The computer displays we use for viewing our digital world have evolved relatively slowly in comparison to other types of computer hardware and Internet infrastructure—processor speed, bandwidth, and storage capacity have all made leaps forward in the past decade. While such improvements have shaped the way designers create and what they create—affecting everything from visual style and site architecture to interaction flow and overall functionality—these changes have been incremental and manageable. However, our move to high-resolution displays will be transformative, because it will affect designers’ entire working medium. Digital designers will face numerous possibilities and challenges that huge increases in screen real estate and depth of detail will bring. Instead of a somewhat blurry and indistinct 72-pixels-per-inch working environment, high-resolution displays will provide richness and clarity. As high-resolution displays become more readily available, digital designers will find themselves at the forefront in navigating this new world.
Envisioning the Technology
As early as 2001, IBM sowed the seeds of the HDWeb when the company released, for limited distribution, the 204-ppi (pixels per inch), 22.2-inch T220 monitor, with a suggested retail price of $22,000. ViewSonic and IDTech subsequently licensed the technology, and by 2003, the cost of a 204-ppi display had come down to the somewhat less outrageous price of $8,500—making the monitors affordable for specialized corporate use, but still years away from arriving in the average home. At that time, IDTech Japan announced the arrival of the “Era of New Visualization,” saying “A monitor displaying huge amounts of digital data on one screen and near reality images is now realized….”
Usage in the Field of Medical Imaging
High-resolution monitors are already in wide use in the field of medical imaging. Both doctors and technicians use three- and four-megapixel grayscale monitors to evaluate x-rays and other monochromatic images. And remote evaluations using secured connections—across the country and even across the globe—are becoming a regular, if not commonplace, part of many hospitals’ workflows. According to “Medical Imaging” magazine, Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans, ultrasound, and 3D-imaging software are driving the demand for high-res color displays as well.
Back to Near Reality
There are some high-res options for those of us who lack the IT budget of a major hospital as well. The 23-inch, 2.3-megapixel (1920 x 1200) Cinema Display from Apple is $1299, and the price of the Planar 21-inch, nearly 2-megapixel (1600 x 1200) flat-screen monitor is under $900. Display resolutions are increasing, and the price of the high-res display technology is falling.
Designing for the Low-Res World
Digital designers have a love/hate relationship with 72-ppi screens. The visual requirements of low-resolution displays have both burdened and spoiled designers. The constraints of low-res displays can be frustrating—blurry font rendering, lack of sharpness in photographs, and disappearing detail in graphics. People viewing large volumes of financial data—and other applications in which detail is critical—must use multiple monitors or print out files. On the other hand, the low-resolution environment has been freeing for digital designers as well. Photos and other graphic elements—for example, a small JPEG file—that would be completely unsuitable for print media might serve very well on a Web site.
But high-res displays will soon take away these limitations. What does 9 megapixels of screen real estate look like? Rather than create user interfaces for 800 x 600 screens or even the increasingly popular 1600 x 1200, digital designers will face a whopping 3840 x 2400 screen. What will we do with over ten times the detail of our current displays?