Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


The Display Continuum

Elegant Simplicity…February 2006

I have owned the same medium-complexity digital camera for several years now. Mostly I use it in my lab to photograph experimental set-ups and the results of “lighting up” new display materials. I have installed a convenient cable connection that dangles from my desktop computer that makes it easy to transfer the photos from the camera for further analysis, retention, or in some cases sending to clients. But even after all this time of fairly regular use, there are “features” on this camera that I don’t know much about and haven’t learned how to use. I did try to learn a few, but without regular practice soon forgot. For these specialized features, it usually requires the help of the 100+ page instruction manual to unravel the menu-driven sequences through multiple levels of access.

I also have a cell phone that I use for making telephone calls. Well, I guess that’s pretty obvious isn’t it? However, this cell phone also has a built in camera and various address and schedule organizing “features”. I have no idea how to use them. What I needed was a reliable phone, not a low performance camera nor a rudimentary organizer with a tiny low-resolution screen. And if I did want to use them, how do I get the pictures out of the phone and into my computer, and the address data sent in or out? I’m sure with enough effort I could figure all this out, but why should I be required to do that with every new product that I purchase?

Recently, I have stayed in hotel rooms with new flat-panel televisions. These were all of the 9:16 aspect ratio and, as a result, on most programs the people looked like they were badly overweight. Yet the remote controls had nothing on them that would allow me to adjust the image size to the program material. This “feature” perhaps exists somewhere in these televisions, but there was no way to find the path.

waterfallOn the other hand, a few minutes ago, I put a CD in my portable player, put on a headset, and pushed “play”. Instantly, beautiful symphonic music surrounded me. Besides the music, the only information being provided to me was the number of the track being played and the time elapsed. With my existing collection of CDs, I am quite satisfied with this method for now. But I could also see doing the same simple approach with an Apple iPod. To make the change, I’ll just need to find the down-load sources for the kind of music I like.

Why do so many companies seem driven by the need to add ever more features and novelty, but without the proper attention to how people are going to use them? Just because the design engineers can remember the multiple levels of menu-driven instruction they have created does not mean that the average person is going to enjoy spending a like number of hours to figure them out. It seems that the capabilities of our “intelligent machines” have gotten way ahead of our abilities to communicate with these machines.

To give you a frustrating and silly example, one of the major hotel chains where I regularly stay has purchased new clock radios that are so confusing that I invariably go to sleep wondering if I am going to be awakened at the time I selected. Shouldn’t a clock radio in a hotel be designed to be as simple and obvious-to-use as possible? How many “functions” and “features” does such a product need? What do I care about how many stations can be pre-programmed and how many different ways the multiple alarm settings can be activated? Just because it can be done with a 49-cent microprocessor doesn’t mean that all possibilities need to be included.

There really is something to be said for simplicity and elegance. What are the essential elements that you want to accomplish? Do you want to listen to music? How would you like to obtain the program material? With these simple questions answered, I should be able to give you a compact and simple device to create a wonderful listening experience. Would you like to watch movies or other video material? What is the simplest and most direct way that I can meet your viewing needs? Do you want to take a photo and then make a print? What is the least complicated method that I can design to allow you to do as much as you need in manipulating the captured image to give you a satisfactory print?

But, what about that wonderful concept of the “digital electronic home” where these devices -- along with the appliances and lighting fixtures -- are all interconnected to a master computer that runs everything? Won’t this great capability allow us to do everything we want? Surely, once we learn all the capabilities that such a concept can provide, we will be willing to do whatever it takes to implement it! Several really well-known companies have been promoting such an idea. My plea is -- please don’t go there! We may need our electronic devices to be able to easily transfer data using a common protocol, but that should be about it. We don’t need to create a tangle of interconnected devices where anything that can – and will -- go wrong with any one of them could bring down the entire structure.

It seems to me that as an industry we should be paying much more attention to how to maintain and repair all of these devices instead of just adding more features. Have you looked at a wiring diagram of some of the current products?. The “components” are complicated functional modules that were most likely custom designed for that particular product. What will happen in a few years if one of these modules fails? Where will you get a repair part? At what level will you do the repair -- module or board? And who will do it? Or will you be forced to throw the entire product away as unrepairable. As overall complexity and functionality grow, we will have to pay much more attention to how we maintain all of these functions. Unfortunately, much of the electronics industry is going in exactly the opposite direction. We are moving ever further into the mode of disposable products – or at least large chunks of those products.

To provide a frustrating and expensive example, a few weeks ago one of the window switches on my US built but German branded automobile developed an intermittent. I expected this to be a simple switch replacement such as I had done some years ago on an earlier model from this same car manufacturer. That earlier switch replacement cost all of about $7.00. But no longer. This time the entire “module” had to be replaced that included all the window switches as well as several other functions. The cost of the part was $140 and the replacement labor was an additional $60. So much for pulling a switch and replacing it with another. Was this an unusual occurrence? I would guess not since examining the switch assembly showed no special attention to reliability nor care in design. It was mostly a complicated – but inexpensive -- plastic casting with the switch contacts riveted in place. Low manufacturing cost and convenience during original factory assembly were the guiding principles here, not reliability or later repairability.

The maturing of flat panel technologies has created a tremendous growth for the display industry. This growth will continue for many years to come. The consumer enthusiasm for flat panel technologies has also allowed the traditional price points for television sets to be reset at a substantially higher level. Just a few years ago, it was assumed that the television market would not accept prices much above $500 -- with most products selling for considerably less. Now, consumers are willing to pay many times more to get that “great new digital flat panel television”. This also means that consumers will expect these products to work flawlessly or, if they fail, that they can be repaired for reasonable cost. Otherwise, there could be a consumer backlash that will damage the industry for years to come. There is also the growing concern in many countries about the disposal of electronic components that no longer function. Affordable repair or replacement therefore will take on more importance in the years ahead. Are we doing enough to ensure our success? It would be better to do it voluntarily than through government regulation or the result of legal proceedings.

Are you similarly frustrated or concerned about how to operate or maintain all the electronic gadgets in your life? Is “elegant simplicity” as difficult for you to find as it seems to be for me? I would enjoy hearing your thoughts on this topic and others. You may contact me through this column, by e-mail at, by telephone at 425-898-9117, or by fax at 425-898-1727.