in a downtown theater. The lights are dim and the curtains drawn.
the show begin. But when we're at home, it's not quite the same.
And so begins the challenge for those AV specialists who work in
BY ARTHUR NOXON
and directors have long known that to entertain, they must capture
the imagination of the audience. Composers, musicians, and conductors
also know that to bring satisfaction into the performance, they
must enrapture the audience. To achieve such abandon involvement,
the audience must be cultivated into a mental state such that they
forget themselves and where they are, being conscious solely of
the show, and, thus, becoming part of the show themselves.
In the movies or live performances, this audience involvement
effect is developed by two means. First, good material and a good
performance is necessary. These factors lie in the hands of those
who produce the show. Secondly, a good setting must be provided
for experiencing the show and this lies in the hands of those who
put on the show. There are numerous elements that go into and compose
a good setting for a show. A light dimmer might be one. A pull cord
for the curtain is another. Comfortable seats in an even temperature
and draft-free room are needed. Air conditioning noise needs to
be reduced just as the excess light from windows. And the list goes
A/V specialist in home theater is the person in charge of putting
on the show. Part of this responsibility is to get the equipment
operating properly, and the other part is to create a proper setting
so that distracting effects are eliminated. For the most part, the
program material available these days for home theater is pretty
good, and so is the equipment used to process it. What separates
the good from the bad and ugly in home theater is, in most cases,
the distraction factor of the room. By controlling distractions,
the A/V specialist can bring into play that final touch and end
up presenting a really good show without breaking a leg.
The customer does go to the store to buy both program
material and the equipment. The third element is, however, a "customer
service" commodity. It's the personal touch part of the sale
that only the A/V specialist can implement. Not unlike high end
audio, the home theater sale goes beyond the equipment-in-a-box
mentality to include the setup. To maximize customer satisfaction
and loyalty, good equipment must be set up in a room that has been
organized for minimal distraction effects. We now turn our attention
in some detail to describing various distraction effects that exist
in home theater.
The home theater audience generally has access to all
five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Being at the
downtown movies can keep all five senses pretty busy, especially
if we like popcorn. We can be easily distracted from the movie by
our senses. Let's say we take a seat -- only to discover that the
person next to us is devouring hot popcorn by the handful. If we
don't care about popcorn, only the noise is distracting. But if
we love popcorn, the smell drives us crazy and we'll probably get
up and go buy some popcorn. The point being that sensory distraction
can keep us from being involved in the movie.
There are two kinds of distraction: primary and secondary.
For the movies, the medium of communication involves sight and sound.
Primary distractions would be things we see or hear that are not
the sight and sound of the movie. Secondary, but not lightly dismissed,
distractions are the comfort of chairs, temperature settings, and
drafts in the room. Primary distractions from the movie program
material involve auditory and visual distractions. The A/V specialist
will work to minimize A/V distraction from the A/V program material.
theater is a mix of sight and sound. Two out of our five basic senses
are fed coordinated signals that result in the audio/visual message
experience. Imagine for a moment a video projection screen displayed
inside a room, whose entire surface is covered with mirrors. The
floor, ceiling, and walls would all be mirrors. Consider the visual
confusion you would experience in such a house of mirrors when the
video screen lights up, Which image would be the real image? The
one ahead? Maybe it's to the left or again to the right? Is it above
on the ceiling or behind you? To some degree, it may not matter
which image is real and which one virtual, as each looks like the
other. On a practical basis, it is the confusion and distraction
that comes from having so many images presented at one time. Some
of the images may be simple, clear visions, of the real screen,
but looking in another direction, we'll see the stacked, multiple
image effect of parallel mirrors that fades away from us into virtual
No one would really propose a "house of mirrors"
setting for home theater. Fortunately, the painted surfaces of most
rooms are far from a mirror surface; they are partially light absorbing,
and due to their rough surface, they are partially light diffusing.
Whatever light reflects off the wall is diffusely scattered in practically
all directions with nearly equal intensity. A blue wall stays a
blue wall no matter where you are located in the room. Blue is the
color reflected, but the reflecting surface of the wall is so rough
that blue light is scattered everywhere.
We are lucky that light is pretty well behaved in rooms,
but we're not so lucky with sound. The room does become a house
of mirrors as far as the speakers are concerned. For sound, the
walls are "acoustically" flat like a polished mirror.
If we could visually See the speaker images, they would be found
all over the walls. Unfortunately, with sound, the room really does
become a house of mirrors.
A good room for home theater will be set up to control
both visual and sonic distraction effects. Before we can go very
far with guiding the home theater room away from behaving like a
house of mirrors, we need to understand the principle of sensory
fusion. Sensory fusion is part of our natural condition and comes
as a mixed blessing. Without this fusion process, movies as we know
them today would be impossible. Yet, because of it, we become susceptible
to sensory input overload. But first, let's review some aspects
of sensory fusion. There are two kinds of sensory fusion; one involves
time and the other involves space. There is always a limit as to
how close events can occur and still be distinguished as individual
video. It is actually a rapidly flashed sequence of still images
like movie frames. These stills are flipped up to us at a rate just
a little faster than our ability to perceive separate visual events
in time. Hence, this staccato of stills seems to the viewer to create
a continuous motion. The visual images are flashed at a rate of
60 times/second (every 1 sec/60 or 17 ms) and at that rate we cannot
separate one image from the next. These well-defined still frames
are being flashed to us at a rate faster than our visual reaction
time for discrimination of separate events in time. This is called
temporal fusion, the time period of sensory fusion.
The reason we are slow to perceive the rapidly flashing
visual images is because we employ a slow speed biochemical sensor
(not a speed of light electronic photocell sensor) in our eye/brain
system. The relative slowness of our electro/chemical visual sensors
results in the "visual fusion" of actually separate-in-time
events. It is not a weakness, but it is the nature of our biochemical
being that multiple events are perceived as separate events, only
if they occur sufficiently separated out in time. If separate events
arrive too quickly, they are perceived as one continuous event.
Without this "vision fusion" process, video as we know
it today would be like watching a strobe light show -- a novelty
-- but not an entertainment medium.
Let's utilize this card flipping process to introduce
the sense of sound into temporal fusion. Most of us have done something
like this when we were young. We used a clothesline clip to position
a card into the spokes of the bike wheel and we got the sound of
a motorcycle. Try an experiment. Take a deck of cards in your hands,
arch them back and then with the thumb, release the entire deck
in one second. What do we hear? A breathy, fluttering type of sound,
but a tone nonetheless. If we flip through 50 cards in one second,
we get 50 separate positive pulses of air per second. But we hear
this process as if it was a breathy 50 Hz tone, which is a bass
note whose location is about four keys up from the bottom end of
the piano keyboard.
If we flip one card per second, we hear distinct snaps.
If we flip 50 cards per second, we do not hear 50 snaps per second,
but perceive a continuous tone of 50 cycles per second. Because
we are human, and our detection systems are biochemical, our experiences
with sight and sound are quite similar. Rapidly flipped cartoon
cards create the impression of continuous motion and rapidly snapped
playing cards create the impression of continuous sound. Both effects
occur because of the temporal fusion threshold (time) in our ability
to detect separate events. Separate events that occur within 1/20
second are perceived as one event. Multiple events that are spaced
closer than 1/20 second apart are perceived as a continuous event.
Again, we consider video and find the spatial (location)
version of fusion on the video screen itself. At the movies, the
image is practically a continuous distribution of colors and shadings
because it is a projected photograph (slide shot) of real objects.
The smoothness of the image is controlled by the graininess of the
film, which long ago was reduced to the levels. Not so with video.
We have pixels, dots, or blocks of colors on the screen. The size
of the dot, its brightness, and distance to neighboring dots is
macroscopic. It becomes visible to the naked eye as we move closer
to the screen. Of course, if we sit back far enough, these separate
dots seem to merge, fuse into a continuous image. Again, sensory
fusion. Separate events in space, as well as those in time, can
fuse together into a continuous event. If it were not for our susceptibility
to sensory fusion in both time and space (temporal fusion, spatial
fusion), we could not enjoy the film or video process as we do today.
This fine grain fusion threshold has to do with the distances
between adjacent light cones in our retina. As long as separate
distinct light sources on the video screen are sufficiently close
enough together, the cones in our retina cannot separate the lights.
One of the biggest equipment differences between the movies and
video decreased the distance between pixels, and when viewed from
the proper distance, the grainy resolution problem of TV is improved.
is also a graininess aspect to hearing. This isn't the so-called
"grainy sound" effect that has to do with high frequency
distortion. Here we concern ourselves with listening to a sound
source with one ear and how well we can detect its position changes.
This is like listening to a cricket chirp while it crawls along
the ceiling and you listen with one ear. We detect this kind of
position change by the way sound enters over the folds in our "ear
trumpet." Sound from one direction engages one pattern of the
curves of our ear, while sound from another direction engages these
same curves in a different pattern. We learn to tell where sound
comes from by the way it is changed by the corrugation of our ears.
A third and very important similarity between sight and
sound is that we have two eyes as well as two ears. Two sensors,
separated but side-to-side, allow us to easily resolve lateral positions
and get a fix on depth positions. This third aspect of sensing is
available to us through the coordination of our pair of sensors.
With sight we can detect depth, what is in front of or behind. Also
with sound, we can detect if a sound source is close or far from
us. The mechanisms for these detections may be different, but the
effect of stereoscopic vision and stereophonic audition is clearly
due to two sensors and the coordination of their inputs.
We have considered areas of similarity in the perception
of sight and sound. Each contributes, more or less, to perception
in the movie process. We have temporal fusion thresholds (those
due to time) illustrated by cartoon flash cards and thumbed playing
cards. We also have a spatial threshold on the resolution of distinctly
separate source positions in space. When it comes to the set up
of an A/V room for home theater, the goal is to reduce primary distractions
to the sight and sound process of the movie presentation.
Our perception of a sequence of events depends on the
time between the events. If they are close enough together (within
1/20 second), the separate events seem to fuse into one single continuous
event. If they are separated out more than 1/20 second, they appear
as a staccato of events, a stroboscopic presence. A sensory distraction
in time usually occurs because a distracting event shortly follows
the main or desired event. If the distracting event arrives within
the sensory fusion time periods of 1/20 second, we have a fusion
distraction. If it arrives later, we have a "post fusion"
Let's consider the echo. It is a sensory distraction,
a distinct, post-fusion acoustic event. Sound passes by us, hits
a distant wall and bounces back. The round trip distance, from the
listener to the reflecting wall and back to the listener, delays
the hearing of the reflection more than 1/20 second. Sound travels
1130 feet/second, and so the distance covered in 1/20 second is
56.5 feet. A wall half as far, 28 1/4 feet away or more, will provide
a detectable echo.
For light, the temporal threshold is roughly the same
1/20 second, but the speed of light is very fast, 186,000 miles/second.
A reflecting mirror would have to delay a light reflection by 186,000
miles/second x 1/20 second or 9,300 miles. The mirror would have
to be 4,650 miles away for us to detect the flicker effect of an
echo of light.
a room with an average dimension of 15 feet was covered with mirrors,
light could reflect three million times and the images would still
be inside our optical fusion threshold. On a practical basis, light
would die out long before it could reflect three million times,
so the entire optical process of distraction lies well within the
visual fusion time period. We don't have to worry about optical
echo problems. With light we only experience visual fusion problems,
and a little paint or wall paper goes a long way to control them.
On the other hand, sound travels much slower and it will
cross the room no more than four times before starting to sound
like an echo. In a typical room, sound delay times are easily 1
1/2 seconds. This means sound can be audible for over 100 reflections.
The first four of these are inside the sound fusion threshold and
the rest arrive outside the threshold in the post fusion time period.
With sound we hear four fusion distraction reflections and about
100 post fusion (echo) distraction reflections. Reflections inside
the fusion time period produce an image distraction effect, while
reflections that arrive outside the fusion period produce an echo
The home theater is set up in a residential sized room.
Under no circumstances would anyone ever consider covering all the
walls, ceiling, and floor with mirrors and then placing a video
screen at one end of the room of mirrors. Such a reflective condition
is useful only at the carnival in the "house of mirrors."
What happens in the "house of mirrors"? Disorientation
-- too many images from too many places. We lose track of the original
image source and certainly cannot dismiss all the reflected images
of the source. The images are too strong and occur well inside the
fusion time period. The source and images merge into one confusing
visual space. And we pay good money for this experience but only
as a novelty -- a game.
We would never really choose to live, work, or watch
a movie in a room filled with distractions. Yet, all too often with
sound, we expose ourselves to just exactly this acoustical house
of mirrors. Normal walls, floor, and ceiling may not reflect much
light; but, for sound, they are so acoustically smooth they act
like a polished mirror. And this time, it's not the carnival, but
your A/V presentation room.