Thursday, January 06, 2005

Now on the Big Screen!

There's a good alertbox this month - Saint Jakob the Useable is back on form after a few off columns.

The bit about physical links, user-created organisation and search is chiming with a lot of thinking that I'm doing right now.

However, here's one bit I take severe umbrage to...

Reviving Advanced Hypertext (Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox): "Once we get screens the size and resolution of a broadsheet newspaper, the user interface will change."

Hmn. Now, why are broadsheet papers the size they are? Do you know, children?


Sometime in the ?1800s, the government levied a tax on newspapers: and they levied it on a per page basis. So, the more pages you had in your paper, the more tax you paid.

Now, newspaper magnates, even in the 19th century, are nothing if not canny types. Their response to this was to increace the size of their pages. Same word count, less tax. Smart.

One paper got so smart, they printed the whole thing on a sheet the size of a blackboard, and just origami'ed it for ease of portability.

Previously, papers had been something between A4 and tabloid size - pretty much the maximum size it's comfortable to read without laying a paper flat on a table. All of the common design tropes of newspaper layout were adapted to facilitate the use of something that was just, frankly, too cumbersome to be used comfortably.

And what's happening in the UK? All of those broadsheets are going back to tabloid size. Why? Because a tabloid paper is about the same width as your shoulders.

It's related to the reason that things like plasterboard and MDF come in 8'x4' sheets. Rooms are often taller than 8', but an 8'x4' sheet is around about the maximum size your average builder can carry on his own - it's the size of an armspan, basically.* A tabloid the width of your shoulders is comfortable to hold and read. And you can read it on the tube without swamping your traveling companions in reams of folds.

Every other 'big screen' isn't about more in the display, it's about the same, but bigger and more lifelike. Can you imagine Sky trying to add an extra 4 hours or six channels on to their EPG because tellys are bigger? It would be illegible at the increaced distance needed for comfortable viewing.

The other thing to bear in mind is edges. I know Jakob is a devotee of text, but the web is about rich media too. Reading the equivalent of a broadsheet on a portable screen, clicking a hyperlink and getting a fullscreen video - the screen would extend into your peripheral vision. And the minute any big cameramoves happened, you'd get motionsick. Try watching the blair witch project from the front row of a cinema sometime. I guarantee you'll get seasick.

Now, at home I work at a very generous 1600x1200. But If I'm working with text in, say, word, I always end up 'fitting width to screen' - because it's the most comfortable reading experience. Imagine a high-res, wallsized screen. You're on your sofa, with your remote, reading from a distance of 8 feet or more. You'll want really big text, and it's not going to be comfortable. I bet there's field of view issues there, too - strain on the eye muscles...

The best you'll get is some very big headlines, and a dynamic focusy-zoomy change - a bit like the mac dock. But it'll be at best for distracted catch ups - serious reading will always be more comfortable on the handheld, A4 to tabloid scale.

*I have problems carrying four-bi'eight. Because I'm a girl with large breasts, so some of my span is taken up by holding the sheet away from my body, unbalancing me. If women were the socially dominant sex, you'd have five-bi'three instead. Actually, no you wouldn't - we'd get the blokes to do all the heavy lifting... wink.

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