July 20, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

THX hears the call of consumer electronics

THX hears the call of consumer electronics
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In 1983, Star Wars director George Lucas took aim at decrepit theater sound systems. Whirring air conditioners, fuzzy-sounding speakers and nearby noisy lobbies were obscuring his carefully crafted sound effects.

He founded the company THX to ensure that a theater's playback environment could reproduce sound the way filmmakers meant for a movie to be heard. Audiences loved him for it. More than two decades later, the pioneering company hopes that one of its new technologies, code-named Blackbird, will revamp consumer electronics in the same way.

THX wants to enable DVDs, CDs, video games and digital downloads to communicate with the hardware they play on. The technology embedded in the content will automatically adjust settings so that visual and audio playback is optimal, according to company executives.

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As it approaches its 25th anniversary, THX is trying to redefine itself. In the mid-1980s, when those letters appeared on a film screen, moviegoers whooped and cheered. The logo was accompanied by the company's trademarked sound--the one that begins as a hum but rises to an earsplitting crescendo. THX symbolized Lucas, high tech, and thrilling cinematic journeys.

Jump forward and the pioneering audio company is confronted by a consolidating theater industry and entertainment sector jostled by digital technology. To keep up, THX has branched into new areas outside of the core business, which is certifying theater sound systems.

To make a go of Blackbird, THX executives acknowledge they must first convince Hollywood studios and electronics makers to sign on to a new format, and that's never an easy task.

"This is the most ambitious thing we've tried in a long time," said Robert Hewitt, the company's vice president of sales.

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Because Blackbird is still under development, the company isn't releasing details just yet. But management is essentially tackling the same problem that confronted Lucas when he founded THX. Instead of overhauling theaters, the company is trying to remake home entertainment centers. Consumers often buy expensive DVD players or computers, but few know anything about how to squeeze the best sound out of their gear.

When's the last time you adjusted the picture ratio or sound balance and tailored it for a specific movie?

Sound design
To understand how big a leap Blackbird is for THX, one has only to look at its roots. Despite the public's perception, THX was never a cutting-edge sound or recording system.

In the movie Aliens when Sigourney Weaver is face-to-face with the acid-blooded creature whose breathing sounds as if its coming from the next seat, or when Tom Hanks storms the beach at Normandy in Saving Private Ryan and the bullets sound as if they're whizzing past your head, the credit goes to James Cameron and Steven Spielberg, the respective filmmakers.

But THX made sure audiences heard every nuance.

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That's no small feat. At THX-certified theaters, the company's engineers have pored over the blueprints and helped design the building for maximum acoustic performance. To keep out noise from adjoining rooms or the lobby, each auditorium must be insulated by thick walls and carpet. Hard surfaces can cause unwanted reverberation.

Setting audio standards may not sound sexy, and doesn't exactly jibe with Lucas' space-age image, but the privately held company has been profitable for years, Hewitt said. THX's fee for certifying a theater ranges from $9,000 to $15,000 and more than 2,000 theaters worldwide are THX-certified, Hewitt said.

The company, which spun off five years ago from Lucasfilm, is banking that its reputation and expertise can help it compete in other sectors.

THX certifies car and home audio systems, video games, high-end televisions and home projectors, DVDs and recording studios and the company has met with some success. For example, CNET, the publisher of News.com, voted the THX II Certified Car Audio System the best of 2006.

The online edition of Wired magazine wrote in May that THX's system issued sounds "so pitch-perfect, you'll sit back and say, 'Hey, I've never heard that instrument in this song before.'"

Laurie Fincham, THX's chief scientist, highlighted some of the new business ventures during a tour of the company's headquarters on Wednesday.

In one room, Fincham showed off three plastic mushroom-shape computer speakers developed by THX and Razer, a maker of electronics and video game gear. The system, called the Mako 2.1, features two 100-watt desktop satellite speakers that aren't much larger than coffee mugs. Sandwiched inside are a midrange speaker and narrow tweeter. The midrange is pointed down, designed to reflect sound off the desktop.

The Mako 2.1, which goes on sale this fall and will retail for $299, is designed to distribute sound evenly throughout a room. This contrasts with most computer speakers, which tend to be built for listening from just a couple feet away.

The products are significant because they illustrate THX's attempt to take part in development rather than just giving products a thumbs up or thumbs down.

Getting involved early helps the company influence manufacturers to strike out and try new technologies and ideas. The sales pitch often means convincing electronic makers that offering a competitive price doesn't always mean sacrificing performance.

"If we don't say how it's possible, it isn't going to come from the normal manufacturing resources," Fincham said. "Most companies are outsourcing their (research and development) and relying on suppliers. The suppliers just respond to the requests of their customers. What we are saying is there may be another way."

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14 comments

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Where's the info on Blackbird?
Interesting article but you never go on to discuss Blackbird and why "it will change the industry" as THX is intending to do? What is it? Why is it great? Where is the development? Etc... You give a little history on THX and discuss their new 2.1 system but I was hoping for more on the whole Blackbird technology. Perhaps there's a page 2 missing or I didn't see?
Posted by acpryor (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Where is Tomlinson Holman?
Lucas was the driving force, but Tomlinson Holman was the technical brains for the development of THX.
The article never mentioned him.
That is a major oversight.
Posted by bearcat51 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
He's the "TH" in THX :)
He runs his own company (TMH Corp.). I had the pleasure of
meeting him and working with his crew (okay, bugging them
more than helping) during a demonstration of their 10.2 system
in a theater on campus:

<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www-scf.usc.edu/~bseo/photo/AustinDemo/" target="_newWindow">http://www-scf.usc.edu/~bseo/photo/AustinDemo/</a>
sep_2004.html

It was very cool. These guys are brilliant.

The only issue - I don't see that 10.2 is "necessary." Better?
Sure. Innovative? Definitely. But given all the variables in a
theatrical space, I'd spend my money first on "fixing" the "low
tech" issues that THX certification often entails. Most venues
aren't "good enough" for 10.2 to make a difference.

BTW, it was interesting to see the whole shebang is basically a
lot of nice audio gear tied up to a PC (possibly with a DSP farm -
I forgot exactly what the digital connections were). There's no
such thing as a "Super Audio 10.2 CD" or whatever...

Charles
Posted by chassoto--2008 (71 comments )
Link Flag
Already seeing THX in products.
You can already see it in products such as Tivo S3, so does that
mean this is something completely different then?
Posted by higuchem (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
THX Video Certification
What you are seeing with the Tivo S3, and the Vidikron/Runco (same company) projectors is a THX Video Certification. This is similar to a THX Ultra Audio Certification - only it's obviously related to the video portion of the content.

Apparently, not only is "the audience listening", but they're watching too :).

Blackbird looks more like another layer - like a method of doing things with the content - much like what THX did with the audio tracks (the audio had to be mixed a certain way for a movie to be "THX certified").
Posted by 10-inch-tdizzle (4 comments )
Link Flag
Where is Tom Holman
Tom is at TMHLabs.com
Posted by joelsilverman (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
THX- All that is needed...
I would like a remote eye to be able to optimally set up the displays picture. Similar to how Pioneer
uses the MCACC for sound.
Posted by vertebra67 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Use ISF not THX
You should have an ISF technician calibrate your display. A product like a DataColor "spyder" is available to do a basic display calibration yourself.
Posted by 10-inch-tdizzle (4 comments )
Link Flag
what about a disability accessible interface for home electronics
How about building in software so that all consumer electronic devices used to receive or display video programming that simultaneously transmit sound are designed, developed, and fabricated to allow people with disabilities to control, through non-visual and other means accessible to and usable by people with disabilities, the receipt, display, navigation and selection of video and other programming. In short, (1) what's so hard about making menus have audio output for blind people and that can be operated with ONE quick button on a -- ONE-- remote control? And (2) How about short cut buttons for features commonly used by people who are deaf or hard of hearing (such as ONE button for closed captioning instead of the nightmare of current menus where no one can ever find where the captioning turn-on is controlled or how to adjust the fonts and colors if you have color blindness or other vision limitations); and (3) if manufacturers don't start making USABILITY of equipment a priority, sales are going to be affected (downward). With more and more Americans aging, USABILITY and ACCESSIBILITY are becoming more and more important.
Jenifer Simpson
American Association of People With Disabilities
Washington, DC
Posted by Jenifer Simpson (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Talk to the CEA
Your group, the ADA, and AARP should combine your efforts to lobby the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the Internation Telecommunication Union (ITU), the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), the Imaging Science Foundation (ISF), the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association (CEDIA), and EVERY movie studio and TV production house on the planet (otherwise the content might not be done right) - to do what you're asking. I'd also recommend lobbying Congress and the FCC since they hold the keys to this lock. This is a big challenge that I would not lay at the feet of THX (it's not their fault, so they shouldn't be tasked with fixing this).

Don't think I'm being rude or not getting your point - I used to do complex Home Theater installations for people who didn't understand technology (let alone with a disability on top of that), I'm half deaf and so's my girlfriend. I still know how to use the "subtitle" button on my DVD player remote (and I do for most movies) - but my cable box's CC feature has been "broken" since I got it (that would be a Motorola 3412 with Comcast in case you want to "flame" them) so I can never get sub-titles on Cable-TV.

Just understand that in order to standardize an interface, control scheme, and Text-to-Speach menu reading system for On Screen Displays (OSD) to help the blind - you'll need to have to present a complete plan, and every CE company will have to use the exact same scheme (with no "optional" functions). This still won't fix people not understanding how things work - this is a technology training issue (the marketing people of the CE industry are to blame for this). Also keep in mind that a lot of CE companies percieve their User Interface to be proprietary and actually a differentiation/selling point - so forcing them to change is going to be VERY painful especially if your are trying to force an non-US CE company to comply with your specification (this is why I suggest the FCC and Congress - you'll have to affect their bottom line negatively BEFORE they'll spend the effort to change).
Posted by 10-inch-tdizzle (4 comments )
Link Flag
Interesting point, but . . .
You raise an interesting point, but this release has nothing to do
with interface.

And, before you or anyone else cries foul, I am disabled and have
worked for people with disabilities for over 25 years.
Posted by mborgens (5 comments )
Link Flag
Just because it isn't THX doesn't mean it wouldn't pass.
THX is a great idea, but it doesn't mean you're getting the best. Plenty of components (professional and consumer) far exceed THX specifications, but cost significantly less because they don't have to pay THX to say they meet or exceed those specs.
Posted by TheBluePointe (6 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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