Douglas Crockford




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March 2005

This month's report looks at Grokster, TiVo, 3D, and Headaches.

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Grokster case today. The questioning from the Justices was described as lively. Based on the sorts of questions they were asking, it might be likely that the Supreme Court will uphold the decision of the Court of Appeals. In particular, they seemed sympathetic to the situation of inventors who could be crushed by charges of contributory infringement. The country has benefited tremendously from the efforts of garage inventors, and the Court seems to recognize that. However, we won't know for sure how the Court will decide until it issues its decision later this year. Also, we won't know until then if they decide narrowly or broadly. A very narrow decision might leave MPAA and RIAA free to continue harassing companies in the lower courts.

MPAA and RIAA have already begun lobbying Congress, anticipating another bad hearing. Congress is becoming reluctant to act now because the number of interested parties is growing and it does not want to alienate too many people. I predict that Congress will want to do nothing at least until the decision is handed down.


TiVo, the struggling DVR maker, has made a deal with Comcast, the largest Cable MSO. Apparently, customers have not been happy about the Motorola-supplied DVRs, so Comcast will make TiVo available. The TiVo UI looks very simple, but it is very difficult to copy. I suspect that Motorola's engineers were not unable to understand what is so good about TiVo's design. The deal also includes TiVo's advertising platform. Without it, Comcast could be facing a significant reduction in advertising revenue.

This deal could allow TiVo to survive.


Images are flat and the world is not. People have been aware of this for as long as we have been making images. From time to time we tried to add depth to our images, developing techniques like perspective (which is very effective) and stereography (which is not).

3D has not been very successful at the movies. Jaws 3D was not nearly as good as Jaws. Perhaps the best 3D movie, House of Wax, is now being remade 50 years later in 2D (with Paris Hilton!). 3D in movies is usually a distraction. It is rarely worth the cost.

The term 3D is often applied to computer displays and interfaces, where it can take on a bewildering number of meanings. As with cinema, not all of them are beneficial.

One of the first places where people interacted with 3D graphics was in videogames. The two major categories are full 3D and 2 1/2D. Generally 2 1/2D systems are cheaper and easier to use. The most distinguishing feature between them is in the freedom of the camera. In full 3D the camera can go anywhere, including inside of solid objects.

Twenty years ago

We have seen 3 waves of 3D Silliness in computer interfaces. The first, and most silly, was VR (Virtual Reality). This was a fully immersive environment in which the user wears a pair of displays on his head and a dataglove on one or both hands. Scott Fisher did much of the earlier work, which was borrowed and made silly by Jaron Lanier. (Fisher, Lanier, and I all worked at Atari Research.) Lanier's VPL took those ideas and pushed them in front of the public. They said that VR was going to become the interface in which we would all work and play. VPL was very influential, but a business disaster. VR was expensive and feeble.

Ten years ago

The second wave was Mark Pesce's adaptation of SGI's Open Inventor Scene Description Language: VRML (Virtual Reality Markup Language). It allowed for the delivery and rendering of 3D models in web browsers. This was to open up a vast new application space that would support work, play, and social interaction. It was very influential for a time. Many companies got into VRML. Most of them no longer exist.

Some of the experiments from that time were interesting. One put a 3D interface on the AltaVista search engine. It allowed flying though a Concept Map. Each concept was represented by its textual name. As you moved closer to a concept, its name would scale larger and become translucent and related concepts would come into view behind it. Visually it was very interesting, but it had problems. Text is only readable in a limited range of sizes. If it gets too big or too small, it cannot be understood. Navigating in 3D is hard. It is much like piloting an airplane. It is harder than it looks. The concept map structure excludes information that does not fit into the map, so it is useless for most searches. But it looked good.


3D hardware has gotten really cheap and really good. It seems that there ought to be a way to take better advantage of it in user interfaces, which have not improved significantly since the Macintosh. So now we are seeing a third wave of experimentation. The current experiments are much less silly than the stunts we saw in the previous waves.

Looking Glass is an experimental 3D desktop from Sun. Historically, Sun's UI systems have been very bad, so they are excited to have something to show that at least looks nice. It puts 2D objects representing documents and applications into 3space. There are some aspects of this that are good: An oblique projection of a rectangle takes up less space than a straight projection, so it is possible to put more things in the workspace without cluttering the screen. However, there are severe limitations: an oblique view loses a lot of information, so recognition is usually limited to familiar objects. It is not a general solution.

NTT Infolead takes these ideals further, much like the AltaVista demo and similar work at Xerox PARC. It allows for taking a set of documents and arraying them in 3space in a number of ways. The hope is that it will lead to a quicker way of accessing information. However, it will only be effective on documents that can be categorized correctly (which is a hard problem). Besides, there are easier ways to access documents that are properly cataloged that do not require 3D. Visual recognition of very small images is only effective for familiar images. It is almost useless for distinguishing between similar things. For example, I have written about 40 reports in this series. Superficially they all look the same. Infolead would be a very ineffective tool for finding the background on the Broadcast Flag. A simple search engine would do a much better job.


Apple continues to lead in the design of attractive displays. Its current products make heavy use of gleams and translucency. The widgets on the screen are looking fuller, rounder, deeper, but not necessarily more real. There is now sufficient color resolution to support photographic widgets, such as a photo of a Trash Can to replace the icon. It would be easy to do, but it would look bad. The real objects on the screen would call too much attention to themselves, distracting us. Ideally, we should have almost no awareness of the interface.

Microsoft is developing a new operating system codenamed Longhorn. Its developers are making significant changes to the UI, not to compete better against Apple, but to compete better against XP. Most people have no good reason to ever upgrade their OS again, so Microsoft feels it must make its system more attractive in order to compel people to upgrade.

There are currently 4 different experiences planned depending on hardware requirements.

Level 1: Classic Windows. This is the same as Classic mode in Windows XP.

Level 2: Aero Express. This is akin to the Windows XP style. It'll be pretty basic but have the new general look and feel.

Level 3: Aero Glass. This will require a decent video card that supports DirectX 9. This will probably be the most common look we'll see with Longhorn initially.

Level 4: Aero "Diamond" (not sure if this will be the final name). This is the ultimate experience and you'll need a pretty good video card (i.e. 128 meg at least with very good LDDM drivers).

As you ascend the levels, the widgets get more translucent and blobby.

I bought a package called Object Desktop from StarDock which allows for radically customizing the look of Windows. There are lots of designers making skins, some of which resemble Longhorn and other operating systems. Most of the skins are quite awful. Not only are they ugly and visually distracting, but their designers seem to have forgotten basic principles, such as it must be immediately obvious if a check box has been checked or not. It is a good reminder that good GUI design is really hard.


Let's look at this from the perspective of Television. Home entertainment systems have become very complex, and the amount of programming available from the networks has grown enormously. We want to make it easier for people to manage the complexity and to see what they want to see when they want to see it. They want it to be easy. Navigating in 3space is not easy.

But there are other uses of 3D. We can apply 3D techniques to make images more pleasing or more familiar. Familiarity can make systems more accessible and easier to learn. The Desktop Metaphor (Xerox and Apple) tried to make the computer seem familiar by reproducing on the screen things and interactions that were common in offices. It makes little sense to replicate the desktop on the TV, except perhaps that people have become familiar with computer interfaces, and that experience could transfer to the TV.

I think that 2 1/2D techniques could be more effective than 3D. It eliminates the difficulty of 3space navigation. It can aid understanding by showing where things come from and where things go. The interface can be less magical and more obvious.


I am beginning to see complaints about headaches and fatigue in HDTV set product reviews. In the mainstream press, when they talk about HDTV headaches, they are always talking about stress and frustration due to confusion and complexity which are caused by inadequate standards and bad product designs. But in the user-generated bulletin boards, there are reports about real headaches caused by viewing of HDTV. There are good reasons to dismiss these anecdotal reports, but there might be something to them. Many sets are designed for retail display, not for in home viewing. Such displays tend to be overly bright and biased. I could imagine that they could cause visual discomfort over a period of time. Color wheel strobing might also be a factor. Also, some people get screens that are much too big for the viewing distance.

Most people work very hard in selecting a new TV set. If they are made to feel that they made a bad choice then they can feel another kind of sickness.

I had the Samsung 46" HDTV projection (3rd Gen) for two weeks, and the DLP gave me severe headaches within 15-30 minutes of viewing. Tried various lighting/backlighting solutions, and it still made me feel ill.

When I took it back to Best Buy, the Tech Pro said he'd never heard of that, and that I must be making up. What an idiot! The next day, I went back to look at plasmas, and I was standing beside a different Tech Pro who was talking to another tech about DLP. That Tech Pro said he couldn't use the tv's with DLP because it gave him serious headaches and a nauseated feeling.

Unfortunately, I loved the picture quaility of the DLP better than plasmas, but I need to be able to enjoy what I'm watching. Having to look away from the set and close your eyes and rub them every five minutes isn't actually enjoyable...

DLPs have better blacks but still not au par with CRTs. Screendoor still exists although much smaller than LCDs. The main issue with DLPs is the eyestrain some people get (not to mention terrible headaches) thanks to the spinning wheel that basically creates the color on any DLP device. And the rainbow effect is another annoying and show stopper for many people.

I went through the long and confusing selection process that most big screen TV buyers suffer through. Plasma looks great but what about burn-in and durability? DLP is fantastic, but what about the rainbow effect and headaches? LCD...poor black rendition? The bottom line is that all three major competing technologies have their own unique set of advantages and disadvantages. Budget and size considerations are what will finally drive you to a particular TV selection.

Sounds good so far, right? Well, here's a negative. It isn't a major one, but it kind of upset us at first. You have to get used to watching this TV. It's not like a normal modern tube TV that you can watch for hours before your eyes get tired. In the first month or so that we owned the TV, our eyes got blurry after a few hours. We couldn't continue watching because we'd get mild headaches. I can't quite put my finger on it, but it had the same effect on me as when I was watching Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, which came out around the same time we got our TV. We've had many friends come over to watch TV with us, but they didn't experience blurry vision or headaches. Then again, they haven't sat in front of our TV for hours on end like we do.

As the months passed, we eventually got used to our WEGA. We found that we could watch it for longer periods of time before the blurriness and mild headaches occurred. Eventually, the blurriness and headaches went away. We could now stay up watching TV for about as long as we did with our old Sanyo. There's only so much TV you should watch anyway, so we chalked this up as an unwritten feature of our new TV. Watching TV on a flatscreen like the WEGA is so much more enjoyable than a conventional tube TV. Glare is significantly reduced and the image looks much more precise and natural. Some people complain about the price, but if you look at any of the tube TVs on sale nowadays, you'll agree with us that's there's just no comparison. If you really want to complain about price and have everyone gawking at your "latest new toy," just buy a plasma TV instead.

Both have their strengths and weaknesses. The right pj will put out a picture that's beautiful and humongous. But it helps if the room is dark. And you also have to replace the bulbs every year or two, and they aren't cheap. And you can't sit too close to the screen. And some people see rainbows or get headaches with DLP projectors. And it's certainly not as easy to use as a regular TV. And some videophiles might think the plasma puts out a better picture (though your average person would be hard pressed to tell the difference). Lots of drawbacks. You'll probably have to see both to make a good decision.

I bought a DLP 3 weeks ago and started seeing the rainbow effect on day 3. It mostly shows up during scenes with a high dark/light contrast while your eyes move across the screen (do a search for DLP rainbow effect). The main thing is that you need the contrast between light and black. Scenes that are light by torches/lamps are good - like the end of Unforgiven or beginning of Costner's Robin Hood are good to watch.

I also DO get headaches from watching sometimes - especially when I see the rainbow effect - after you see it, you start "searching for it". My fiance didn't see it at first, but started seeing it 4 days ago and can now see it with some regularity.

It's been estimated that between 5 - 10% of the population sees the rainbows on DLP sets. What is usually not mentioned is that many people who say that they don't actually see them are affected by DLP sets in other ways. Symptoms vary, but can be as minor as headaches and eye fatigue to as major as dizziness and nausea/vomiting.