Story of Stuff & fixing a DVD Player with a twisty tie

Free Range Studios (the folks who brought us the Meatrix and The BioDaVersity Code) have done it again. This time they helped Annie Leonard tell “the Story of Stuff”. The Story of Stuff is “a 20-minute, fast-paced, fact-filled [and very cutely animated] look at the underside of our production and consumption patterns”. It “will take you on a provocative tour of our consumer-driven culture — from resource extraction to iPod incineration — exposing the real costs of our use-it and lose-it approach to stuff.”

The Story of Stuff – Ch.5: Consumption

Duration: 6min 35sec

Ch5 of the Story of Stuff, which talks about consumption and the perniciousness of planned obsolescence and perceived obsolescence, was of particular interest to me right after Christmas. Okay, I cannot prove this without a shadow of a doubt; what I’m about to describe could simply be bad design rather than a coldly calculated plan to make something that would otherwise last 5-10 years fail after 2. I’ll let you decide that one.

My bff Steph had just bought her mom a new DVD player because her old one just died one day. The main problem was that the player often couldn’t read the disc properly. You’d pop in your favorite movie. You’d hear the disc spinning, but after a few seconds it would start to sound like a wounded animal and spin abnormally. Then “Disc Error” would flash on the LCD screen. Sometimes you could bring it back to life with a good shake.

Steph suggested that we take the thing apart to have a look inside. She’s the kind of gal who was raised in the Gever Tulley School of Tinkering mold. I was stoked especially as I had just seen these two images and wanted to do something similar. Okay okay and I had also been reading how Richard Feynman used to do this when he was a kid and fancied a go.

The Sum of Its Parts
A car taken completely apart
via Core 77 (download large version)


What a digital camera looks like after you take it apart
What a digital camera looks like after you take it apart
Photo by Flickr User paolability

I also used to tutor at a science club for girls and was sad to realize that girls/women don’t do this sort of thing nearly often enough. So we popped the top off. I really recommend doing with your stuff. You may prefer to only play around with your broken electronics though, especially if you don’t feel confident that you’ll be able to put them back together. It’s a very demystifying process.

Revealing the insides of a DVD player

Overall, DVD players are pretty straightforward machines. Essentially, they turn on, take Infrared input from a remote, open/close, and play your DVD or other digital media. There are 1-2 circuit boards that are involved in each one of these activities and flat ribbon cables that move the information/commands around. There is also a drive motor to spin the disc, a laser and lens to read, etc., etc.

Being scientists, we ran ‘diagnostics’. We unhooked all the cables and figured out things like “that cable and circuit board control the motor that opens and closes the door”. After a few minutes, we discovered that the source of the problem were two blue overly squishy rubber pieces. They, along with the sturdier black rubber pieces seen in the picture below, are meant to hold the laser assembly the right distance away from the DVD so that information on it can be read. Our hypothesis was that over time the blue pieces degraded and started to collapse and sag. Once that happened, the assembly was at the wrong angle and couldn’t be read properly by the laser, and BAM, “Disk error”.

The source of our problem

WHAT!!!! Steph had just spent $50-$100 on a new DVD player because 2 silly rubber components stopped doing what they were supposed to do. Everything else was perfectly fine!!!! Ultimately we fixed the problem with a twisty tie. Yes, a twisty tie. We just attached the assembly so it was in the right position and voila, functional DVD player.

So what’s the point of this tale:
1. Playing with broken stuff is a great learning opportunity.
2. As a modern consumer, you’re probably getting played.
3. As a result, people should consider repairing stuff instead of tossing it. The web is an inexhaustible font of knowledge on this.
4. Also use Craigslist, Freecycle, or other services that keep working items out of the wastestream.