recognition and digital signal processing.  He loves talking about how back in the day, he and his fellow researchers who were playing around with music compression technologies were convinced that mp3 style audio compression had absolutely no future, because consumers would never tolerate the degradation in sound quality.

“Boy were we wrong” my father-in-law likes to laugh.

Seriously, NOT FUNNY.

Nowadays, it is incredibly difficult to NOT buy “lossy” compressed music.  (I don’t even know where I should go in NYC to buy CD’s anymore.)  Initially, this wasn’t really that much of an issue.  The difference between an MP3 and WAV (uncompressed) or AIFF file on most cheap portable digital music player is barely discernible.  Especially when you attach them to your ears using those shitty iPod headphones.  But then, people started connecting their portable music players to iPod docks, or they started simply playing music directly off their computers, by-passing their increasingly non-existent home stereo system altogether.  Without a blink of an eye, or a moment’s pause.  Somewhere along the line, the fact that the music sounds audibly worse no longer mattered.

People’s listening habits have changed.  They used to listen to music on a home stereo system that cost considerable money.  While it was never a “sit-back” experience the way TV is, it was close.  Now people listen on the go.  They listen on their computers, they listen in their cars, they listen through shitty headphones connected to their iPod’s and almost always they listen while multi-tasking.  People are probably listening to more music than ever before.  But the quality of the music, and the quality of the listening has never been worse.  Sometimes I wonder which is causing which.

Could this be the future of video?  People spend tons of money buying DVR’s and HDTV’s.  But many of those same people are also spending tons of money on iPods and iPhones and iPads and are buying episodes on iTunes.  My friends talk about, or at the very least threaten to, ditch cable altogether in favor of a combination of Hulu and iTunes.  This wreaks of deja vu all over again to me.  Hulu video, even on high definition, looks horrible when compared to an uncompressed high definition stream delivered to your TV via a cable connection.  Most videos that you download from iTunes looks pretty bad on your computer screen.  And it would be one thing if people were connecting their computers to their TV’s, but recent studies have shown that most people that watch video on their computers, don’t actually connect their computers to TV’s.

So where is all this going?

The optimist in me is thinking that as bandwidth issues are alleviated, it will be easier to deliver non-compressed video to your computer.  Perhaps that will spark Hulu and others to deliver at least 780P video of similar quality to cable streams.  (as an aside, Mark Cuban does not think this will happen, at all.  He has a great blog post about it here.)  And as the set-top box market sorts itself out, some Tivo/AppleTV type solution will emerge that allows you to use your computer as a video server and allows you to take advantage of the glorious picture your HD TV can provide.

On the other hand, a part of me wonders if we aren’t being like my father-in-law.  Perhaps TV viewing will continue to become less and less of a sit back experience, and as a result, people will care less and less about video quality.  The same way they seem to care less and less about sound quality.  As a producer, that will be a sad day indeed.

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