Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting



Aha, Now I Understand...March 2000

Some time ago, I was invited for a meeting with a high-level personage in a large corporation. This company still maintained its long-standing culture of rewarding upper-level executives with plush offices in the top two floors of a high-rise building.

Upon exiting the security-controlled elevator that had whisked me up to the next-to-highest floor, I could instantly feel myself sinking into the deep-pile carpeting. The environment was hushed silence, with only two secretaries occupying the overly-spacious reception area. After the proper notification of my arrival, I was ushered into an equally spacious office with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a broad expanse of a major downtown metropolitan area.

This is not a "real" office, I thought to myself. Surely this must be a movie set for a stereotypical Hollywood film production. But no, this was as real as my senses would allow me to believe.

One half of the office was arranged for meetings such as we were about to have, with a comfortable sofa and two plushy chairs -- one of which was clearly intended for my "big choo-choo" executive host. How did I know? Well, when you find yourself in this kind of situation, you just know! Across from this friendly meeting area was the more formal desk with two less comfortable chairs for visitors, or lower-level managers, who may not be entertained quite as graciously. The desk itself was large enough so that reaching to the far corners while sitting behind it would be a serious challenge.

I couldn't help but try to imagine how I would feel having such an office as my work environment. It all seemed too perfect and too isolated from the activities of the world as I know it. Something else that I observed and found hard to understand was that this massive desktop had only one small in/out box in the corner nearest the door, one telephone, a pen set, and a perfectly clean embossed-leather desk pad in front of the executive. The in/out box contained just a few items on each of its two small mahogany shelves. On the credenza behind the desk sat a typical PC with a 17-inch monitor and on the opposite end -- a small family photo. The monitor screen was open to the company's e-mail. And that was all! The desk-top and credenza were otherwise incredibly bare.

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How did this high-level executive manage to get anything done? On my desk, which is also of reasonably ample dimensions, seldom do I get a glimpse of even a small area of the wood-grained top surface. Of course, the reason is that arrayed on it are the latest phone messages, the incoming faxes and e-mails requiring immediate response, the lists of active clients, the technical articles that must be read as soon as possible, copies of patents, purchase orders, wafer carriers containing material that must be scheduled for testing, electron gun parts, and drawings for the latest new display concept. The two shelves to my left contain information folders on other clients. Travel schedules and expense reports typically spill onto the floor in the corner bounded by the credenza and the bookshelves.

Now, I must tell you that I don't consider myself a messy person. In fact, I have been told that I am sometimes too neat-and-tidy. So what is my problem? Why don't I seem to be able to keep my desk as neat as the one I encountered on my visit?

Only one time in my career, while working for DuPont, was I required to abide by a corporate "clean desk" policy. This policy is in place for quite good and logical reasons as a way to protect a company's confidential information from after-hours prying eyes. I found that the only way I could meet the requirements of this policy was to keep a deep drawer empty and every night to create a criss-cross stack of all the items on my desk and carefully lay it into this drawer. Then each morning I would reverse the procedure so that I would know what I needed to work on that day. Why couldn't I just use file folders that stayed in a desk drawer, a file cabinet, or my PC to keep track of everything? And with the recent advances in computer technology, why don't I do it now? Well, at long last, I think I may have stumbled onto the answer.

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Prof. Jay Brand, a former psychology professor, who now works for the office furniture manufacturer Haworth Inc., has provided an explanation that makes me feel ever so much better. This explanation came to me by way of an article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer authored by Carol Smith. As I began to read, I immediately noted how similar her observations and concerns were to mine. Well, of course, don't we always appreciate wisdom and insight that agrees with our own?

What Prof. Brand, who is now called a "cognitive engineer," has concluded is that all of us have limited capacity in our short-term memories. Aha, good insight, Prof. Brand! It's good to know that I am not the only one who can't handle a list of items greater than two without writing them down. Perhaps, my limited-capacity CCD-like short-term memory, where the third or fourth items seem to fall out the back end whenever a new one comes in, is not so atypical after all. According to Prof. Brand, "Since most people are doing seven things at once, they tax the capacity of their working memory almost immediately." Therefore, information placed into our external environment is known as a "cognitive artifact." This allows us to off-load some information from our own over-taxed working memory. "It expands a person's capacity to think. You're using the environment to think as well." I think I am beginning to really like this Prof. Brand!

The companies that require clean-desk policies are in essence giving their workers "environmental lobotomies" or at least requiring them to re-create their working environments at the start of each day. "Workers in such environments can sometimes feel like they spend more time getting organized than working on actual projects." As with all good things one can, however, carry this to the extreme. If the piles of papers no longer have meaning and are not providing visual cues, then they become just that -- piles of meaningless stuff. However, while organized in some coherent and frequently updated way, there is real benefit to be gained here. I think I can be sufficiently honest with myself to say that mostly I fit into this well-organized category. In fact, while writing this column I did a quick survey. I passed the test.

I am sure that most of you reading this column will agree with and accept this explanation with enthusiasm as great as mine. I know you will because I have seen many of your desks. However, as display engineers and scientists, there is something here about which we should be concerned. What does this say about using our computer screens to display our important information and to keep it organized? It says, I think, that current display products, which provide only a limited active display area, are going to continue to be significantly less efficient than the cluttered-desktop method. Computer folders and the files they contain provide minimal visual cues compared to a "real" desktop. The process of browsing is also much slower on the computer. If I'm not sure what a file or a document contains, I have to click on it, open it, read it, and then close it again. I have to do this with each item that I want to see. On my desktop, using the traditional manual method, I can visually scan and retrieve these items in a fraction of the time. Furthermore, on the computer, when I close a file or a folder, the visual cues once again disappear.

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Some of you more dedicated computer users will tell me that if I just took the time to create a special folder for all my current activities and created links to these folders containing the information on those clients, I could keep that screen active and always be able to overview what I needed to do next. But why do I want to take the time to do that when I can do it faster by just putting a piece of paper or a "real" folder on my desktop in a fraction of the time? What advantage will I gain by doing it on the computer? The result would be a far slower process for every one of the steps of acquisition, access, updating, and deletion. Would I do better if I had a larger computer- monitor screen? Only slightly. The real problem seems to be in how to provide the necessary visual cues and how to create the equivalent convenience of the desktop. Some traditionalists among us may even pose the deeper philosophical question more concisely: "Why bother?" Is it necessary or even desirable to try to endow computers with the power to replace some or all of these current behaviors and activities? Let's test this premise.

As a thought experiment, suppose you could do the following: Suppose you could have a flat-panel display of 40- to 50-inch diagonal and very high resolution (perhaps 3000x4000 pixels) conveniently located near your computer. This could be the primary display or a supplemental display to the one used for current processing activities. On this large display, all of your important stored information would be shown in a pictorial format similar to the view of looking at a desktop from a sitting position -- that is, a 2-D display with a computer-generated appearance of perspective. Now, suppose you could point with your finger to a particular stack of information (documents) on this virtual desktop and that document or memo would instantly appear in an unused part of the display screen. And if you moved your finger up or down this virtual stack, other pages would similarly be retrieved and displayed. If you wanted to store something, all you would have to do is "draw" a square on the screen with you finger and the material would be placed in that location. Or if you pointed to a document and then to a location, it would be placed there. For more involved instructions, the computer would accept simple verbal commands.

Using this approach, we have now not only provided all the visual cues that can be found on a traditional desktop, we can actually find and retrieve information faster in this "knowledge space" than is possible with the manual search method. Once we develop such a display, the days of the clicking mouse will be numbered. What a grand challenge this could become -- perhaps as important as the development of the shadow-mask CRT for color television. Such a display would create a picture-window view for the rapidly evolving Information Society to use instead of the comparative peep-holes that we have today.

We display engineers hold more of the future of the Internet and the World Wide Web in our hands than most people yet realize. We may need to help promote this awareness so that adequate investment becomes available to develop the necessary new display technologies. Over the last twenty years, computer processing power and information storage and manipulation capabilities have progressed faster than improvements in displays. As the recognition grows that displays are now limiting the further development and usefulness of various information appliances, the demands on the display community will increase. This will lead to great opportunities for many of us -- balanced with equally great challenges.

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Are you ready to start work on the 3000x4000 pixel, 1.2-meter knowledge-space display? I am. To get this project under way you can contact me by e-mail at Email, by phone at 425-557-8850, by FAX at 425-557-8983, or by high-resolution hard copy at 22513 SE 47th Place, Issaquah, WA 98029.