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The Big Picture

When Tycho of Penny Arcade jokingly said, concerning the Zune’s screen aspect ratio of 3:4, that 3:4 is “the exact ratio of obsolescence,” I chuckled to myself and admitted his point: the Zune’s not exactly ground-breaking, so it make sense it would have an “old-fashioned” 3:4 screen. But it always seemed to me that 3:4 is the way things are. After all, televisions and computer monitors use it. What more could commend it as a resolution?

Well, my worldview has been, shall we say, expanded by the acquisition of a widescreen laptop. (As an aside, yes, I’ve acquired one. It’s purpose is to make college that much easier, but it’s also making any online task I perform aside from gaming that much easier. Thanks to all the folks that chipped in by sending funds as a graduation present. You got me the best thing I could wish for, and you didn’t even have to drive to the store!) This computer, like many of its kind, has a non-3:4 display, and in fact runs at the odd-sounding ratio of 16:10 (1280×800 pixels).

Now, full of new-toy glee, I’ve been doing more or less everything I can, including blogging, on this little computer, and it’s changed the way I see things. Blogs that I’ve frequented for years, after becoming accustomed to them in widescreen, now seem narrow and cramped on my desktop running at 3:4. I suppose it’s worth mentioning here that I can just imagine the kinds of headaches that these sorts of displays are giving web designers. In my time designing websites, it’s always been a taboo to build a site around a particular screen resolution, like 1024×768, but the idea that your page will be viewed in a different aspect ratio that you designed it on must really cause some hair-pulling.

Earlier in this post, I said that the 3:4 ratio had its ubiquity to recommend it as a format, but even that is changing — as I wrote that sentence, I felt almost like I was lying, but knew it was essential to give an accurate representation of my point of view before it was widened. And now that my view has been made thus, it’s caused me to give pause to things I’d never considered before.

Take, for example, the standard Starfleet desktop viewer (we’re not even going to go into the elliptical Cardassian displays). It, quite clearly, through the centuries that Star Trek has spanned, runs in 3:4. This never struck me as odd until the past week, when looking at them being taller than they are wide just seems somehow incongruous to a futuristic setting. The same phenomenon caused me to stare at a friend of mine’s laptop for a solid 30 seconds, trying to figure out what was “wrong” with it, before I realized that it just struck me as “wrong” that a laptop would be in 3:4, as this one was. This is hardly surprising, given that we have 3 laptops in this house now, and they’re all in a widescreen aspect ratio.

J. Michael Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5 (Waitaminnit. Firefox’s spell checker thinks that “worldview” is spelled incorrectly, but not Babylon5 without the space? Whatever.), had the vision to know that widescreen is the wave of the future, and shot all of B5 in 16:9, although the CGI sequences were, lamentably, not. I’m sure all of B5: Lost Tales, including the CGI was done in 16:9, though.

I’m sure that there’s some psychological reason that a widescreen format is generally considered “better,” especially in television, where the whole wide-screen business originated. Well, no, it’d be more correct to say the widescreen stuff started on the silver screen, but even there, I wonder why. A quick examination of the Wikipedia article on the topic seems to say that, basically, theaters used widescreen resolutions to keep an edge over the growing market for television, and now television has decided to bite back and get in on the wide-screen market. I guess people are sick of watching all their widescreen movies with black bars on top and bottom; I can hardly blame them. I can still remember accepting on faith from my father that letterboxed movies were inherently better than pan-and-scan movies, and thus the bars were well worth the minor annoyance. Only a decade later, with the help of the internet, do I really understand what he meant.

On the other hand, in computers, the seeming widescreen revolution seems to be something of a mixed blessing. It will almost doubtlessly go to waste in the blogosphere (okay, Firefox, blogosphere is definitely a word), because, even on 3:4 displays, text spanning the entire width of a screen is daunting to read. In general, I find it is easier to read text when it’s in a relatively narrow column, like on this here blog or Kim du Toit’s. Your mileage may vary.

But one place that runs the risk of neglecting widescreen in favor of complying with the old 3:4 standard is computer gaming. Take this example. Please. I’m not entirely familiar with the way that all games handle widescreen displays, but I imagine it’s not well. For example, I know a few modern shooters actually use a certain viewing angle for your display: you get to see a certain number of degrees of the panorama around your camera. The number is a variable set by the game, and I would imagine it would draw the same number of degrees on a widescreen display as on a standard, just stretched.

And this is where I get conflicted. On one hand, I like the idea of games that actually allow a widescreen display to see more of the world, instead of stretching the existing view. On the other hand, I dislike the idea that players with the more expensive widescreen displays would have a gameplay advantage over someone else still chugging along on a 3:4 CRT. On the gripping hand, I doubt that a few more degrees of vision would help you in any meaningful sense unless you were so evenly matched with your opponent that it’s not going to make a significant difference.

See, this is why I don’t get to decide standards like whether to do stuff in widescreen or not. Just tell me what’s “better” (i.e. High Definition), and let me get back to making the important choices, like choosing between the Handwraps of Flowing Thought and the Voidheart Gloves.

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