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Beyond books

tue16oct2007—42w289d79%— 05h43m00s—0utc

People who seem to have had a new idea have often simply stopped having an old idea.

Edwin Land, inventor of Polaroid

If you are in a hurry, jump ahead to the 3-minute screencast to see what this is all about.

Not for the first time I’ve woken thinking that the invention of dirt-cheap, high quality multi-touch wallscreens would prove as epoch making as the printing press, a cure for cancer, or the web. Most people, of course, scoff. They can barely see the point of computer screens bigger than 15". It is not my intention now to disabuse the heathen. Let’s just assume that we have such wondrous interfaces and see how far we can run with them in one particular direction.

Close your eyes and imagine that you somehow —digital contact lens, projectors, VR goggles, pixie dust— have access to a screen at least as big as a wall — a humongous HD screen that is not only a pleasure to look at but with which you can interact. Mouse and keyboard would suffice for our purposes here, but since we’re dreaming, feel free to indulge in Jeff-Han-style touch interaction.

Despite the mind-boggling immersive multimedia we can expect, text won’t go away. Not only will we still gulp it down, we’ll likely drown in it. Text has advantages all of its own and in a digital word there’s nothing cheaper or more malleable. Reading newspapers, books, magazines, blogs, emails, and tutorials will still be an everyday staple. It’ll just be by and far all digital now.

The question thus is how we’ll read all this text. How do you take advantage of a massive pixel landscape when your goal is reading? You could recreate books in all their physicality, down to the flashy turning of pages, the weight, the fixed dimensions, and the mahogany bookshelf. We would certainly be able to copy it all in breathtaking detail, but limiting ourselves to such molds wouldn’t only be wrong, it would be perverse. Let’s see if we can do better than that.

Let’s turn to the book to analyze it as the interface that at bottom it is. The first step is simply to distinguish between the abstract, ethereal notion of text and its many embodiments, one of which is the book. We don’t usually think of the book like this but that’s only because atoms have made us too parochial.

The book’s physical advantages — portability, durability, odor, ease of manufacturing — are of no concern to us here, since they carry no weight in the digital realm. What is of concern are more abstract qualities like how you can’t scroll or how text is permanently chunked into opposing displays we call “pages”, how you move through text by “turning the page”, with the result that you advance to the next two “pages”. Why to the next two instead of showing the last page and the next one? Physicality: it’s just much easier to do the first case in paper.

It may appear I’m just throwing crap at good old atom books but the truth is they are in a way a better interface to text than our current scrollwindows, which work as if text were an endless ticker you can only peer through a vertically moving peephole. I prefer books to them because we humans have a much easier time reading short lines of text and the two-columning books impose makes it much easier for lines to be kept short. With scrollwindows lines get long too easily and the only way to keep your eyes from wandering is to increase the font size, which is nice up to a point — we didn’t get wallscreens just to read letters 10 inches high.

So what can we do? I propose the obvious solution: let’s mix the best of books and scrollwindows and generalize from there. Let’s start with what I’ll simply call a 2-column scrollwindow (the right stack is just to remind you of my impromptu color coding…).

So far it looks a lot like a book. You give it some text file and “pages” are automatically a-chunked. We have even created some handy keyboard shortcuts to move through text book-style: in two-page jumps.

But now, Toto, just to prove that we’re not on paper anymore, we can just as easily create equally handy keyboard shortcuts to move through text stack-style: by one-page jumps.

Wait, since it’s all digital now, what do you say about this?

That’s right! Synchronous scrolling. I scrolled down and both columns moved in joyous unison! Neat huh?

Here’s a 3-column scrollwindow…

…and examples of book-style jumps, stack-style jumps, and synchscrolling!

Of course there’s no reason to stop at 3: the floodgates have been opened. 4, 5, n-column scrollwindows are straightforward.

If you are among the lucky few Vimmers out there, check out these extremely simple instructions to try and get some sense of how n-column scrollwindows might feel in your own computer.

For the rest of you, you can watch this screencast of me playing with Vim to try to imagine all this. There’s nothing like watching this ideas live to realize how utterly simple they are.

(If you want to see real text instead of squiggles, download the original 13.4MB video)

Coming back to our hypothetical touch wallscreens: I imagine that of a bibliophile will be covered with rows of end-to-end n-column scrollwindows. To synchscroll a row —a book, a magazine, a blog!— the lucky future bastard will simply caress the screen, almost sensually, up or down. To move stack-style she will brush the screen left or right, gently. Oh, the text, the text, all around, can you see?

Thus we end our journey. Looking back it all looks pretty obvious and inevitable, doesn’t it? This is so the future. Just remember 15 years from now that you first read about it here, in some dingy 2007 post.

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