Monthly Archives: February 2008

Owl Vision, Fox Walking

I’ve learned so much, not only about how we read, but about why computers feel so unnatural to people, from spending time out in the woods.

I’d like to share two very simple techniques with you. I guarantee if you practice them for a few minutes a day, they’ll dramatically increase your level of awareness of what’s going on around you.

I was taught these techniques by animal tracker Jon Young, who established the Wilderness Awareness School in Duvall, Washington.

The first technique is called Owl Vision. It’s very simple. Just use your peripheral vision to gaze at your surroundings without focusing on anything. You can blink, of course, but don’t let your eyes focus on anything. It’s best to begin in the woods, or in a park – but once you’ve got this technique down, you’ll find it just as valuable on the streets of a city, and even when you’re driving…

One of the first things you’ll find is that you notice much more. By not focusing on anything, you become extremely sensitive to movement anywhere in the 207degrees or so of your visual field. You’ll see birds you never noticed before, for example. Your brain will filter out things like leaves blowing in the wind – but you’ll notice if they’re moved by a bird or animal.

The second technique’s called Fox Walking, to be used in conjunction with Owl Vision when you want to move.

The problem with normal walking while doing Owl Vision is that most of us bounce up and down while walking – even if only a little. This adds “noise” to the visual signal which is hard to filter out. So Fox Walking’s a way of walking in which you keep your eyes on the same plane all the time.

Pretend you’re carrying a tray of very full glasses, and you don’t want to spill a drop. Once you’ve got this working, you can lose the tray…

A word of warning. It looks very weird to begin with, until it becomes more natural. Best practised without other people around so you don’t freak them out.

Ten minutes a day will change your life.

If you want to learn more, both the Wilderness Awareness School and the Reikes Center in California (where Jon’s now based), give classes. Find them at:


Living With The Kindle…

Now I’ve had my Amazon Kindle eBook for a few weeks, I’ve changed my opinion of it a little.

No, it’s still not a great reading experience. The flashing page turns drive me bananas. And the contrast is still poor. My favorite places to read are in bed and in the bath. When reading in bed, you need a really good strong light. And if you happen to turn to the other side, the slight drop in light level makes the Kindle almost unreadable. Gray on gray, not black on white.

I’ve found I can get it set up quite well in the bath. There’s a little fingernail brush in our bathroom that has a groove on the side that the Kindle just fits. That takes the screen above the level of the faucet I lean it against, so I can read “hands-free”. No danger of dropping it in the water (which I assume would be fatal). I just reach up and hit one of the Page Turn paddles when I need to.

Speaking of dunking it in water and other dangers, I’ve dropped the Kindle off the bed a couple of times. The flimsy battery cover came off, but otherwise it seemed no worse for the experience.

Where the Kindle really has advantages are in portability and lightness, battery life, and book purchasing. I’ve never run out of battery while reading – although once it wouldn’t let me download a book because it said the battery charge was too low to run wireless connectivity.

Portability. The lightness makes it convenient to carry.

Book purchasing is, as I said in my first impression, outstanding (at least when you’re within wireless range). The other day I wanted something new to read on the plane. So at the airport, I fired up the Kindle, switched on wireless and bought two books on my Amazon account. They were downloaded in about a minute and I was good to go.

No, I still don’t like the reading experience much. But the convenience of the device means I’ll put up with it as an acceptable compromise until a better screen comes along. I’ll buy more Kindle books – especially since the prices are so fair. Impulse book buying really works on this device.

Worth its weight in Gold?

One of the books I recommend that everyone who cares about text should read is Geoffrey Dowding’s “Finer Points in the Spacing and Arrangement of Type”. Dowding was a lecturer at the London School of Printing, and this little 85-page book is an “ocean in a teapot”.

You could always find it in a good bookstore. But if you want to read it, I suggest you hurry. It’s obviously gone out of print. Amazon has only second-hand copies available and the sellers want $81.23 a copy!

Its cover price was, I think, less than $15 when new. So I suggest you pop along to your local dead tree bookstore and see if you find a copy still lurking on a shelf somewhere…

I can understand paying $92 for a second-hand copy of Tinker and Paterson’s book, Legibility of Print. That’s been out of print for many decades. But I bought a second copy of “Finer points” new, just two or three years ago.

..and featuring Bert Keely on guitar!

One of my best friends at Microsoft is Bert Keely. I remember the first time I met Bert. He’d come up to Redmond to talk about a job working as a consultant on the eBooks project in 1998.

We spent an hour or two chatting together, and it was one of those meetings where you can feel the sparks of inspiration flying. After our talk, the execs in charge of the eBooks project asked me about Bert. Should they hire him fulltime? “Do whatever it takes to get him,” I said. “This guy is solid gold”.

I’ve never changed that first impression of Bert in the almost ten years I’ve known him. In that first month, we came up with ClearType. Bert had the clue as to how we could utilize unused resolution in LCD displays, I knew how to make it work using the Windows TrueType rasterizer – well, more accurately, I knew who the right people were to implement it. We recruited Greg Hitchcock and Mike Duggan into a “Skunkworks” project, the rest is history. Within a few days, we knew we had something special.

Up until then, the eBook project hadn’t had much credibility within the company, since it had no technology of its own. ClearType gave us “street cred”…Bert’s been a major driver in the TabletPC project since the beginning. He believes passionately that computers should be as portable and easy to use as paper.
That’s where our minds meet. I’m trying to make computer screens as good as paper for reading. Bert would like to make them great for both reading AND writing…

Bert is a GREAT guitar player. He plays in a Silicon Valley “three-car garage band” called the Flying Other Brothers. See them on YouTube, backing one of the legends of Woodstock, Country Joe McDonald (of Country Joe and the Fish), whose bitter-but-humorous anti-Vietnam war song, “Fixin’ to Die Rag” set the crowd on fire with lines like “Be the first one on your block to have your son come home in a box”.

See Bert and the band on:

I found out a secret Bert’s been hiding all these years, all the many times we’ve played music together – he also plays trumpet!

Guitar hero, multi-instrumentalist, technical genius, nice guy – don’t you just hate that?

Bill Hill as Qui-Gon Jinn in Star Wars meets South Park?

Maybe it’s the accent. Maybe it’s the beard and long hair. I have no idea. But I’m now in my second starring role in a South-Park style Web movie – this time as Qui-Gon Jinn, teacher of Obi-wan Kenobi (played by Bill Gates), and also starring Ray Ozzie as Senator Palpatine, Steve Sinofsky as Anakin Skywalker, and Steve Ballmer as Darth Maul.

Now showing on MSNvideos at:

I know no more than you. Presumably I get killed off by Darth Maul early in the action – do they know something I don’t?

Last time this happened was when a cartoonist “outed” me as MiniMicrosoft, the somewhat vituperative “mole” inside the company. Of course I’m not MiniMicrosoft – as I said at the time, I’ll never hide behind an alias. If I see something at Microsoft that I think needs fixed, I’ll tell the right person in email, with my name on it.

For the Force is with me…

ClearType: A technology with a limited shelf life – but still longer than David Berlow’s…

I’ve known type designer and font hinter David Berlow for many years. We first met in Boston in 1995 at the Spring Seybold publishing conference. I was the obligatory Microsoft sacrifice in a roomful of Macintosh users at the auto-da-fe known as the “Font Free-For-All”; David was the “moderator” – something of a misnomer, since anyone who knows David also knows “moderation” is not really his forte – he could start an argument in an empty room…

But I guess that was the point of the Font Free-For-All anyway; the attendees came to see blood – preferably Microsoft blood (it was the time of the Font Wars).

At this point, most of you will be scratching your heads and saying, “Fonts? People went to war about Fonts?”

A newspaperman once asked Scottish football manager Tommy Docherty,”Surely you don’t think football’s a life-and-death affair?” To which Docherty replied,”It’s more important than that!”

Many font people feel that way about fonts…

Q: What do you call two font experts in a room?
A: An argument…

Q: What do you call 12 font experts in a room?
A: You call 911…

(One day, perhaps, I’ll tell the behind-the-scenes story of the “Font Wars Truce” that led to OpenType, which began with about 12 Adobe and Microsoft font experts in a room…)

Anyway, David’s become a good friend over the years. His company, Font Bureau, does great work, and David’s one of the handful of really great “font hinters” in the world.

Writing on Roger Black’s blog (see link on this page) about fonts on the screen, rendering technologies etc., , David says:

“144 dpi is the first uncontested resolution at which all users will be satisifed exclusively by subpixel rendering to the smallest sizes, and that happens regardless of underlying “technology” i.e. at 144 dpi “greyscale” will be the thing users choose, because it adds no color at any size when defining what should be by definition, a monochrome definition.”

He’s talking about different anti-aliaising technologies, including ClearType.

Despite being one of its inventors, I can see a time when ClearType becomes obsolete. It solved a real problem of too-low display resolutions when we invented it about nine years ago, and I estimate it still has a long useful life in front of it. But it definitely has a limited lifespan. How long that will be depends on how quickly displays move towards higher resolution. That might take longer than anyone realizes. In fact, maybe a combination of ClearType and hardware resolution will get us where we need to be – in which case it could be around forever.

The human visual system has a vernier acuity of about 1/600th of an inch. We can’t see anything smaller than that. So printing on paper or viewing a screen with a resolution of 600 dots per inch is the most we need. The only reason high-end imagesetters for the print industry need higher resolutions (all the way up to 2500 dpi or thereabouts) is because of the “lossy” nature of the printing process itself – ink that spreads, paper that stretches, and so on.

One day we may have 600ppi screens, but we may never need to go that high. Display manufacturers have shown small screens with a resolution of 300ppi, and resolutions of ~200ppi are becoming common in the small screens used in cell phones, digital cameras and PDAs.

It’s not that these displays can’t be manufactured in large sizes. I have an IBM display in my office that’s 22 inches and change, and has a resolution of 204ppi, and I’ve had it for at least eight years. It still works perfectly, BTW – a tribute to its engineering – and I’m currently driving it with a Dell PC running Windows Vista.

The problem isn’t the manufacture – it’s the math that’ll kill you. Let me explain…

Most screens today are around 100ppi. To go from there to 200ppi isn’t a x2 jump in processing power required – it’s n-squared, or 4x (twice the number of pixels in each dimension). To go to 600ppi is 36x graphics processing. You can handle the graphics processing required for a small 200ppi screen, but a larger one is quite another story.

For instance, my 204ppi display – with a fast graphics card – will still only refresh at 13Hz (13 cycles per second). On an LCD display, that’s actually acceptable and usable. On a CRT it would be instant epilepsy… And don’t try watching video on it!

Why so slow? Well the screen has 3840 pixels x 2400 – about 9.2 megapixels. With 24-bit color, that takes 3 bytes per pixel. So we’re close to 28 Megabytes per screenful of pixel data. Now imagine you’re trying to refresh that even as slow as 60Hz (which you need for full-screen, full-motion video), and you’re up to a whopping 1.6Gb per second of graphics processing! You need a monster graphics card, and a graphics bus that won’t bottleneck data throughput.

ClearType helps a lot here. Since it uses the RGB sub-pixels, it effectively triples the resolution of the display you can address in one dimension. Of course, it does nothing in the other dimension (although later versions of the technology actually do some work on that), so it’s not a 3x resolution multiplier. What the true resolution multiplier is, I’ve no idea. People have made guesses and suppositions, but no-one really knows for sure because there’s no agreed way to work it out. However, it IS a significant benefit for most people.

Fact is, we need a major leap forward in graphics processing and driver technology to be able to support high-resolution displays at normal sizes. And it’s not just about the speed of the chips – it’s also about the power required, and the heat they generate. It’s no accident that all the high-power graphics cards on the market today have their own inbuilt fan.

Dell has made more strides in the area of high-resolution support than any other PC company. Dell shipped the first 133ppi display more than a decade ago, and then went on to ship 147ppi displays in their Inspiron series of laptops. I’ve been running one for many years. Dell did seem to have figured out how to drive that many pixels (1920 x 1200, or one-quarter the number in my IBM display) at an acceptable rate, although those laptops were pretty power-hungry. I always used to take a spare (huge) battery on a plane ride. And yes, the laptop ran pretty hot, too.

But therein lies my dispute with David. I’ve tried grayscale on that laptop, and it’s nowhere near as good as ClearType. The pixel’s still too big. Or is he suggesting that we all switch to monochrome displays but with the 3x (RGB) sub-pixel pattern in place? I can’t see that flying – we all like our color far too much.

I use ClearType even on my 204ppi display. You can still see the difference. And at that resolution, color fringing is completely gone.

As you increase in resolution from today’s ~100ppi towards 600ppi, you of course see a difference in clarity and sharpness. But in my view it’s not a linear change, it’s a flattening curve. The big improvement comes between 100 and 200ppi. After that, you’re in The Law of Diminishing Returns, where the rate of perceived improvement flattens out pretty dramatically, no matter how much more resolution you throw at the problem.

So here’s my contention: somewhere between 150 and 200ppi with ClearType is enough. We really don’t need to go farther; there’s little point. We could wait until there’s some new major breakthrough in graphics processing technology. That could happen, for example, by using a parallel graphics processor, with each core of the chip handling one segment of the display, if we can figure out a low-power technology and a way to run without a huge heat problem.

But 144ppi is still not quite good enough. Especially when you think beyond Latin-based languages to Japanese, Korean and Chinese, where even 144ppi still does not give you enough pixels at normal reading sizes of 9-13points to portray all the strokes of some of the more complex characters.

I suspect, given where most of our hardware is manufactured, that it will be the requirements of these languages which will drive high resolution on larger displays.

As an illustration of the heat problem, the Toshiba TabletPC on which I’m typing this is a convertible model; it doubles as a laptop. But that’s a real misnomer. During operation, it gets so hot you’d never put it near any area as sensitive as your lap. We’ve hit a limit in the technology that the hardware and driver guys have yet to solve.