Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Tackling Technology's Small Print



I think.

I feel endlessly grateful to have grown up in an era where so much that would once have been considered fantasy or magic has become a part of everyday reality.

"They will never make a flat television screen that you can hang on the wall", lectured my Father, dismissing a science fiction film in the 1960s.

And Dad was an electrical engineer so his word and vision on such things was not something to challenge lightly.

My Mum and I knew better than to try.

Dad even thought Colour TV was a bit unnecessary. I had to go to friends to see that. Or press my nose to the glass outside the local dealers.

Transistors would never completely replace valves either, according to Dad. And there was an awful fuss when my Mum conspired to let me spend my saved up pocket money on a six transistor radio.


I don't know whether all this was why I held off buying a flat screen TV when the shops started filling up with them a few years ago. I had plenty of rationalisations for waiting besides any deep seated concern for his feelings in such a matter.

Nevertheless, shortly after he died, I went out and got one. A really big one. The biggest one in the shop.

There are times when I watch my 60 inch ultra flat LED television, hanging from two concealed hooks on the lounge wall, and I think of Dad for a moment.

And how any belief I may mistake for certainty today could be on borrowed time.

… though the jet packs and flying cars are still late arriving in the shops.


Any discussion of how much has changed in the last century could so easily become a list, so I'll just invite you to make your own.

Instead I want to focus on the cruel irony of technologies that arrive a bit too late to fully enjoy them.

Technologies that contribute, rather, to the reminder that the young always get to inherit (and take for granted) the goodies…

… whilst we have to contend with the increasing ignominy of feeling ever so slightly obsolescent, if not yet downright obsolete.

When displays were rare

I remember the time when displays on computers were an expensive rarity.

When I learned about Computer Science as a young undergraduate in the early 1970s, computers were mostly very large, consumed enough electricity to serve an entire street, and were fed with paper tapes and punched cards.

If you were lucky you might get the results back from something called a Line Printer (because it printed whole lines of text in one very noisy go), but I really did sometimes get the outputs on more paper tape, to be fed into a teleprinter if I wanted to read them.

Then came the screens.

For many years your choices were between a screen with 1920 characters or one with 2000 … though I did have to work with one make of computer which offered only 256. That's eight rows of 32 characters.

You could have the characters in fluorescent green, or fluorescent yellowy-orange, or a light blue that might pass for white in the right light.

But not all at the same time.

And the characters were at first always capitals. Then, if you were posh, some were a sort of approximation to upper and lower case, where the letters with tails, like 'g' or 'y' were hoisted above the baseline to fit in the exact rows where characters had to go.

These letters were made out of a matrix of dots. And the dots were comparatively huge. So it was quite hard on the eye to look at them for any time.

Disappearing pixels, disappearing text

One of the great advances of our computer age has been the rapid evolution from these crude display devices to what we have today.

With each new line of products the pixels have got smaller … leaving designers with the option between keeping text the same size, but with less raggedy edges, or cramming more text onto the screen.

The great thing now is the 'Retina' display … the idea of a screen where the dots are so small that, at normal viewing distances, the healthy human eye can't make them out.

It's rather like the best print in the poshest of books. The characters can have more fine detail and gorgeous curves.

It's also a strange milestone for display technology because once you've reached this point there is, almost by definition, nowhere further to go. There is not much point in making the points of light and dark any smaller for a given display, because the result for us humans watching is not going to get any better.

Love, hate

I love my Retina display iPhone. And I love my Retina display Macbook. They really are nice to look at.

However, no sooner has this technology arrived than I find it is me that could really do with the upgrade.

Give designers the wherewithal to put fine detail (like more text) on a small small screen and they will.

This probably doesn't matter when you're young and have 20-20 vision.

But now I find myself increasingly reaching for a magnifying glass to use the phone.

I wake up in the morning and I can't read the overnight messages because they are in a size of print small enough to delight the tricksiest of lawyers.

It becomes a routine reminder that my eyes, even with varifocals, aren't what they used to be.

Instead, the phone is in one hand whilst I peer through the magnifier held in the other.

And if I look very carefully with the magnifier you know what?

I can see the pixels once more.

No comments:

Post a Comment