Audio News & Reviews

How A.I. Is Reshaping the Home Theater

By now, you probably know that artificial intelligence (AI) is being employed to one degree or another in digital voice assistants like Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and others. You may even know that machine learning is being used by online streaming services like Netflix to deliver the best-quality stream your network can support and try to better figure out what TV show or movie you might want to watch next after wasting eight hours of your life binging a full season of Diva Brides. But did you know that at least some devices that are part of your home theater system, including your new AV receiver or Ultra HD TV, may be using AI as well?

You can only expect a growing number of manufacturers and service providers to start using AI in an increasing number of their products and services in the months and years to come, whether you want it not. And you can also expect those manufacturers and service providers to keep finding new applications for AI.

So far, however, many consumers have already raised two big concerns with AI. One: How much of my personal information is being collected by the AI used in these devices and services? Two: When will the AI used in these devices take control of my house, my city, my country, and/or the entire world as Skynet did in the Terminator flicks?

Perhaps an even more fundamental question is this: Why the hell do we even need AI to begin with?

To answer the first question, at least some–but not all–of those devices and probably all of those services using AI are indeed collecting at least some of your personal information. After all, these devices and services would not be able to offer you the personalization you’re receiving without knowing at least some information about you, especially your viewing preferences.  In other words, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean corporations aren’t keeping close tabs on all aspects of your home entertainment listening and viewing habits. However, anybody worried about the AI gathering more significant information about you, including your address and credit card information, should consider that the makers of these devices and providers of these services likely already have your payment information and other personal details about you, including where you live.

Based on comments made by analysts we interviewed for this story, you probably don’t have to worry about the AI in your devices and services taking complete control of your house and the world–at least not anytime soon anyway. As for why–or whether–AV needs AI at all? Hopefully we’ll get to the bottom of that, as well.

Devices Using AI
In one of the more prominent consumer-electronics AI announcements of the past two years, Samsung Electronics introduced an 85-inch UHD at CES in 2018 that it said can upscale any content to 8K automatically using AI. Samsung didn’t respond to requests for comment to discuss the TV’s AI or potential consumer concerns. 

In promotional online videos, Samsung has touted how its AI based on machine learning–a subset of AI–analyzes the TV content and automatically upscales low-resolution images into 8K picture quality. You can get an idea of what it looks like in the videos below.

Bob_ODonnell-TECHnalysis_Research.jpgEven though much of the talk around AI has been that it’s “this very futuristic kind of thing that’s doing all these crazy, wild things,” said Bob O’Donnell, president and chief analyst at TECHnalysis Research, “some of what AI does is actually very subtle,” such as the way Samsung is using the technology in the TV. “There have always been scalers,” he said, adding: “There’s been upscaling on TVs since the early days of SD–standard-def to high-def and then high-def to 4K…. It’s just a question of how you do the scaling and how good it is on lots of different content, because inevitably what [we’ve] seen in the past is people have done scaling that works really well on some content but not so well on other content. It might work great for slow-moving movies, but it’s terrible for fast-moving sports, for example.” If AI can make upscaling “consistently better” and if it’s “smart enough to know” that the device it’s controlling must switch the type of scaling being done based on the content, “I don’t think anybody would complain about that–that’s clearly a great thing,” he said, adding that goes for how Yamaha’s using AI also.

Yamaha-Phil_Shea_Headshot.jpgYamaha introduced AI in its audio/video equipment in spring 2018 under the name Surround:AI, Phil Shea, content marketing manager for the AV division of Yamaha Corporation of America, pointed out. Currently, the AI is found in its top three RX-A 80 Series AVENTAGE receivers, as well as the CX-A5200 preamp. “The AI technology analyzes a scene’s soundtrack in real time to calibrate the perfect sound field for the listener, making the speakers disappear into the room,” Shea explained.

According to Shea, consumers have no reason to be concerned about any privacy issues with the AI being used in the Yamaha devices. “Being that Surround:AI is a closed system and not cloud-based, there is no data that is captured and sent to a server,” he said.

So, is Surround:AI necessary for the average consumer? Probably not. But so far, consumers who own the Yamaha devices featuring the technology “love the convenience that Surround:AI provides; instead of manually having to find the best surround mode on their remote control, Surround:AI finds it for them,” Shea said, noting that’s “especially helpful when an action scene quickly switches to a quiet, intimate setting.”

Yamaha went on to integrate its MusicCast-enabled AV receivers into, a voice-controlled home automation system designed for residential custom integrators. Announcing it, Yamaha said custom integrators can add MusicCast-enabled receivers as a “controlled component of a home entertainment system using the browser-based setup interface,” explaining that the platform “auto-discovers all AV devices on a network and natively understands multiple sources and destinations.” Via’s proprietary natural language processing (NLP), “users can conversationally request their home to execute any number of tasks,” Yamaha noted. As an example, it said, the room awareness feature of the microphones allow users to give commands like, ‘OK Josh, dim the lights, listen to ‘Paint it Black’ by the Rolling Stones, and watch ‘Black Mirror’ season two, episode three.'” 

You can expect a growing number of manufacturers to start adding similar functions to their devices. Although Yamaha isn’t currently using AI in any additional home theater devices, Shea pointed out his company has also been integrating AI into its Disklavier player pianos.

Click over to page two to for a discussion about the economics of AI, as well as reasons to be cautiously optimistic…