Bose product photo of VideoWave system, consisting of 46″ screen, control unit, “Click Pad” remote, and iPod dock
By guest editor Karsten Lemm
Imagine a home entertainment system that spares you the hassle of having to rearrange your life around the demands of technology. Imagine you could hear birds twitter to your left, a river run through your living room to the right, planes flying overhead, and the rumble of a subway passing underground – all without having to move furniture and rewiring your apartment to set up a complete surround-sound system with five or more speakers, as you normally would have to do.
Instead, the full sonic spectacle unfolds from the speakers built into the TV screen in front of your eyes. A nice, 46-inch high-definition flatscreen, mind you. And to top it off, the whole system can be controlled with a new smart remote that promises you’ll never get lost again in the jungle of too many buttons on too many remotes littering your coffee table – because there’s only this one control to rule them all, and it features a mere eleven buttons to perform all the tricks a modern entertainment system is capable of. If that sounds too good to be true, Hi-Fi pioneer Bose would like to assure you that it’s real. The company that invented noise-cancelling headphones set out to do the seemingly impossible, and the result – after ten years of research by some 200 developers – is the “VideoWave” system, the company’s new flagship product unveiled today. At a press event at Bose headquarters in Framingham near Boston, Ãœbergizmo got a chance last week to catch an early glimpse of the groundbreaking home entertainer.
What we can tell you is: Yes, it works – the sound really does come from all directions. You can clearly pinpoint the origin, and it’s a grown-up audio experience with surround sound in full symphonic glory – which makes it different from so-called “sound bar” systems that are placed next to the TV and promise a similar, hassle-free cinema experience. However, you typically have to sit in a sweet spot in front of the screen, and most reviewers seem to agree that sound bars are no substitute for a system with separate speakers.
Bose’s new “Click Pad” remote is clever, too, even though it may take a bit of getting used to. Before we dig into the details, hold your breath, as the price of this droolworthy gadget may require some wizardry on your end as well – namely, magically appearing dollars in your bank account: When Bose starts selling it in mid-October, the VideoWave system will cost $5,349 plus tax in the U.S. and 6,998 euros (including VAT) in Europe. That includes a “white glove” delivery service, meaning Bose will set up the system for you and even take your old TV to the dumpster, should you so desire. Still, the price is clearly not for the faint of heart or small of wallet.
Now, on to the juicy bits. The developers were told to invent a system as simple to configure and operate as possible, as Bose believes that many people shy away from buying a home theatre system because they find it too much trouble all around. “What stands in the way is complexity”, says Santiago Carvajal, Bose’s Business Director for Video Products (a new category at the company). “We believe that this product breaks down a lot of the barriers.”
First up, the remote control, called “Click Pad”. It is, of course, not the first universal remote control ever attempted, but Bose decided that it wouldn’t be enough to replace many remotes in the living room with just one, if that one remote still has a multitude of buttons (as is usually the case). So the developers in Framingham took a cue from Silicon Valley and replaced hardware with software – all advanced features on the VideoWave system are accessed via a menu on the screen, rather than buttons on the remote itself.
The advantage is obvious: The menu can change with each device, so that you only get to see what’s needed when you want to fast-forward through a DVD, for example, or search for a TV show on your DVR. But the challenge is obvious, too: How does VideoWave know about the devices it’s supposed to control? Five external devices can be connected, anything from a TiVo to Blu-ray players to satellite boxes and Apple’s iPod (a dock is included). Multiplied by dozens of manufacturers and thousands of different models, that’s a lot of strangers to get to know for Bose’s new kid on the block.
The solution is a built-in database that tells the VideoWave system which device it’s dealing with. The database will be regularly updated, Bose says, to include new devices coming to market. To identify the model of DVD player or DVR you have at home, the Click Pad simply watches what other remotes do: You press a few buttons on the original remote control, and the infrared signals that are sent out tell the Click Pad all it needs to know. (How well this works in practice we’ll have to see.)
The control menu does not appear in the middle of the screen but runs along the outside like a frame, corresponding to a touchpad on the remote. Inside the touchpad area are a four-way selector and an “OK” button. The idea is to move between touchpad and the buttons inside to chose from the various on-screen options – be it picking a playlist on the iPod, programming a TV show on the DVR or flipping through the channel guide on the satellite receiver. What I saw at the demo looked promising, but systems like these are by their very nature a compromise, as everyone knows who’s ever
tried to type a film title like “From Russia With Love” on a DVR remote without keyboard. When I briefly tried out the Click Pad myself, I found the skipping between trackpad and four-way selector a bit confusing at times, but of course that might change after some getting used to.
“The remote control was probably our biggest risk”, says Santiago Carvajal, as it required Bose to try something completely new – including getting into the TV business. (The screen is made by an unnamed OEM.) “We had to have full control of the picture” for the new remote to work, explains Carvajal. In comparison, the seemingly impossible feat of producing grown-up surround sound with a speaker system built into a television set seemed like the simpler problem. “When it comes to audio we have the brightest engineers”, says the Bose manager. “We had good faith they could overcome the challenges.”
Still, it wasn’t exactly a cakewalk. First off, the big, fat bassline that gentlemen like Eminem, Richard Wagner and Arnold Schwarzenegger require for very different purposes typically results in big, fat vibrations, too – and that’s not exactly what you want when your loudspeaker is built into the back of a fragile LCD display. So the Bose engineers came up with a subwoofer design of six speakers, three on each side, back-to-back, so that the vibrations are cancelled out. To prove that the trick works, Chief Engineer Bill Berardi put a glass of water on the woofer during the demo, and the waterline showed barely a ripple. A minute earlier, on a regular woofer, there had been a lot of rattle and hum, with the glass in danger of falling to the ground.
The biggest feat, though, was making sound appear from somewhere else. In effect, the Bose engineers had to invent a kind of laser pointer for soundwaves. “We’re basically projecting sound so that you hear it from where the reflection is”, explained Santiago Carvajal, standing on stage in the Bose auditorium while holding one of the new “PhaseGuide” modules in his hands like a laser sword – pointing it to the left to make a trumpet appear, then to the right for a clarinet solo. Even industry veterans in the audience were impressed. “Bose has created a remarkable product”, said Theo Wubbolts, editor-in-chief of “Hifi Video Test” and “Smart Homes” in the Netherlands. “It’s a solution for a great number of people who don’t want to run cables and set up extra speakers.”
For the sound projection to work, the VideoWave system needs to know its environment. That’s where Bose’s “AdaptIQ” technology comes in, which analyzes the room’s acoustic qualities in order to adjust the sound settings. So far, AdaptIQ mostly served to optimize the performance of the company’s high-end audio products. In contrast, “with this system it was essential”, says Santiago Carvajal.
At the heart of the PhaseGuide technology (patented, of course) is an array of seven speakers which spans the backside of the screen: three on the left, three on the right, one in the middle. A sophisticated control mechanism decides many times per second which speakers to use to what effect. A precondition for the system to work was the development of special, proprietary software, Bose says. The soundwaves generated by the speaker array are steered through a mesh with tiny holes that runs alongside the frame of the screen. “Each of the tiny holes essentially functions as a speaker”, explained Chief Engineer Bill Berardi.
The result of all of this inventiveness is a unique home entertainment system with a built-in Wow-Squared Effect – as in, “Wow, I can’t believe this works!”, followed by, “Wow, I can’t believe I could almost buy a new car for this kind of money.” But the good news is, at least for those of us who can’t just sell a few Apple shares bought for a steal ca. 1997, that slightly more affordable VideoWave systems might be more than just wishful thinking. “We will have a category of products”, says Carvajal – Director, after all, of a whole new group of video systems. “This is only the beginning.”