Peter Griffin examines wizardry in the lounge, today and 10 years from now.
One box to rule them all - that's what we were promised for the lounge. Game console, Blu-ray player and My Sky packed into one shiny little unit.
Well, it hasn't happened yet and there's still an ungainly tangle of cables stuffed down the back of most home theatre consoles. But we are in the midst of the biggest shake-up of lounge room entertainment since the cathode ray TV set first appeared. This time, it's the internet that's driving the change.
Here's a taste of what's currently available.
The TV is still king
3D TV has been a fizzer. It turns out that we aren't really that interested in donning expensive and bulky glasses to watch movies and the slight loss of picture sharpness that goes with 3D has put off those used to crisp hi-def images. But 3D is built into many new flat-screen TVs in the 42-inch and above categories these days, so you are likely get it anyway, as well as a built-in Freeview tuner that will let you access digital free-to-air TV.
Increasing screen sizes and a price war between the big four TV makers Sony, Samsung, LG and Panasonic, has seen the average screen size move up to 50 inches (127cm) and you can now pick up a high-definition (1920 x 1080) 42-inch TV for around $750. Plasma screens, known for delivering blacker blacks and good contrast in images, are still popular and relatively cheap, but LCD screens lead the market. New LED (light-emitting diode) backlit screens are a tad more expensive, but allow much thinner screens that deliver stunning image quality and great power efficiency.
Internet-connectivity is the next big thing and TV makers are really pushing it. Samsung's Smart TV and the Sony Bravia Internet TV have Youtube, Facebook, Twitter and Skype built into the TV's menu. Online app stores let you connect to the internet via your TV screen to download more useful apps. This is a bit of a game-changer in terms of entertainment in the lounge, letting you check your Facebook status, stream video clips and surf the web - from the couch. A fancy remote control with Qwerty keyboard is sold with the TV and some models let you use an iPhone or Google Android phone in place of a remote.
Look out for: internet connectivity, full-HD, built-in Freeview.
The content shuffle
The failure of TVNZ's TiVo personal video recorder to gain traction leaves Sky as the only other player with a decent recorder that integrates nicely with an electronic programming guide and has access to a wide range of content. The Sky+ recorder ($679 or $20-a-month subscription) recently hit the market, offering four times the recording capacity of the standard My Sky HDi box.
If you don't fancy going the pay TV route, TiVo is actually a clever little box and has the advantage over My Sky of allowing you to access internet apps on your screen and download movies and TV shows from an online store. There are a number of cheaper Freeview PVRs on the market from the likes of Zinwell, Dish TV and Panasonic, ranging in price from $250-$600. Many PVRs include a DVD/Blu-ray player, which will save cabinet space. Stand-alone Blu-ray players are now cheap and deliver superior image quality to DVD - if you have a high-definition screen.
The Boxee ($419) is a funny-looking little black and green device that will serve those who haven't got an internet-enabled TV. The Boxee connects to your TV and acts as a media server, accessing content on your computer via a Wi-fi network and going out to the internet to find video to stream to your TV screen. It also has some nice social networking features.
The similar, if slightly less flamboyant Apple TV ($170), is a tiny box that lets you stream content from your computer, tablet or iPhone and rent movies and TV shows from the iTunes store. It is a tidy package that will suffice for many, though movie rentals are a bit expensive.
Audiophiles will appreciate the Sonos hi-fi system that specializes is sending digital audio around your house wirelessly. The Sonos Play 3 ($699) is a compact music player, stereo and media server in one, that streams content from your computer music library and connects to the internet to access thousands of radio stations and podcasts. Control the Sonos with an iPhone, iPad or Android phone. The real selling point of the Sonos is that if you install devices in other rooms, you can control all the audio in each room from one place simultaneously - it is all done via Wi-fi.
Look out for: internet connectivity, high-capacity storage (500GB+), Wi-fi networking.
Games console makers Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo are all reaching the end of their five-year development cycle, so next year will see the arrival of a new generation of games consoles. That means consoles are now selling relatively cheaply (Xbox bundle $357). Beyond gaming, the Xbox and Playstation 3 serve as sophisticated media hubs, not only storing and playing your content, but transferring it wirelessly from your computer and letting you access content on the internet via TV.
Innovations, like the Xbox Kinect sensor bar ($220), which allows for gesture control in games are revolutionising video games. The Playstation 3 also lets you access TVNZ on Demand on your screen for catch-up TV and can be turned into a Freeview receiver with the addition of an adapter.
Look out for: A good deal (new consoles coming next year), accessories such as Kinect.
The second screen
Tablet computers are invading the lounge and offering flexibility in computing that goes way beyond lightweight laptops. That's down to the touch screen interface on tablets such as the best-selling iPad 2 (from $796), and similarly-priced rivals such as the Motorola Xoom, Samsung Galaxy Tab and Acer Iconia. A tablet not only serves up email, web surfing, ebooks, music and video, but is increasingly being used by people for social networking or gaming - while they are watching TV on the big screen. The Apple App Store and the Google Android Marketplace are serving up thousands of apps for tablets. Apps such as Sky's electronic programming guide for the iPad, show that tablets are increasingly playing a complementary role to big-screen TVs and iPhones and Google Android devices are increasingly taking the place of the remote control.
Look out for: Decent storage, good battery life, app store selection.
In the year 2021 ...
Ten years from now the lounge is looking a lot less cluttered, a tad spartan even.
But just say the magic word and your voice-activated lounge comes to life. The walls don't just have ears - they have eyes and a nimble brain too ...
Gone are the black and silver boxes that once made up your home entertainment stack - everything is miniaturised now thanks to nanotechnology - which allows complex electronics to be built on a tiny scale. So your components fit snugly within the walls - or built into the furniture.
There's no such thing as a remote control any more. Gesture control and voice recognition started to take off a decade ago and with a curt command or the flick of a wrist, you can do everything from surf the web to channel surf the 1000 stations beaming in digitally to light up your walls.
All digital content is now streamed in high-quality from the cloud, so there isn't a hard drive or Blu-ray disc in sight. By now, Google has come up with true universal search so you can instantly search the contents of every video, audio clip and photo ever digitised, as well as every document ever published. Your brain isn't directly hooked up to the internet yet - but they're working on it.
The TV has gone from being mounted on the wall to becoming the wall. Paper-thin OLED (organic light-emitting diode) panels coat the walls, displaying your favourite pattern of wallpaper when the TV is off, and a beautiful Super Hi-Vision picture when it is on.
Super Hi-Vision or ultra HD as its commonly known, is as close to 20/20 human vision as the Japanese engineers who invented it can get us - 15 times the resolution of the best high-definition displays on the market back in 2011.
So you can switch to a web camera on the Serengeti plains and turn your room into sun-drenched grass land. Even better, full auto-stereoscopic 3D is built into your walls, so you don't have to wear funny glasses to get a 360 degree, three-dimensional picture around you. Virtual mirror technology also means those 3D wall screens augment your reality. So you can walk amidst that pride of Serengeti lions. Flexible sensor rods built into a slinky suit you are wearing simulate resistance, so when you pat the virtual lion in front of you, it feels like you are actually stroking a big cat. Oh, by the way, smell-o-vision is now fairly passe. That's lion's breath wafting your way and watching MasterChef is a whole new experience.
These days Facebook is much more virtually realistic. Your digital avatar friends actually gather at your wall to chat and barter Farmville vegetables, though you are all of course just shuffling around your lounge rooms in front of those virtual mirrors.
There isn't a subwoofer or tweeter in sight in your lounge. Speakers are now made from carbon nanotubes, which are a few billionths of a metre thick and coat the walls and ceiling in a thin vibrating membrane immersing you in high-fidelity sound from all directions.
The Wi-fi network was switched off years ago. Now the LED lamps around your house that offer mood lighting, also send wireless broadband around your house. Visible frequency wireless uses the colour spectrum to send large amounts of data as light signals. The LEDs flicker as they transmit, but much faster than the human eye can detect. The signals are more secure, allow for more data to be sent and can go through walls.
The lounge of the future is a real sensory theatre. But sometimes you just want to curl up with a decent e-book. After the much-hyped iPad and the long-forgotten Kindle got people interested in digital screens, scientists came up with e-paper. Now everyone is carrying an A4-sized digital screen folded up like a hanky. Unfolding it displays a crisp page delivering you everything from the morning newspaper to the latest Dan Brown novel.
* Visit Peter Griffin's blog here.