Organizing the digital mega-library

A few weeks back I wrote a bit about our new supra-digital entertainment nexus station, also known as The Blu-Raya Playa. After some more time basking in its HDMI greatness, I have a few more reflections that seem, in natural blog law, to require public consideration.

First, a disclaimer: The audio portion of our “home theater,” such as it is, consists of an eight year-old Sherwood receiver that I still maintain is an extraordinarily good buy for 2002, what with its DTS and coax and optical audio inputs and 5.1 downmixing and full LRF support. It’s connected to the bookshelf speakers that I bought in 1994 to take to college, so when I say that the audio from the Serenity blu-ray is totally sweet, you should take my word for it, because I’m not one of those nutjobs who pays $800 for neutrally-balanced balsawood volume knobs.

Right, with that out of the way, the Sony N460 remains a very satisfying little piece of equipment, but I do have a few thoughts about the whole “online digital library” thing.

First, a better remote would be nice. This one’s a little lightweight in heft. Also, for a device that can stream internet music services, a RF remote would be slick — no line-of-sight requirement to make selections. In the dare-to-dream category would be a smart remote with a display to control services like or pandora from the kitchen. Oooh, iPhone app. Ooooh, iPad app, yes.

Second, every video service is walled off from the rest. Online video is organized by service, not content or category or keyword. I want to aggregate it all up into folders or buckets of some kind. I’d settle for getting this for Netflix only (though being able to roll-up rentals or purchases from Amazon on Demand, too, would be way cool). The current display is just a tile of little tiny cover displays — scrolling through brings up a larger display of title. How excellent it would be to be able to organize all those little pictures of DVD covers, into TV and sci-fi and “serious melodrama” and “re-runs of The Shield.”

Here’s why categorization matters so much: I find I’m really making a library out of the Netflix instant queue, dropping into it movies I’ve been before, movies I’ve heard about, movies I might watch someday, and even documentaries. Previously, the Netflix Instant queue was a list of things tagged, essentially, “I want to watch this.” But having all that material in a device permanently connected to the TV changes that dramatically. It’s not a queue so much as a “I love this or I think it’s cool or I remember watching it in college or I might watch this one day” list. And therefore it’s not a list; it’s a library, and that library needs organizing. And all that stuff? It needs organizing.

The digital mega-library needs organizing, one way or another. Netflix could send category information to these devices, for example, or could allow users to attach keywords; devices could do anything with this information: display tag clouds or let users navigate the categories of video they’ve dropped into the queue, or build sparklines of keyword frequencies or … well, you get it. I think Netflix must ultimately be headed for this kind of system, but its usability will depend on device-level implementation.

[ update: Boxee may present a partial solution here, as the new version claims to be able to better organize material across services. Not having tried it out for quite a while, I downloaded the current release and gave it a go. I do have to say that it’s really slick, and must faster than the prior version I had used for a while. And there is some hint of cross-service integration: Searching for Chuck for example reveals streams from and from Hulu; but searching for Doctor Who, which is represented by half a dozen entries in my instant Netflix queue, turns up nothing, so the integration is at best still only partial. But Boxee does have the most complete overall set of services, so the upcoming Boxee box is most definitely worth watching as an alternative to dedicating a PC to the TV. ]

And the day I can get to all the stuff I’ve queued, rented, and/or bought — via keyword, or actor, or ranking, or genre — without having to back out three menus and find another service? That will be Unification Day, and it will rock. Apple TV, I’m looking at you, though if Sony could do this with some sweet firmware updates to the box we already own, well I’d seriously consider a Vaio. Cross my heart.

Local culture revisited

Several years ago I stumbled over the Netflix “local favorites” list and had a good time exploring it. Well, the New York Times has gone and made a really cool presentation of that data, for 2009, for a dozen U.S. cities. Check it out. Good stuff.

This changes everything

Just after Christmas, our DirecTV receiver unceremoniously gave up the ghost. I had been looking into alternatives, and wasn’t encouraged by the lack of incentives for us to stay with DirecTV: In order to upgrade to a DVR, we’d have to pay $200 up front for the new unit (and still wouldn’t own it, as I understand), plus the additional monthly fee. By comparison, a comparable package with Dish Network was substantially less expensive, and they even offer an option to opt out of the 24-month contract — which is still cheaper than our existing DirecTV package.

But that’s not actually my point. My point is that when the first receiver broke, DirecTV promised to send us another one right away, but it would still take several days. And, quite honestly, we were bored now. So we gave ourselves a late Christmas gift: The Sony N460 Network Blu-Ray player (amazon link). Very briefly: it changes everything.

Devices like the Roku have been offered this capability for a while, of course [expanding from initially streaming Netflix, to Amazon on Demand and music via Pandora], and we’ve connected the MacBook video to the TV once in a while for Hulu or a Netflix stream. And more recently there’s a whole crop of blu-ray players that are internet-enabled, with varying service connectivity. Actually having the networked device connected directly to the TV is new to us, and the difference is stunning. I underestimated by a massive degree just how cool and convenient it is to push a button and have a library of streaming content available without screwing around with video cables. The N460 supports Netflix, Amazon Video on Demand, Youtube, and a small grundle of additional services, in addition to NPR streaming radio and slacker radio.

Netflix streaming — arguably the headline app — is excellent. Items in your instant queue are displayed in tiled icons on the screen, and it’s a serviceable presentation, though I’d prefer the coverflow-style presentation that Roku uses; the tiles are a little hard to read, and the lack of ability to organize a very large queue might eventually become a problem. Once a video is selected, the streaming starts up quickly and you just go to town (we connected the N460 directly to our Airport Extreme via ethernet cable). Browsing YouTube also works very well (and looks surprisingly good in fullscreen, too), and Amazon on Demand is simply sweet: We rented Star Trek for $3 and got Hi-Def streaming with digital sound. As Doctor Egon Spengler best put it, yes, have some. All of those singularly are super-cool, but as a package it means a new digital on-demand library. I’m still getting a handle on just how big that is for home video.

It’s big.

Oh, yeah, it plays blu-ray discs, too. That’s cool.

Local culture

With the arrival yesterday of Riding Giants1, my once-extensive Netflix queue is whittled down to just one or two films. So it’s time to wander through my recommendations and fill up the list again. I took a list at the current queue for my parents and noticed a Netflix feature I hadn’t seen before: “Local Favorites.” Enter a city and Netflix shows the top 25 movies that people in that city are renting more than people elsewhere. This means that most new releases are excluded from the list, because everybody is renting those; instead, the list suggests how local rental habits are different from those in most other places. Neat!

So what’s more popular in Flagstaff than in most other locations? Here’s the top five: Adventure, crime, western, romance, and really crappy Will Ferrell flick.

  1. Touching the Void
  2. The Sopranos: Season 3 (4-Disc Series)
  3. Deadwood: Season 1 (6-Disc Series)
  4. Love Actually
  5. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

Compare to Tucson, which I would have hoped to be better than renting Ace Venture excessively. Is Dolores Claiborne a desperate cry for help, a pining for frosty New England?

  1. Monty Python’s And Now for Something Completely Different
  2. Quills
  3. Twice in a Lifetime
  4. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective
  5. Dolores Claiborne

And see how cosmo Sundance home Park City (In Good Company, The Sea Inside, Million Dollar Baby, Collateral, De-Lovely) differs from my, well, less cosmo hometown of Ogden (The Work and the Glory, I Am Sam, Roman Holiday, In Good Company, I Am David).

Due to structural equivalence, I’ll promptly add the films I haven’t seen from the Flagstaff list to my own queue. Any other recommendations?

1 By the way, Riding Giants is really enjoyable. It’s from Stacey Peralta, who also made Downtown and Z-Boys, which tended to feel sort of smug, too skateboarder-triumphalist or something, but which had plenty of cool footage. Riding Giants is a few steps away from Peralta’s own legacy in skateboarding, so it feels like a more balanced documentary of big wave surfing. The vintage and contemporary footage is great (sometimes awesome), and the spliced-in interviews are good (much better than in Dogtown).

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