We’re doing lots of viewer design work these days, and I’ve been thinking about the dimensions of viewing devices. In recent years, a couple trends have affected the way users look at geographic information. Literally. Dimensions have shrunk (think mobile devices) or dimensions have widened (computer monitors). Let’s look at the latter.

The squarish 4:3 aspect ratio was the television standard until not that long ago when things went 16:9, and squarish to wide happened with computer monitors as well. I’d guess this had something to do with CRT technology, but it could be something someone just picked long ago. Certainly, movies have been “widescreen” since the 1950’s (in part to differentiate their product from TV). After putting up with black stripes and shrunken movies for a while on our TVs, they went 16:9 with the advent of HDTV, which is fairly close to movie theater dimensions. Most computer monitors are widescreen now too.

I don't know the answer, but I wonder if widescreen has proved popular for viewing because it is closer to how we can see the world when we “go broad”—and also partially due to the fact that movies (usually the superior visual entertainment) are best watched in that aspect ratio. Simply, we all understand widescreen is better.

Back in my erstwhile amateur film directing days, I always found shooting non-scenic widescreen to be a lot more work, because if your focus isn’t horizontal (i.e. the scene) then you have to consider a lot of what’s going on in the background to properly frame a vertically oriented point of viewer focus (e.g. a face). When we look at scenery, we shift to a wide dimension of attention. When we concentrate on something like a face, the periphery fades and we naturally concentrate more along the lines of a 4:3 aspect ratio. I got to thinking about this while sitting in on web mapping design sessions recently. I expect that when we focus on an average task on our computer, we don’t have a widescreen focus. We’re concentrating on something specific. We see this observed correctly with text on most websites (kept within standard page width), but not with lots of new applications.

Is widescreen inherently better for computer users? Maybe, maybe not. Widescreen or multiple monitors are great for people working between multiple windows/applications they have open, but I’m curious how often when focusing on an application they go beyond requiring 4:3. I still prefer a more squarish monitor because I prefer to focus on one task at a time (I Alt-Tab between windows) and, believe it or not, I don’t watch movies at work. Most of the time I look at the computer I’m working with text, and I’d find my wide screen flipped on its side (more like a piece of paper) to be more relevant. I’m not suggesting that 4:3 monitors are better. Perhaps 16:9ish is the right for a computer monitor so we can go wide when we want to, but for applications, an assumption of widescreen as the ideal blank canvas is probably ill-advised.