Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


The Display Continuum

The Too-Small Windows Into the Information Age…March

Last week was that annually-dreaded time when I have to get all of my business and personal records together so that I can spend a few hours with my “tax person”. Since my life consists of an intricately interwoven combination of business and personal activities, I decided a long time ago that trying to do this task on my own would be an exercise in futility. Either I would have to spend many days trying to understand the intricacies of the tax code or I would end up making errors that would put me in the “bad person” category with the Internal Revenue Service. Or worse yet, I would end up paying more than was required. Besides all that, I always appreciate working with someone who really knows what they are doing.

As the various records were reviewed and the entries made, I became fascinated with the methodology that my “tax person” was using and with the efficiency of his process. Instead of a computer, my “tax person” simply had a stack of worksheets and various IRS forms in front of him. With the examination of each income or expense item, he would quickly thumb through the stack of papers and find the proper one on which the entry needed to be made. His hands and pencil literally flew over the pages and each entry took no more than a few seconds.

I tried to imagine how this process would work if he had been using a computer screen instead. Each form would have to be brought up from a menu. Each entry would have to be made by scrolling down (or up) to the right line and then the description and dollar amount would have to be entered in exactly the right format. Could this be done? Of course it could. But it would have taken much longer and there would have been numerous times when we would have been returning to earlier entries to make modifications that would have to be re-retrieved and re-displayed.

The methodology that my “tax person” had found to be more efficient is to do the entries by hand, create a first cut estimate of the taxes owed, and if everything made accounting and logical sense, then turn it over to a lower-paid assistant for the final entries and calculations. This task would typically include the more complicated, and computer calculated, depreciation schedules and anything else that may require special forms and/or interpretation.

But what is it that makes it so much easier to use paper and pencil when clearly the eventual result has to end up on a computer? Are there dynamics at work here that hint at why we are, today, generating more paper than ever? Have you heard anyone mention the “paperless office” recently? It seems to me that the biggest obstacle to reducing the use of paper is that most of our computers can only display one page of information at a time. Whenever we have to work with multiple pages, the pages are far easier to access from a stack of papers spread out in front of us. For example, I have come to the conclusion that no matter how I try I cannot create or edit a document using a computer screen when that document requires the layout and arranging of multiple pages. I need to be able to see how the various combinations might look the best. To do this kind of work requires visual cues that the single computer screen simply cannot provide.

For us in the display community, this is exactly the kind of problem that could and should lead to a major opportunity. What could we do to open up or enlarge the currently too-small window into the Information Age? Should we simply make the display screens larger? That is already a trend that we have been following for the last few years. Should we consider the use of multiple screens or ones in new aspect ratios?

For the last several years, engineers at Microsoft have been exploring “desktops” that have a segmented screen that surrounds the user and can display as many as six pages of text at one time – or a spread sheet with a ridiculously large number of boxes. Studies have been carried out to show that there is indeed an improvement in worker efficiency of over 30% when such a multi-screen computer interface is used. Would this improvement be enough to satisfy my tax person? My only-slightly-scientific observation would conclude that it still would not be as fast or convenient as his method of using paper and pencil. And most certainly this multi-screen arrangement is not portable. In fact, most of us don’t even have desks large enough to accommodate such a multi-screen display.

However clumsy this arrangement appears to be, I do think it is beginning to get at one of the biggest problems we have today in working with our computers. There is simply not enough information being displayed at any one time. Not so many years ago -- about the time that flat panel displays were beginning to make significant inroads -- there was a phrase coined referring to displays as “windows into the Information Age”. Unfortunately, today these windows are more like peepholes. We need to see entire information vistas and we are instead forced to view these information panoramas one little peek at a time.
Perhaps how we seek to improve our ability to view all this information holds an immediate and exciting opportunity for the display industry. While we may not end up with display monitors that can present five or six pages all at once, we may transition to using two or maybe even three displays at one time. The operating systems already have provisions for working with multiple displays so there is no software obstacle. Our colleagues in the financial institutions have already figured out that multiple screens are good for what they do. It may not be long before the monitor manufacturers figure out that offering monitors designed so that they are easy to place side-by-side may generate new revenue and also provide at least a temporary product differentiation. This could be the next wave of exciting products for desktop applications. It could also finally make the “portrait” format something that more users embrace. So far, of the monitors that have a “landscape” to “portrait” rotation capability almost all are used only in the traditional “landscape” mode. From a purely engineering viewpoint, that does not make much sense. However, I too don’t find the portrait format something that I want to try. It just doesn’t look or feel right! That doesn’t sound very scientific, but maybe that’s what others are thinking as well.

It will be interesting to see how long it takes for the multi-screen and/or multi-monitor trend to catch on. It will also be interesting to observe which user groups pick up on it next.

Will all of us eventually have multiple screens on our desktops? Let me know your thoughts. You can reach me directly from this site, or by e-mail at Email, by phone at 425-898-9117, or by fax at 425-898-1727.