Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


The Display Continuum

The Power of a Story…

For even the most ambitious and work motivated among us, there comes a time when reading another technical journal or working on another e-mail becomes simply too much.  For me that sometimes happens after a long day of on-site consulting work while taking the last evening flight back to Seattle.  The last leg from Denver, or Chicago, back to Seattle can be the toughest part of the entire trip.  It is then when one begins to wonder how to spend those last few, exceedingly long, hours.

Even under these circumstances, it is seldom that I resort to watching the complimentary movies offered by the airlines.  However, on a recent trip home, I did just that. 

The aircraft was an Airbus A320 with the small LCD screens that fold down from the overhead compartments.  The audio was provided by a well used complimentary headset.  The LCD screens installed in these aircraft are most certainly no longer “state of the art”.  The images are of marginal clarity, and the colors usually vary from one display to the next.  I would estimate that the gray scale capability of these monitors is something on the order of 8 levels – not 8 bits.  The audio quality is similarly limited.  This limited audio frequency response is further “enhanced” by the background noise of the airplane in full flight.   It’s difficult to imagine a more challenging viewing environment. 

Yet, in spite of all these limitations, in less than fifteen minutes I found myself becoming engrossed in the story that I was watching.   Even though I had to strain to hear all of the dialogue, my emotions were responding to the message and not to the quality with which it was being delivered.  The happy parts of the movie made me smile and the sad parts made me get quite teary-eyed.  I had quite effectively been drawn into this world of make-believe by the emotions so skillfully conveyed by the actors.   Not only that, even after the end of the movie and the end of the flight, I was still feeling the emotions that had captured me so effectively during these otherwise boring hours. 

How could this be?  Basically, everything was wrong with the conditions under which this story was being presented.  I was sitting in an uncomfortable seat, in a disturbingly noisy environment.  People were moving about, reading lights were on, the display was barely good enough to make out the images, the colors were all wrong, and the audio was barely intelligible.   Nevertheless, the power of the story was sufficient to draw me into its own fantasy world -- even through a window into this world that was distorted and barely useable. 

If such a poor environment is sufficient to do this, then wouldn’t it be reasonable to conclude that seeing the same story under more favorable conditions would have a much greater impact? 

To test this concept, I decided to purchase a DVD version of this movie and repeat the viewing experience using my high-quality video monitor together with a sound system emulating a movie-theater experience.  And what happened?  Well, my emotional reaction was exactly the same as I had experienced on my late-night flight home. No better, no worse.  Equally intense -- the same.  

Of course, given the choice, it’s obvious which viewing environment I would prefer.  Yet, it’s an important lesson that a marginal viewing environment will not prevent a good story from coming through and perhaps conversely an excellent viewing environment may not create a strong emotional reaction if the story line is poor.  

Quite a few years ago, I had the pleasure of seeing the play Annie in New York.  I enjoyed it very much.  Not too long after that, this play was made into a movie, and with great anticipation I went to see it as well.  But I came home disappointed.  The movie had more realistic scenery and a number of special effects had been added.  Unfortunately, for me, this additional “reality” intruded on the story rather than enhancing it. The added embellishments were more than I needed or wanted to enjoy the emotional message conveyed by this story.

Our brains seem to be incredibly good at filling in details from the sketchiest of inputs.  I suppose that is why children still want to be read bedtime stories.  From just hearing their parent’s voice, a whole fantasy world can be created.  Similarly, at a theater production with limited visual cues, we can become emotionally engrossed in the story being conveyed by skilled actors.  The continued popularity of live theater productions speaks well to the fact that we don’t always want or need all the details to be filled in for us.

Perhaps what this means to us in the display community is that there is a range of opportunities for how we use displays to convey information, stories, and create the resulting emotional impacts.  Small displays of limited capability may be effective in environments where that is all that can be used.  Larger video displays with reasonably good quality may be entirely adequate for most home use.   And for the most spectacular viewing experiences we may want the giant IMAX screens and similar displays. 

What about the addition of stereo 3D?  Wouldn’t that be a great enhancement to every viewing experience?  Perhaps not.  For some fantasy or science fiction stories, it may indeed be a great addition, but for others the effect may be like my experience with the theater and movie versions of Annie.  More is not always better.  And for all of these viewing experiences, it is clear that a great display cannot salvage a bad story.  But the converse is apparently not equally true.  An inferior display may still be good enough to convey the emotions stimulated by a good story.  We display technology developers may not like to hear such a conclusion, but I am afraid it is the correct one. 

How good is your imagination?  Do you like to fill in some of the details or do you prefer to have everything presented to you with superb visual and audio quality?  I would enjoy hearing your thoughts on what the future may bring for our viewing experiences.