Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


The Display Continuum

Finally, I Saw One…

For many months now, we have heard about a new product so popular and so in demand that it is, most of the time, “sold out”. Given such popularity one would expect to begin to see this item in widespread use. Since the key feature of this product is a new display technology, it’s natural that we in the display industry would have a keen interest in following its success. The product to which I am referring is, of course, the new electronic book reader from Amazon – the Kindle™.

Given that I spend considerable time in airports and on airplanes, where better to see such new products in action than where crowds of people are sitting around in confined spaces -- with nothing else to do but work on their computers, watch a barely viewable movie, or read a book. These activities, interspersed with sleeping, seem to be about equally popular. With all of this time-passing going on, one would expect that airports and airplanes should be prime usage areas for a new product such as an E-book.

Therefore, if the Kindle is so popular and so much in demand, shouldn’t we be seeing them just about “everywhere”? Over the last few months, I have made a point to watch for this developing phenomenon. But so far it’s been a search in futility. That is up until my most recent trip from Washington DC to Seattle – well, by way of Portland actually, a detour not in my original plan. Maybe it was fate that took me on this unplanned detour so I could finally see a real Kindle in action.

This particular Kindle was in the possession of a nice, professional-looking lady who had perhaps done a considerable amount of business entertaining over ample dinners. From what I could observe, her size actually made it easier to position the Kindle for convenient reading -- which to me, incidentally, has an uncanny resemblance to a small etch-a-sketch. My observation point for studying the ergonomic aspects of this new product was quite ideal since she was sitting one row ahead of me and in the opposite aisle seat. Thus, I was able to do a thorough but unobtrusive study regarding the ease of using this new method of reading. For a nice comparison, sitting next to her was a gentleman reading an “old-fashioned” conventional book.

Given the quality of lighting in airplanes, with a combination of partial window light mixed with the not-so-great overhead reading lights, the display on the E-book was readable but not nearly as crisp as the conventional paper book being read by the passenger next to her. The contrast ratio was not nearly as high as it was for the conventional book and while the text on the E-book was readable it had a hazy washed-out appearance. The overall sense I had was that positioning the display of the E-reader was fairly important to avoid surface reflections from the surrounding ambient light. By comparison this was of little importance for the conventional book.

My second observation was that holding the E-book was not nearly as convenient or comfortable as an old-style printed book. All of us have developed a variety of easy and comfortable ways for holding conventional books. We can use the one-handed thumb-in-front approach. Or we can use both hands in various positions. Or we can simply lay the book down on the tray table in front of us. Holding the pages open by the edges or even in the middle is, of course, entirely acceptable. There are no finger smudges to worry about.

With the E-reader, I noticed that the only really acceptable position seemed to be to hold it by its sides with one hand on each edge and with the E-reader tilted in a near-orthogonal position to the reader’s eyes. I also noted that over a several hour period this required frequent changes of hand position and the resting of one hand while the other hand maintained the E-reader in its optimum viewing position.

Thus, the obvious question arises why would anyone seek out and purchase such a product -- especially since it cannot be tossed away after several hours of rough handling and being tucked into various damage-prone locations such as the outer pocket of a purse or briefcase.

The obvious advantage that an E-book provides is that it can become any book that you want it to be – or even many books all at once. All it takes is some time to download, for a typically lower price than the purchase of a conventional book. So are we willing to give up some visual comfort and convenience for the lower cost of an E-book? That doesn’t seem like a sufficiently good reason. It will take at least a few dozen book purchases before break-even is reached. Most of us don’t read more than perhaps one full-length book per month so that’s several years’ worth of casual airplane reading material. By then, the E-reader may be ready for a replacement.

On the other hand, if we need reference material that encompasses several volumes, then isn’t it easier to have this available on our laptop computers? Is the advantage of the E-book that it has more hours of battery life? That doesn’t seem like a sufficiently compelling reason either.

As I reviewed my observations, I was left to wonder what exactly is so great about this product that would cause it to be in presumably such high demand. Portable music players and portable movie players I understand. Cell phones – built-in cameras and all – I too understand. People sitting in coffee shops on Saturday mornings staring at their laptop computers, I also understand. But the E-reader, in its present state of development, I don’t understand. It’s good for us in the display industry because it’s providing an entry point for a new display technology, in perhaps a similar way that laptop computers did for the early monochrome LC displays. And perhaps with a few more refinements, the E-reader will begin to show how it can enhance our reading experiences.

But until then, it will continue to puzzle me how and whether this product can become as widely used as some claim is already happening.

If you would like to help me solve this mystery, please send me an e-mail from this site or give me a call at 425-898-9117. If together we can come up with a good answer, it will be a wonderful topic for a future column.