Call it convergence if you will, but “multifunction” is the catchphrase for home electronics in the new millennium. Consumers are facing the rapid Manhattanization of their entertainment spaces, as the home A/V center is filled by towers of electronics: 5.1 receivers, DVD players, CD changers, cable/satellite decoders, VCRs, disk-based video storage (TiVo, ReplayTV, TV4Me, etc.), game boxes, cassette decks and maybe even a turntable.
Outside the safe environs of the home theater, the consumer is hardly free of electronic trappings, and today's well-equipped pedestrian may tote a digital watch, Gameboy-type device, PDA/laptop, cell phone, pager, and an MP3, CD or cassette player. It's a wonder that Mr. Spock could get along with just a tricorder and a communicator, but perhaps by the 24th century, human life will be simpler, and we won't need to make stock trades from the golf course, as recommended by a recent (21st century) TV spot.
Unfortunately, we earthlings have developed quite a penchant for gadgets. James Bond started out as a tough secret agent, but by the time Q loaded him down with “essential tools,” he became more of a secret technician. The situation is no different in the studio. Does the engineer create the sound, or does the sound just emanate from yet another digital doohickey in the effects rack? And with all of our megatracks and megaracks, why does the goal of creating another Sgt. Pepper's album remain the unattainable quest for so many of us?
There may be little chance of swaying the innate human thirst for technology, yet recent developments offer some hope for reducing the sheer volume of gear invading our home spaces. Here, multifunction is the key. From the first-generation models, DVD players offered the ability to play audio CDs—in fact, in a few years, CD-only home players will probably disappear entirely. And the CD/DVD player may face extinction, as universal players and new units incorporating features such as MP3 playback and onboard gaming (i.e., Playstation 2 or Microsoft's Xbox) gain popularity. Laptops with DVD drives can double as video players for bored air travelers, while DVD technology in the automotive arena can route movies to the kids in the backseats or play back 5.1 surround symphonies during long commutes.
Cell phones with Internet access are hardly new—although surfing the Net on a 1.5-inch monochrome screen is a truly less-than-satisfying experience. A notch better are wireless PDAs, and stores can barely keep Palm.Net-ready Palm VIIx's in stock. Yet the next step may be building phones into PDAs or a new genre of computers that bridge the gap between PDAs and PCs with wireless mobility, perhaps via the new high-speed 3G technology, providing both on-demand information or streaming entertainment—any time, any place. Get ready for multifaceted Web appliances, such as Harmon Kardon's Digital Media Center, combining an Internet device with a DVD (audio, video or CD) drive and 30 GB of storage for ripping compressed video or music files—or Microsoft's Ultimate TV, offering video storage and satellite/Internet access.
Whether these notions catch on is anybody's guess, but with all of this media coming together, there's gonna be a whole lotta program creation goin' on. The formats and algorithms may change, but for us audio types, the goal remains the same: No matter what playback medium, just make it sound great.
That's the real challenge.