Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Adaptive advertising invites depressive stereotyping

English: Detail of a New York Times Advertisem...
Detail of a New York Times Advertisement - 1895  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
"Data-driven discovery is tech's new wave" touts a recent article in the New York Times. The article points out that developments in computing power coupled with inexpensive data storage has produced a digital "boiling point" that will enable companies to begin surgically targeting consumer groups based on incisive analysis of web browsing "trails" and age, gender and interests profiles using machine-learning algorithms.  One company they mention is  Rocket Fuela four-year-old Silicon Valley start-up that uses artificial-intelligence software to place display advertisements for marketers on the Web .  So I visited the company's website to see how they describe the service they offer to their own clients.

Rocket Fuel points out that they have defined over 20,000 audience segments that I assume are applied to vast numbers of potential client customers.  I was hoping they would define a retirees segment online so I could see how much of their profile applied to me.  Unfortunately, they didn't detail that demographic group but they did describe others with which I share some attributes.  Here are those segments with my take on their validity based on my own preferences.

Gadget Geeks technology early adopters who are passionate about gadgets
  • Passionate about technology and gadgets - yes
  • Enjoy sharing tech expertise with family and friends - sometimes (I don't like being tech support for friends and family - after all I used to do that for a living and retired to get away from it!)
  • Prioritize quality and brand when shopping - as long as I get bang for the buck
  • Interested in researching and buying the newest gadgets - research yes, buying - not usually a "" release and not unless the gadget offers perceived value based on my needs
Leisure Travelers love to travel for pleasure and frequently hunt for travel deals
  • Passionate about travel and travel deals - yes if in my preferred travel area and not a cruise
  • Frequent fliers - yes
  • Enjoy researching about travel online - yes
Not bad so far but how about less niche-oriented segments?

Value Shoppers are budget-conscious shoppers seeking value and quality
  • Research online for deals and coupons - only if I have a product already selected
  • Interested in sweepstakes and contests - no
  • Primary grocery decision-maker, coupon clips, bargain hunts - yes, sometimes and only if bargain information is delivered to me (email) or readily available without extensive research
Moms-on-the-Go are career-oriented and thrive on time-saving products
  • Socially active and web savvy - yes
  • Interested in products that allow more time with family - more leisure time
  • Enjoy dining at family restaurants and steakhouses - no; prefer international cuisine
  • Frequently buy quick-fix meals and time-saving products - no box meals; prefer freshly combined ingredients at a deli or takeout
  • Altruistic, responsible, and creative psychographics - usually
It's obvious when they try to stretch their profiles over a much larger segment, discretionary preferences become more of an issue.

There is currently no consensus on how closely...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I'm not saying this development is necessarily bad.  I am the first to admit that I really appreciate the algorithm Netflix has developed to recommend movies to me based on my viewing history and expressed ratings.  Their recommendations hit the mark more and more often.  But I have rated over 1,000 movies on Netflix.  I usually only buy a car once every ten years or so and I have no particular brand loyalty.  Furthermore, I am in no financial position to "surprise" my spouse with a new Lexus at Christmas time either! (How I hate those commercials during the holidays - I feel they have been particularly tasteless during this economic recession!!)  Not that I would consider spending that much for mere transportation a worthwhile investment anyway!

As an older consumer, what I fear most is that the media I watch will become depressingly saturated with what Rocket Fuel delicately describes as "senior products".  It already seems like I hear about nothing but incontinence products, sexual dysfunction, medications for all kinds of diseases that befall an aging body, hair loss, wrinkle creams and face lifts, Alzheimer's care centers and estate planning.  It makes me wonder if DISH network has already begun a campaign of adaptive advertising.  Maybe it's just because the educational programming we watch in our household earmarks us as demographically more mature viewers.

After all, during the day the TV is often left on for no other reason than to provide background noise for the dogs and no "consumer" is actually watching it anyway!

What we really need is on-demand program selection so our interests are more specifically defined and we are not automatically profiled by the overall channels we watch. Furthermore, now that so many of us have smart TVs, broadcasters should take a cue from Facebook and give us the opportunity to give ads a thumbs up or thumbs down then remove all ads for products that we have indicated we are absolutely not interested in.  Of course that would mean satellite and cable providers would FINALLY have to surrender their antiquated marketing model of channel tiers!!

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Monday, August 20, 2012

Augmented Reality Apocalypse basis of new YouTube series H+

I was browsing through my newsfeed on Facebook and stumbled across a reference to a new digital series produced by Warner Brothers and being offered through Youtube instead of the typical cable or satellite services.  It's called H+ and I found the trailer really intriguing:

I'm a fan of apocalyptic fiction and a series where the apocalypse is the result of a technology gone awry is irresistible to me.  The basis for this series is a new technology where augmented reality is delivered via brain implant.  Apparently it works wonderfully well for a time until about 1/3 of the world's population (the early adopters) die leaving the management of the world to mostly people from third world nations.  I'm sure Mitt Romney would find this scenario mortifying!

It will be interesting to see how this plays out not only from an entertainment perspective but from the viewpoint of Warner Brothers who is attempting to tap into the large numbers of people who are "cutting the cable" now and resorting to online streaming as their primary source of media.

The PR says each episode will be only eight minutes long and there will be 48 episodes with two episodes released every week.  I'm a little confused about why the episodes are so short.  Although it's true most online viewers are used to relatively short videos on YouTube, the number of us with smart TVs that can watch YouTube on the big screen is growing rapidly and we would certainly prefer the more traditional episode length.  However, the director, Bryan Singer, hopes web viewers will actually rearrange the episodes and search for clues to solve mysteries almost like a dynamic real-time video game ultimately changing the way we consume video entertainment.

Singer certainly has hit upon an appropriate emerging technology to use as the platform for his new series.  Although augmented reality has been discussed for quite some time (It was a major topic at an Emerging Technologies Conference I attended back in 2006, actual implementation has been a bit slow with Google's "Project Glass"  being probably the most familiar application to date.  Project Glass involves the use of specially equipped glasses that combine information from the internet with GPS location to display data appropriate to a user's location as they move through their environment. Google had initially indicated the technology would be released in 2012 but now they are projecting a consumer grade product will probably not be available for sale until 2014.

However, smartphone users have already found other augmented reality mini-applications to be useful.  One application I recommended to the nature photographers in the Emerald Photographic Society is Peak AR.  It is an application that uses your smartphone's camera and GPS to identify nearby mountain peaks by simply pointing your smartphone's camera in their direction.

Another really useful AR app is named iOnRoad.  This app monitors such things as whether your car is straying outside your lane, advises you of insufficient headway and warns you if a collision is eminent.

Google Goggles will let you scan a painting and provide information about the artist and a description of the work.  Wikitude lets you pull up Wikipedia entries on objects or landmarks simply by focusing your camera on them. The app also finds mobile coupons and discounts for local stores.

So, the technology in Hplus is already here - just not implanted as yet.  As for the digital series plot, I would offer an alternative story line.  What if the new AR modules begin projecting frightening imagery so real looking that people can no longer distinguish real from virtual? But I guess that story line will have to wait for another day!

Update: I watched the first two episodes using the YouTube viewer on my smart Samsung TV.  The first episode was almost 8 minutes but the second was only about 4 minutes including about 1 minute of credits.  I felt like I watched more credits than program!  I see the next 3 episodes are also shorter than 8 minutes.  Come on guys!  There are a lot of us with smart TVs who don't have the "Play All" option like the regular YouTube website has and having to scroll to and start each subsequent episode is a pain - especially when they are not presented in order on the TV YouTube app search function!

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Are banks ripping off consumers with online banking?

Today, I received a notice from Chase that my credit card payment that was due on Sunday had not been received yet.  Since I use online banking from my local credit union to pay my bills, I immediately went online and saw that the payment to Chase was withdrawn from my account electronically on Friday, August 17.  So I called Chase and their customer service agent told me that there is always a delay "getting" an electronic payment and that they didn't "receive" my payment until this morning Monday, August 20, and they had assessed me a $25 late fee.  I told the agent that an electronic transfer is an instant process and the money was withdrawn from my account on Friday and would have been instantly received by Chase on Friday.  If their computer system does not attribute that money to my account until they perform some manual process, it is hardly fair to charge me a $25 late fee since the money was received on Friday and was sitting in Chase's funds merely waiting for someone to allocate it as a payment to someone's specific account on Monday.  I have seen other credit card companies say in their fine print that if a payment is due on the weekend and funds to pay it are electronically "sent" on the weekend but not officially posted until Monday, the funds will be recognized as received on the weekend.  Apparently, Chase does not follow this policy!

I asked if, since it was obvious I authorized the payment in time and have an excellent payment history with Chase, always paying each statement in full by the due date until now, they would refund the late fee.  But the customer service clerk flatly refused.  So I asked to speak to a supervisor then she said she would refund the late fee and asked me if I still needed to talk to a supervisor.  I told her no if she was issuing the refund I didn't need to talk to a supervisor then but that I should not have had to ask to speak to a supervisor.  At that point, without any reply, I just heard the tones of someone dialing a phone then hold music.  After a brief wait, a man came on the phone who I assumed was the supervisor.  I again explained what had happened with the online electronic payment and asked for a refund of the late fee and he agreed.

But, is this the new way banks are trying to slip in more fees on an unsuspecting public?  An electronic transfer cannot occur unless both sender and receiver participate.  The sending institution is including all information necessary to earmark the funds being received as to the payor's identification.  Even if the computers at the receiving end must run some other subroutines to actually apply the information to a customer's account at a later date, the fact that the transmission occurred on a specific day should be the basis for recognizing receipt of the funds.  Before I retired I used to design databases and know that as long as the two institutions participating in an electronic exchange have their database fields mapped properly, the exchange can be handled in a millisecond without human intervention.  So why does the Federal Banking Commission allow banks to get away with slapping customers with a big late fee when the receiving institution has actually had the funds in their possession before the due date???
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Friday, July 06, 2012

Will Amazon expand TV Play option to facilitate ala carte video on demand?

Just noticed that Amazon is now offering a "TV Play" option for future episodes of selected television series like popular series produced by AMC.  This is like video-on-demand for each episode you may have missed of a TV series you may be following.

I noticed this option when I received a postcard from DISH network mentioning a special offer available for DISH customers that were watching some of the original series produced by AMC but now no longer available through DISH (because of a pricing dispute) like Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead and Hell on Wheels.  Since the postcard mentioned Amazon Video as their recommended viewing alternative, I went up on Amazon and noticed the new TV Play option for Hell On Wheels (about the construction of the transcontinental railroad) that we were following on AMC.  So I called the phone number DISH provided on the postcard to see if they had some kind of coupon code and they actually gave me a credit on my DISH account equivalent to the cost of streaming this coming season's episodes of Hell On Wheels using Amazon Video.

Is this one of the first cracks to appear in the armor of the tier-based cable and satellite pricing structures?  If so, I applaud Amazon Video for taking a bold step to offer this service and DISH Network for being concerned enough about their customers to offer the equivalent of a credit for a loss in viewing opportunity created by a contract dispute.

However, I would urge Amazon (and their studio partners) to be a little more reasonable in their pricing if this service is expanded to other channels.  $2.84 per HD episode ($1.89 per SD episode) seems a bit steep for only one episode of one series on one channel. HBO charges even more - $3 per HD, $2.23 per SD episode (at least for Game of Thrones) if you order a full season.  I think they should recalibrate and look more toward the 99 cents per episode price point.

However, if I could order per series for some offerings and per episode for other channels (like a particular program on Nat Geo), I would definitely consider relinquishing most of my cable tiers and go back to basic channels only.  As it is I pay more than $100 per month for America's Top 250 so I can get access to History Channel International but end up watching Netflix most nights  anyway.

I actually prefer to watch episodic dramas on Netflix so I can watch back-to-back episodes, allowing me to follow continuing story lines more closely and identify more deeply with the main characters.  I also don't have to worry about the network skipping weeks and preempting regular programming for things like sports playoffs or political conventions.  If that happens I often lose track of when the series I am watching will resume and miss several episodes all together making it difficult to pick back up where I left off.  This happened to me with "Heroes" and with "Flash Forward", two excellent series but both interrupted repeatedly by network "special" broadcasts of other programming that caused me to become confused about what was happening and lose interest.

What we may really need is to go back to basic broadcast networks that focus on news and talk shows and use ala carte streaming for original dramatic series and educational or edutainment programs.  Sometimes I marvel at technology advancements that end up going full circle and resurrecting older business models.  Years ago when PC networks were first being developed and individual workstations had relatively limited hard drive space, we used to encourage our users to store all of their data on the network server.  Then PCs began to have much larger hard drives and people began saving large multimedia files and our network servers became overwhelmed so we took a step backward and asked people to store only files being shared with others on the central network server and use their local hard drive for their own personal data.  Then cloud services came along and network infrastructure improved so much in transmission speed that now we again urge network users to store their data in the cloud and not on their hard drives any more.  So we are once again almost back to where we started!

Obviously, methods of delivery for video entertainment are in a dramatic state of flux right now and it will be interesting to see how everything shakes out. 
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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Taking a leap of faith with VuDu and Ultraviolet

Well, after three phone calls to VUDU customer care to discuss the details of their new Disc-to-Digital service linked to Ultraviolet, I have decided to take the plunge and took my first batch of favorite movies to Walmart to be certified for my online film library.

I started out with 6 standard DVDs that I upconverted to HD and 1 Blu-Ray.  I paid $5 for each DVD and $2 for the Blu-Ray to add them to my VUDU and linked Ultraviolet account.  Other than the obvious reason of being able to access my movies when I travel, I had several other reasons to buy into this new program supported by Walmart and most of the major movie studios:

First of all, I felt the $5 upconvert and cloud storage option for standard DVDs that I own was a less expensive way to enjoy full HD versions without having to cough up $9.99 or more (especially with digital copies) for physical Blu-Ray discs.

Secondly, Ultraviolet allows up to five other people to be members of my account and enjoy my movies.  I'm hoping my son (who lives in Chicago and is an avid movie buff with slightly different tastes than I do) and I can share our movie libraries in this way. This wish to have reciprocal access was the reason for one of my phone calls.

Ultraviolet recommends setting up shared access by granting membership through the account management function.  However, I knew that I had never seen an interface option in VUDU to select a particular Ultraviolet library so I could choose between his collection and mine so I asked VUDU how to accomplish this.  VUDU tech support actually recommended sharing an Ultraviolet account with the same login name and password instead.  The technician explained that if my son and I each had separate Ultraviolet accounts, I would have to go online with my computer and unlink my Ultraviolet library and link to my son's Ultraviolet library every time I wanted to browse and watch one of his movies instead of one of mine on one of my authorized devices.  If we both used the same Ultraviolet account we could then link to it from our individual VUDU accounts and see all movies in the combined library but have individual access to VUDU for purchasing DVDs or authorizing a rental.   I suggested to VUDU tech support that a library selection function be added to the VUDU interface in the future so we could use Ultraviolet's account management function someday since it provides customized movie suggestions based on individual taste and lets each user customize the interface for their own preferences.

When I discussed this new service with my son, he wondered if the special features available on the DVD would be included in the digital online version.  He also was wondered if you had to surrender your original discs when you took them to Walmart for verification.  This prompted another phone call.  VUDU told me that unfortunately the special features were not included in the online version but I would not be asked to surrender my original disc so I could always watch the special features from the original disc.  

This was confirmed when I took my movies to Walmart.  The photo center customer service agent just retrieved my VUDU account by using my email address. I had already queued up the movies I wanted to add to my online library so she just had to enter a confirmation code.  Then, she rubber stamped each DVD around the center hole so the disc could not be used by anyone else in the future to verify a different online library and returned the perfectly playable discs back to me.  I paid the advertised rate of $5 per DVD converted to HD and $2 for the online version of the Blu-Ray.

When I got home and logged into my Ultraviolet account my movies appeared in my library.  They also appear on my VUDU account.  So I guess I'm all set.

Now playing my library with the VUDU application works on my PC or a Mac and on my Samsung TV that has VUDU already installed in its suite of internet applications.  VUDU also works on an iPad (which, alas, I still do not have, making me still a victim of iPad envy) but there is no Android-compatible version available yet and my phone and Nook color run on Android.  However, I downloaded the newest version of Flixster to my phone and it has an option under your account to link it to your Ultraviolet library and my movies appeared under "My Collection" on Flixster and I was able to play my movies beautifully on my Droid 3 using it.  

My Nook Color that I have rooted to a full Android tablet using a preconfigured SD card from Root My Nook Color, was a bit trickier.  First I attempted to update the Flixster application that was preinstalled from the Amazon App Store (because I always have better luck with it instead of the Google Play Store).  It updated OK but I discovered it did not offer me any option to play my movies, just watch a trailer.  So I launched the browser and navigated to the Android Market and updated my Flixster again and this time it was the latest version that included the option to stream or download my movies.  However, when I selected "Watch Now" it kept saying it was initializing.  If I was seriously interested in watching movies on my Nook color I would have attempted a download instead to avoid problems with wifi speed and activity.  But, I usually use my Nook color in the living room where I can watch movies on my regular HD TV so I guess it isn't critical at this point.  I will email the developer of Root My Nook Color and see if he has any suggestions to tweak the Nook color for streaming from Flixster.  I have no problem streaming Netflix on my Nook and trailers play fine on Flixster so there may be just a setting or something that needs to be adjusted.  I had also moved the Flixster application to the 16 GB SD Card I have in the Nook instead of leaving it running from the internal memory and maybe that is the problem.

There are a few things to remember about video quality differences between devices when using VUDU.  When watching movies through a web browser, the highest video quality you can currently stream is standard definition.  I expect this to change in the future.  At present, even though you can stream 3D from the regular VUDU application, 3D digital copies are not yet available through the Disc-to-Digital program.  

I also learned VUDU's HDX quality includes 7.1 surround sound if you have a home theater system capable of that quality.

Anyway, I now hope the Ultraviolet consortium (and VUDU, Flixster, etc.) is wildly successful so I can count on them to be my online movie repository.  My experiences have been quite favorable so far and I look forward to a long relationship.  Now if Disney would quit messing around with their own cobbled up system and join the party!  I bought John Carter 3D with their version of a digital copy and all it let me do was copy the movie to my own computer.  I can copy it from there to a Windows Media compatible device but that's an awful lot of wasted disk space when streaming from the cloud is so much better.  Come on, Disney!  Where's your imagineering???

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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Microsoft garners kudos for sleek Surface tablet but what about apps?

I'm always interested in the latest Windows-based technology so of course I poured over this article in the NY Times about Microsoft's new Surface tablet.  Unfortunately, not much was said about actual functionality in comparison to the iPad.  Quite honestly, although it is technically a tablet, it looks more like a sleek touch screen-equipped replacement to the traditional Windows laptop than as a true challenger to the iPad.

What makes the iPad so compelling to so many people is its accompanying app store and Microsoft has said nothing about the availability of apps for their new tablet.  Since the tablet will be running a full blown version of Windows 8, I'm also not sure the huge library of either iPad or Android apps can be readily ported to it and Microsoft has apparently said nothing about supporting an app cloud.  They seem more interested in the tablet's ability to perform more business functions not serve as a combination work/entertainment device.

This article also said nothing about the quality of the screen so it leaves me wondering if the resolution is as high as the new iPad 3 and I'm wondering about the sensitivity of the touch interface.  My daughter bought me a Nook color for Christmas a couple of years ago and, although I have been able to root the device to a full Android tablet and enjoy hours of entertainment on it, I am less than thrilled with the touch sensitivity of the device. (That aspect may have been improved with the newer version).

So, I don't think Microsoft's Surface will cure me of my iPad envy anytime soon.

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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Photo tips hidden in EXIF data

Musk Ox at Cabela's in Hamburg, PA
I have taken hundreds of images of preserved animals at Cabela's stores across the US and even a number at such live exhibits as the San Diego Zoo but I've always been in awe of wildlife photographers who bring back stunning images from photoshoots in the "bush".  I noticed this article about an African photo safari in the NY Times so, of course, had to take a look since I am still very much a novice at photographing animals that are "in the wild".  Unfortunately, the photographer offered very little insight on his techniques other than to recommend a good telephoto lens with a range of at least 80 - 400 mm.  He actually borrowed one from Nikon for this particular shoot.  He also recommended a monopod (less cumbersome and quicker to set up than a tripod I guess) and lots of memory cards and an extra battery (I actually take two extra batteries with me).  But his 21 image slide show includes each image's EXIF data which tells me quite a bit although I have to make some assumptions. 

First of all, I notice that almost all of his images except the first one are taken at F 5.6.  I assume he is using aperture priority mode to give him a healthy depth of field with at least some focus definition to emphasize his subject. 

Then I noticed that he increased his ISO (he keeps referring to it as ASA which threw me at first since that is usually considered a film light setting not a digital light setting) to 1600 whenever he was working in the low light of morning or late evening.  He did not include any information about post production so I assume his camera does not have significant noise issues or he used noise reduction settings in his camera or software in post or both.  I also couldn't tell if he experimented first with other settings to gain a particular shutter speed or not.  He comments on the shot of a male leopard in early morning that he preset his "ASA" to 1600 to achieve a high shutter speed of 1/3200 but the leopard does not appear to be moving fast so he probably could have used a lower ISO setting but either didn't have time or didn't bother to change it. 

I recently joined the Emerald Photographic Society and the group went on a field trip to Hull-Oakes Lumber, a steam-powered sawmill up by Bellfountain, Oregon.  After the field trip, one of the group members took me to Finley Wildlife Refuge just outside of Corvallis, OR and we discussed pointers on bird photography.  I remember that she said she was told you should try to adjust your camera so you get a minimum shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second to freeze the wings.  But the NYT photographer includes a picture of a weaver bird that he shot at a "high" shutter speed of 1/500.  However the detail is a little soft around the edges of the wings so obviously he should have asked for tips from Kathy!  He had plenty of wiggle room since his ISO was set only to 200. 

Of course he seemed to be paying close attention to the Rule of Thirds (or cropped his images with that in mind).  One of the images was an interesting silouette of a topi.  He placed the land portion of the image in the lower 1/3 of the picture and left the rest of the image as sky.  It works well even though the sky only has faint high cirrus clouds. 

The photographer said he had little experience photographing animals but his experience with photography was enough to ensure a series of images that any wildlife photographer should be proud of.  I wonder if I could get anywhere close to his results on a field trip to Wildlife Safari, an animal preserve near Winston, OR about 1 hour's drive from my home?
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Friday, January 13, 2012

Connecting Analog Wireless Headphones to new HD TVs post a challenge

Today, I bought my hearing-impaired husband a pair of wireless TV ears.  When I unpacked the headset, I found that it included only RCA cables.  I checked the audio out options on my Samsung 7000 series 55" 3D  HD TV, and, although it has a wealth of video connections,  I discovered it has only a non-RCA audio out jack for sound bars and home theater systems and a single digital audio out jack.

I got out the TV ears manual and read that I could connect the headset transmitter to digital audio if I purchased a digital to analog audio converter.  So, I called the local Radio Shack then Best Buy and neither had one in stock.  Then I called the TV ears customer support line to order one directly from them and the customer service representative told me that the headsets would only translate audio signals broadcast in PCM not Dolby digital.  She recommended that I call Samsung and find out whether my TV transmits audio in Dolby or PCM.  She said if it turns out that my TV transmits in Dolby then perhaps there was a setting I could adjust to switch it to PCM.

So I opened an online chat session with Samsung support and after some research, he informed me that unfortunately, Samsungs output only Dolby digital and that there was no way to change the setting to PCM.

Although there is a work around to connect the headphones by splitting RCA cables between a satellite receiver and a DVD player, there is a two device limit without manually switching cables between multiple input devices.  Wireless headsets to assist the hearing impaired really need to be connected to the TV, not the various input devices which may include game consoles, Roku players, DVD players, etc.  I sent an e-mail to Samsung suggesting that they take that into consideration when designing their television sets since they continue to offer RCA connections for video in options so I don't know why they can't offer RCA audio out connections for the large number of analog audio products out there.

Note: If you can switch your digital audio from Dolby to PCM on your TV, purchase a digital to analog audio converter from someone like Amazon where it will cost you only about $26.  The company that makes TV Ears wanted about $70 for a converter - almost the price of the headphones themselves!