Where Do Displays Go From Here?

by James R. Stoup Aug 22, 2006

How big was your first computer’s display? My Performa came with a 15” CRT display and at the time I thought it was huge. Imagine, 15 whole inches to work with. Well, actually since it was a CRT it turned out to only be 14 inches and some change. But still, it was rather impressive for the time. Now I am using a 15” PowerBook that happens to have a very nice LCD, and I shudder to think what it would be like to go back to that tiny screen with its low resolution. My how things have changed. The norm for desktops today is a 17” display. Unless of course you are a gamer then you will probably have a 19” display or two. And, of course, on the professional side of things you will find users who sit before 20” - 30” displays. But how much larger can things get?

Now, I don’t ask that question expecting a numerical answer. I realize that as the technology gets better (and cheaper) we will be able to make progressively larger and larger displays that are brighter, have better resolution and have more vibrant colors. But that is just the technical side of things. I mean, how much larger can a display get before it’s too large?

Ever sat in front of a 30” display? Oh, don’t get me wrong; it is fine to watch a movie on a display that large (provided you are sitting across the room) but to actually sit a couple feet away from it while actively using your computer is a different matter all together. The display can only be so large before it becomes impractical as a computer monitor. 

I love science fiction, especially classic Sci-Fi because it is so interesting to see how those writers from 50 years ago envisioned the future. One amusing take on computing had users interacting with displays that took up entire walls. Others thought that we would use special glasses or holographic projectors. These ideas seem quaint now, but at the time seemed quite plausible. After all, bigger is better, right? And who wouldn’t want a display that takes up an entire wall? It would be great, right? Well, unless you had to write an email. Because then you would have to make the font a bit bigger than 12 point in order to read it. And you would have to sit back a ways just to take in the entire viewing area. And here’s something most people don’t think about: to view something that big, you would have to constantly be turning your head to see everything. That doesn’t sound like a problem – until you spend four hours in front of a screen that large and get up with severe neck pain.

Therefore, I think it is safe to assume that even if it’s technically possible, computer screens won’t increase beyond a set size. And that size will be based not on price but on human limitations.

My reason for bringing all this up is that I have concerns that the “digital living room” will not arrive in the shape most often predicted. I say this because we are dealing with two incompatible display paradigms. On one hand, we have computer displays that, as we just established, will only grow to a certain size before they become unusable. And on the other hand, we have media displays (TVs, movie theaters, etc) in which larger sizes are always better. If a 42” TV is good, then a 52” widescreen is better. If a TV is good, then a movie theater is even better. And IMAX is best of all! So for watching media bigger is better. IMAX films have high quality video, surround sound and a display three stories tall. All of which proves that consumers will pay for bigger and better ways to enjoy their entertainment.

But who is going to try to use a computer with a display that size? It just wont’ happen because it’s too big. And this brings me back to my point. If you are shopping for a display for your living room, you aren’t going to limit yourself to a single 30” display, you are going to get the biggest and most powerful display you can afford. So why all this talk about how your TV is going to merge with your computer?

No, I don’t think all these technologies will merge into one super machine anytime soon. Maybe Apple will get it right and show the world how to integrate these two competing designs. However, as Windows Media Center has shown us, people aren’t ready just yet to embrace that kind of change. Maybe one day but not today. Not until this problem has been solved.


  • The performa was what, ten years ago? I was using larger displays as early as 1991. Large CRTs (up to 21”) have been around awhile.

    I’m not all that impressed with apple’s cinema displays, quite frankly, with 400:1 contrast ratio. I can get a 20” monitor (slightly smaller) from Formac with a 600:1 contrast ratio, pay a lot less money…and be able to calibrate it to pantone standards.

    -Erik Nanstiel

    Gravity had this to say on Aug 22, 2006 Posts: 1
  • Good article James, and a damn good point!

    Chris Howard had this to say on Aug 22, 2006 Posts: 1209
  • I am glad you wrote this article, because it brings out some ideas I have been thinking about lately.  First off, I am an architect that works in front of two 19” displays all day long.  I find these displays to be constantly constraining. 

    I would be willing to pay nearly any sum to find a display large enough to work on an architectural plan at full 1:1 scale.  My typical drawing sheet is 30"x42”  Also, this display would have the same resolution as paper and would allow the ability to input data via a stylus or other pen based input device.  This screen could be on the desk surface or become the desk itself. Think that is crazy?  Check out the possiblilities of “epaper” to see the future of displays.

    You article is pertinent if our approach to computers and our interaction with them do not change.  In my opinion, our current interaction / input with computers are terrible and have tremendous room to improve.  Thanks.

    stahl had this to say on Aug 22, 2006 Posts: 1
  • Good point, stahl.

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Aug 22, 2006 Posts: 371
  • I think stahl has hit the nail right on the proverbial head. It is not the limitations of the display technology or the limitations of us lowly humans. It is in how well the user interface is designed to work with whatever display is being presented.
    I love working with my 20” iMac at home, but I also use a Mac Mini as my media center hooked up to a 37” LCD TV. If I had to sit two feet away from that 37” TV there is no way my neck could take it. But with the remote-keyboard I use and lounging back on the couch, about 6-8’ away it’s great. I wouldn’t want to do intense design work on it, but that’s what my iMac is for.
    The point is, first the need for a large space needs to be identified, then the user interface needs to be re-tooled to properly accomodate the need. I’m sure that displays the size of an entire wall will be available as soon as someone figures out a proper use for it.

    Gabe H had this to say on Aug 22, 2006 Posts: 40
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