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The Wide Angle


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
September 25, 2006

I first saw a widescreen television in the back of a Dixons store in London during the spring of 1997. I was attending a risk management conference at the Grosvesnor House where I gave a talk on the paper that would become the first item to inhabit the Miller Risk Advisor's website. I explored the area around the hotel between conference sessions and discovered Oxford Street, the main shopping drag, which was at the corner of Hyde Park nearest to my hotel. If I had been writing up my adventures in retailing back then, I probably would have written about Fortnum and Mason's food hall as it appeared to be the most distinctively British thing happening on Oxford Street. One notable feature of Oxford Street, however, was the degree to which it had become barely distinguishable from Fifth Avenue back home. Many of the global flagship stores in both locations looked the same and sold essentially the same wares.

The widescreen TV at Dixons struck me at that time as something oddly British. All the sets in the store were showing the same program and the only thing different about the wide-screen television is that the image on it was stretched so that everyone seemed overweight. (Since then, set designers have developed "smarter" stretching algorithms, but they could still do a much better job by employing AI techniques to dynamically change how the picture is stretched to deal with motion and the content of the image being displayed.)

Some quick web research indicates that around that time the British were conducting various experiments with an analog version of HDTV (the current version available in the U.S. is purely digital), so perhaps the sets were designed with these broadcasts in mind. European standard definition TV was already higher definition than standard definition U.S. broadcasts, so I am not sure I would have noticed much of a difference if I had seen an early version of HDTV.

Widescreen monitors are definitely taking over the world, especially as TV sets. The new king of aspect ratios (the ratio of the picture width to its height) is 16 to 9 (16:9), up from the old standard of 4 to 3 (4:3). How these ratios ascended to dominance has a lot of history between them (some of it pertaining to the sprocket holes on film), but it interesting to note that neither of them is particularly close to the ratio that artists and mathematicians might choose, the so-called "golden ratio," which lies between the two, though a tad closer to the widescreen 16:9 ratio.

For video viewing, there is no question that 16:9 will not only win, but could well be displaced at a latter time by an even wider ratio, like the 2.35:1 ratio used for some movies. People with ancestors who managed not to be devoured by saber-tooth tigers have survived with impressive peripheral vision, so a wider screen provides a more immersive and evolutionarily fit viewing experience.

Wider screens are also catching on in the computer world, especially among laptop computer. The most obvious reason for this is that they can easily double as portable DVD players; indeed, it is increasingly common for Windows laptops to sport a mode in which a DVD can played without going through the time and hassle of booting up Windows. An added bonus, which virtually guarantees that 4:3 laptops will quickly pass into history, is that widescreen laptops are a better fit for briefcases, laps, and airplane tray tables.

The interesting issue is what will happen in the "office" and the confusion that will be sown in the meantime with the two formats coexisting. Miller Risk Advisors, with its insatiable appetite for computer hardware, currently has one foot solidly in both the 4:3 and 16:9 worlds. The home office, where most commentaries are hatched, employs a Windows-based workstation that has attached to it a main monitor that is 16:9 and an auxiliary monitor that is 4:3. (This commentary is being written on the main monitor in Microsoft Word at a nice, large size of 185%.)

This particular dual-monitor set-up is especially suited to the creation of PowerPoint presentations because the main monitor can be used to create standard 4:3 slides with the extra horizontal space dedicated to the various PowerPoint tools on either side. Using PowerPoint's two-screen display mode, a slide show can be previewed on the auxiliary screen and edited on the main screen without having to interrupt the show to make the edits.

So far, so good. Problems arise, however, when one interfaces to the outside world. Consider what happens when one gives a 4:3 presentation on a 16:9 laptop screen—one gets the dreaded black sidebars. Most laptops can be commanded to go into 4:3 mode, but that creates the fat-Brit syndrome mentioned at the beginning of this commentary. Furthermore, PowerPoint slides suffer more from widening than your typically Brit.

This is only a transitional problem, but bigger problems lie ahead after the widescreen format is victorious. At the current rate of infiltration of the widescreen format, people might realize that 16:9 should be the standard aspect ratio for PowerPoint presentations. (This will require getting rid of all the legacy 4:3 projectors and screens and replacing them with 16:9 models, but that is inevitable as part of the overall move to widescreen.)

Consider, then, what happens when you want to hand out a 16:9-formatted presentation on paper—it will not fit on standard 8.5 by 11 paper (or even on the slightly elongated A4 paper used in Britain and the rest of Europe) without substantially "letterboxing," which is empty space on the top and bottom that have the effect of making the presentation look smaller. Legal (8.5 by 14) paper works in a pinch, but it is still a good bit off, being 1.647 to 1 while 16:9 is 1.778 to 1.

How does the world adjust to the new format? This is the question that should replace the cliché interview question of "why are manholes round?" What size paper should the world use? What happens to all the existing file cabinets and other materials built around the 4:3 form factor? (Note that 8.5 by 11 is not exactly 4:3 or 1.333:1, but 1.294:1, which is so close that it rarely matters.) Do PowerPoint presentations simply stay at the current aspect ratio and a new market develops for skinny images that can occupy the left and right sidebands? (Rupert Murdoch already has a number of copyrighted images in his London paper, "The Sun" that would appear give him a head start here.) Or, is this the development that finally brings the age-old idea of the "paper office" to fruition?

For now, I am sticking with the old standard and tolerating seeing stretched-out slides on my laptop while they display properly on old-fashioned projectors. Perhaps the best thing that I could do is outgrow the whole PowerPoint slide culture that I learned at GE. That would certainly make Edward Tufte happy. Don't hold your breath.

Copyright 2006 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to