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Another Perspective


Unlike women, it might be the case that displays can be too rich and too thin.  Not for consumers, who want to view HDTV DVDs, play wide horizon computer games, and surf the web on screens that share some common characteristics.  But in corporate systems it's another matter entirely.  As traditional computer screens with aspect rations of 4:3 give way to widescreen displays in a 16:10 shape, computing is going to change, first in form and then in substance.  If you think you've seen this movie before, you might be right:  Computing is having a Cinemascope experience.

Nautilus shell
The beautiful spiral built of gnomonic chambers
is a natural example of the golden ratio, phi

Cinemascope was an anamorphic film recording and projection systems that Hollywood came up with in the 1950s to distinguish the movie theater experience from that of an emerging medium that was, at the time, considered a deadly rival:  television.  Anamorphic means the film was optically compressed in one dimension, in this case horizontally, when recorded and expanded when projected.  Basically, the process allowed a wide screen film to use standard 35mm film.  The aspect ratio seen by the audience and the aspect ratio in the film medium were quite different.  Cinemascope soon gave way to improved alternatives, notably Panavision.  With both systems, despite the effort to distinguish movies from TV, films were shot with future television recycling in mind.  The most effective method was to shoot at 4:3 using a viewfinder that showed top and bottom trim required to yield a wide aspect ration.  (Shooting so the left and right edges could be cut off for 4:3 is technically possible but theatrically risky, because is louses up the entry and exit of characters from left and right.)

The film industry doesn't stand still.  It has long since moved to images with different shapes, and there is more change coming as film, television, and computing attempt converge on a single screen shape, or, perhaps, two very similar shapes.  Film and HDTV appear to be headed for a 16:9 aspect ratio, while computer screens are taking shape at 16:10.  The difference is small enough to make it easy to put HDTV (and films shot to HDTV aspect specifications) work on computer screens (leaving a bit of space at the bottom of the display for navigation).

Adding to the likelihood of continued peace in the video world is a big change in the markets.  Producers of movies, video content, computer games, and, one of these days, computer software, have realized that their best business bet lies with a single screen shape.  It's not just that movie makers want to sell DVDs to homes with computers, HDTV monitors, or both.  It's not that the cost of translating from one aspect ration to another is prohibitive, because it is not if done once for a high volume product.  It's that consumers want to take a DVD from the home library and have their kids play it on vacation, where the display system could be a laptop, a dedicated video player, a hotel room media hutch, or even a portable video projector.

What's different this time, compared to the situation during the twentieth century, is that the content might not be just something on a DVD.  It might be a broadcast feed, it might be an Internet download, and it might be the output of a game that's generated in real time as players use a console.

With the movie studios, television producers, broadcasting outfits, and game companies all moving in pretty much the same direction, there doesn't seem to be much choice for the last big source of material that shows up on screen, the software companies.

Currently, the computer market is in transition.  It has pretty much completed the switch from CRT displays to flat panel displays (which are most often based on LDC technology these days).  Flat panel displays, for the most part, lack the versatility of CRTs, but they cost less, weigh less, use less power, and allow display makers to more easily serve the related markets for desktop and portable displays using similar or identical manufacturing processes.

When we say that CRTs are more versatile, we mean that their display technology can handle a wide range of refresh rates - from 50 Hz to more than 100 Hz -- and that they are capable of operating well at multiple resolutions.  By contrast flat pane displays are built to run well at one resolution and, often, at only one refresh rate, which is likely to be 60Hz.  When flat screens are run at alternative resolutions they may automatically try to adjust the picture by blanking part of their screens or stretch the picture to fill their shape.  When flat screens are run at alternative refresh rates they may fail to function and in some cases they can actually suffer damage.

Phidias by Alma-Tadema
Phidias Imagined
This 19th Century painting by Lawrence Alma-Tadema
depicts Phidias showing the Parthenon's freize

Even with their limitations, flat screens are here to stay, and, if you are looking at a flat computer screen, chances are you are looking at an LCD display.  In a year or two the technology could change and OLED screens might triumph, but between now and the future, the display market, like pretty much every other live part of computing, will be a battleground.  Whatever technologies share the limelight, screens of a traditional shape with their 4:3 aspect ratios are headed for the dustbin of history.

This change in screen shape can be an annoyance in corporate settings.  Widescreens that have the same diagonal size as 4:3 screens have smaller areas and, often, lower vertical resolution.  A typical CRT or flat screen in the standard CRT shape used in offices is 17 or 19 inches diagonally.  The resolution of such a screen is likely to be 1024 x 768, 1152 x 864, or 1280 x 1024 (which turns out to be a 5:4 not 4:3 ratio, one the anomalies in the quirky world of displays).  This last resolution is very widely used in business settings.  A 17-inch widescreen is very likely to have a resolution of 1280 x 800 or 1440 x 900; a 19-inch screen is likely to run at 1440 x 900 or 1680 x 1050.  In most cases widescreen LCD monitors installed in corporate settings have the lower of each pair of likely resolutions, with the result that some applications windows that fit nicely in 4:3 screens don't fit right anymore.

Sure, some applications' layouts are liquid.  A user can grab the corner of a window and reshape it and the stuff in the window will flow around into a viable configuration.  That's true of many web sitse, too.  But it's not true of all web sites and it might not be true of the majority of applications, which, it turns out, are as graphically constipated in their GUI versions as their forbears were in the days of the green screen terminal.

Even web sites built with layout fluidity in mind often have limits to the shape they can take and still provide a good user experience.  Web developers can try to make their sites adjust successfully to different shaped windows, but bugs and omissions in web browser software limit them.  Real browsers don't understand all the stuff the theoretical browsers envisioned by web specifications committees have put into their specifications.  Still, it is possible for web coders to do a pretty good job with the stuff that is out there now.  Applications designers, though, seem to have less freedom.  Many applications suites do a poor job separating the computing from the presentation, and that's why conflict between the widescreen world and the 4:3 folk seems unavoidable, even though the outcome is not in doubt.  In the long run, applications that must be used by people outside the corporate bubble have to work correctly in widescreen formats, because that is what the client machines will require.

Widescreen and legacy monitors
Old And New Aspects
Computer monitors, like TV sets, are shape shifting
and the future is wider than the past (shown inset)

Our favorite argument in favor of 16:10 displays is the phi case.  Phi is the symbol for the irrational number also known as the "golden ratio."  (Phi is also the first letter in the name of the classical Greek sculptor, Phidias.)  It's a bit more than 1.618, which is a bit more than the aspect ration of computer widescreen displays.  Phi shows up a lot in nature, where it turns out to be a very pleasing proportion; the shell of a nautilus provides one example.  Phi also figures in classical art and architecture.  And now we can all get a chance to look at a rectangle with the sides in a ratio of phi if we buy a 16:10 widescreen display.  Maybe we'll develop higher aesthetic standards just by looking at a phi-shaped computer screen.

As it turns out, web browsers and some other programs already have features that show their best stuff on widescreen displays.  One example is the use of sidebars, columns on the left side of the browser that can be used to display bookmarks, browsing history, or other information that the user finds handy.  Our favorite browser at the moment is Mozilla, and it offers a number of sidebar choices but, inexplicably, the browser's help system runs in its own window.  Even pretty good software sometimes suffers from inconsistencies.  There are lots of other examples or software that can be better on a wide screen, and anyone who cranks spreadsheets knows how nice it is to have a panoramic view.

Even very conservative corporations that will stick to their old displays as long as possible are suffering from widescreen subversion.  All these nice 4:3 companies have technical support folk to nurse their PCs, and all the tech support folk who are any good know about Omega drivers.  Omega drivers come from the gamer underground and they can be used to overclock ATI and Nvidia graphics chips and generally make graphics processors do their utmost.  The drivers provide quite a bit of flexibility when it comes to screen geometry, too, which means that they can be used to make common old graphics cards (including the ones built into laptops) juggle very substantial widescreen displays.  We think there are a lot of suits who secretly pack Omega drivers into their laptops.  When they get home they dock their corporate computers on desks that boast big widescreen displays.

What is happening with flat displays as widescreen technology enters the mainstream is more or less a repeat of what happened as color displays became affordable.  Color changed software quite a bit, and software vendors driven by competition accelerated the process.  Phi-shaped screens have already caught the attention of software makes that serve the consumer segment of the market.  It won't be long before suppliers of business software use the possibilities of the new displays to gain market advantage.  After that, it will only be a matter of time before even legacy applications with deep roots have to put on fresh makeup.

— Hesh Wiener October 2007

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