Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


The Display Continuum

Elegant Simplicity…

A few days ago, I went to the store on a very simple errand -- I needed some shampoo and toothpaste. Now, I’m not a connoisseur of either of these items but I do know what brand is my favorite in each. A secondary goal in performing such errands is to accomplish them as quickly as possible. Thus, my expectation was that this task would take no more than a few minutes to locate the items and head for the check-stand. Ah, but life was about to throw me an unexpected and complicating curve.

It didn’t take much time at all to locate the desired brands of both the shampoo and the toothpaste. But instead of finding what I thought I wanted, I was confronted with a dozen bewildering choices. The same brand of shampoo now came in many varieties for hair types that I didn’t even know existed. And the same for the toothpaste. I had no idea that people could have so many different kinds of teeth! I personally have just the regular kind that I use mostly for chewing and eating.

I ended my shopping errand making my best guess at the toothpaste that I thought would match what I have been using for the past year or so. As for the shampoo, I had no idea which one it was that had become my favorite. I had to return home empty-handed to make a more careful study of the nearly empty bottle to see if I could find a match the next day. And yes, on the second trip, I succeeded!

Clearly, our lives have become more complicated. Choices are good. But is it useful to populate store shelves with products that are virtually indistinguishable?
Is it possible that the marketing departments in these companies are getting a bit carried away in trying to come up with new ways to sell these products?

Of course, we in the display industry would never be caught doing anything so silly. Well, maybe not, but we need to be careful because we may be getting uncomfortably close to it. Consider this quote from a recent article in the Seattle PI newspaper. “Before they ship PCs to retailers such as Best Buy, computer makers load them up with lots of free software. For $30, Best Buy will get rid of it for you.” How about that? We now have to pay to unclutter a product before it will perform its intended tasks as efficiently as originally designed.

Another article, this one in Popular Science magazine, describes a new trend to compact, lower-power desktop computers that perform all the tasks we normally need without the noisy cooling fans and large footprints of the traditional “towers” that intrude into our work areas. The only limitation of these new computer designs is that they are not optimal for heavy-duty video gaming – not something that I have ever contemplated doing with my office computer.

Over the past year, Microsoft has had a struggle to convince the world that Vista is the next great operating system. Could it be that this Windows version has become so bloated with “features” that for many of us these extra features begin to look like unnecessary and burdensome clutter.

What about displays? Are we immune from all this feature proliferation? Do we just make elegant products that are simple to use? Well, almost. I recently examined the latest model of an LCD television. I found 26 input connections on the back – 27 if you include the power plug. To the typical consumer, some of these connections are fairly obvious while others are not. Then, of course, there is the menu on the remote control that in intended to “help” the user select the proper combinations of these inputs to display the desired image. Does “INPUT 7” showing up on the screen menu help when there is nothing labeled “Input 7” on the back of the television? I had to resort to the printed manual to sort out how all this was intended to work.

Wasn’t DVI, and/or other new interconnection standards, supposed to fix these problems? Well, this particular state-of-the-art LCD television has a VGA connector as one of the 26 choices, but not a DVI. The ancient RCA plug still seems to dominate – at least by counting the number of openings to “stick something into”.

Looking from the more important side of the display – the image making side -- the major remaining challenge appears to be the variety of formats and how consumers are asked to choose them. Should they take the typical 4:3 image and show it as is? Do they stretch everything uniformly and make everyone look fat? Do they do a proportional stretch to emphasize the border regions and have scrolling text along the bottom look strange? Or should we expect the typical television watcher to just ignore these image distortions and put up with whatever setting happens to come up first?

In time, as the digital formats become more prevalent and as the majority of the world becomes populated with wide-screen displays, this problem should begin to go away. But the next decade is going to be especially challenging as we struggle to accomplish the transition from analog to digital transmission. Off-the-air signals will soon go all-digital, but the majority of US viewers get their television programs from cable or other sources. And those signals are not going all-digital anytime soon. So the format and signal quality issues will stay with us for much longer than perhaps we engineers would like to see.

As we are beginning to experience in the personal computer market, product elegance and simplicity are likely to become more important as consumers figure out that too many features and too many choices are not necessarily a benefit. It is great to see companies become increasingly aware of this trend. The challenge for the product manufacturers and sellers will be that simplicity does not always lead to increasing revenue. For example, a simpler and more elegant version of Windows may not be a benefit to Microsoft’s bottom line. Without a strong competitor, there is little motivation for such a large and dominant corporation to head in the direction of simplicity when the more complicated products are creating all the profits.

That’s certainly not the situation in our display industry. For television set makers, hardware manufacturers of personal computers, or for any others device developers that use displays, there is plenty of serious competition. Therefore, we can expect to see the trend toward elegance and ease of use to happen in these product categories first.

If you would like to make any comments about this column or on related topics, you can reach me directly from this site, by e-mail at HYPERLINK, or by telephone at 425-898-9117.