Saturday, November 25, 2006

Conquering small displays

Much of the UI effort in mobile focuses on the hard problem of picking what information to display on tiny screens. Many of the mobile search startups are focused on this problem exclusively, but the solutions are unsatisfactory.

When I look at this problem and the effort going into it, I wonder if we are just a couple years away from a hardware solution that makes much of it obsolete.

To see what I mean, let me dive back to a year ago when I was enjoying an excellent talk at UW CS by Patrick Baudisch from Microsoft Research. The talk, which is available for download, asked:
How can we display complex documents on displays the size of a stamp? How can users interact with such documents?
Pat proposed summarization and attention-focusing techniques as the solution:
"halo" helps users perform spatial reasoning on large maps; "summary thumbnails" and "collapse-to-zoom" allow users to make sense of web pages by compressing them to the size of the phone screen.
It is a fascinating subject, summarizing information and focusing attention on small devices. But, after watching this talk, I wondered how much of this problem is a real, long-term problem or a temporary one created by our current hardware.

For example, I could imagine a small, monocular-like device that I hold up to my eye. Looking through this, I could see what would appear to be a massive screen covering most or all of my field of vision, not that much different than sitting 12" away from a 20" flat screen display.

Even better, maybe the form factor could be sunglasses and the image could be drawn on the glass or projected directly on the retina.

I tried to get at this with an e-mail question to Pat after the lecture, asking:
Is the problem actually the small screen? Or is it really the low resolution of the small screen? If, for example, screens on cell phones had 1280 x 1024 resolution in a screen only a couple inches on each side, would this change the problem?

As you said in the talk, the problem seems to be centered around readability. If the resolution was high enough that the screens were readable if held close to the eyes, would that change the nature of the problem?
I may have failed to describe the idea well. Pat responded that he was concerned about people with poor eyesight being able to focus on and read a tiny but high resolution screen. However, I am fairly sure that, if the device is held up to the eye, the image could be displayed so that the eye should be focused at infinity, not on the device an inch away.

The idea here is fairly obvious. Small displays do not appear small if they are held close to the eye. A virtual display can appear massive even if coming from a small device.

I suspect all we need is the ability to display at high resolution on a tiny screen.

So, is the problem of optimizing content for tiny screens a real, long-term problem? Or is it one that soon will disappear as hardware improves?

Update: About a year later, the NYT reviews the Myvu Universal, virtual display glasses where "the picture appears to float a few feet in front of you."

Update: Fourteen months later, the NYT reports on "the Pico Projector ... a card-sized device that connects to a cell phone or other gadget and uses a laser to project an image at the equivalent size of a 60-inch television screen."


chad said...

Seems to me the invasiveness of holding something right up to your eye will probably prevent that from being the way most people access information (or i could be wrong). Theres probably still a role for smallish 4"x2.5" displays on pdas and phones.

Anonymous said...

Very small helmet mounted displays have been used in military applications for many years.

BMW tested one for Formula One and had a model for motorcycle use.

Anonymous said...

good post. I've been watching how the washington univeristy research is being productized by a company called Microvision ( ).

Hopefully that will succeed and a wearable display that allows us to use all mobile devices will really take hold.

Anonymous said...

There could be a simpler, cheaper solution short term: cell phones "docking" with a LCD display + keyboard device. This could be driven through USB, and as an added bonus, the phone could get charged while being docked.

I can imagine these LCD display + keyboard combination devices at < $100 in volume. It would be the ultimate thin client, neatly avoiding issues of state (which is completely resident in the cell phone or the cloud).

Anonymous said...

seems to me that the solution you mention is basically quite unlikely, just purely from a physical point of view. think about how we use something like binoculars or a camera's viewfinder; you don't move your eyes. The kind of devices you mention may be fine for images and/or films, but i doubt you could achieve the stability needed to permit the reading of text.

Anonymous said...

I think websites have too many links on single pages. Try counting the number of links on the home page of amazon ( for example. Perhaps the bigger problem here is not small displays, but rather the abuse of larger ones.
Maybe this model works best, but I never understood why websites are designed like magazines - where there are page limitations and content must be crammed.