N the daily business of print journalism, losing
sight of the big picture is not just a metaphorical expression. It
is a very real experience for thousands of graphic artists and page
designers working on computer screens, zooming in to look at the
details of an image and zooming out to look at the overview.
The same is true for anybody browsing a map on the Internet.
Click on the street you want to look up and the neighborhood
vanishes. Click again to view the neighborhood, and the street
shrinks to a fine line that is barely visible. To see the map
clearly in your head, you have to switch back and forth between the
two views. It is an annoyance that reflects the limitations of the
standard computer screen.
To get around that limitation, engineers at the Palo Alto
Research Center (formerly Xerox (news/quote)
PARC) are designing a display that would allow computer users to
focus on one part of an image without losing the overview. Looking
at a city map, for example, the user would be able to get a close-up
of an outlet mall and view the mall's location within the larger
township at the same time.
The display consists of a flat-panel monitor embedded within a
larger rectangular screen made of foam. A projector installed behind
the user projects a low-resolution image of the content onto the
screen surface. The monitor at the heart of the screen displays the
section of the image that the user wants to see in detail.
Together, the projection and the high-resolution view on the
monitor form a large, seamless picture presenting overview as well
as detail. The user can move the picture around to bring any part of
it into the area of focus, meaning the flat-panel display.
Dr. Patrick Baudisch, who led the design of the display and the
software that makes it work, said the technology was intended for
professionals who have to work with documents too large to fit on
the standard computer screen. That includes chip designers, graphic
artists and air traffic controllers.
In studies at the Palo Alto Research Center, users compared Dr.
Baudisch's focus-plus-context screen with two other display systems.
The first was a regular computer screen on which users could zoom
and pan images by mouse clicks. The second was a configuration of
two monitors placed side by side — one for detail and the other for
"The users reported that they could work faster using the focus-
plus-context screen," Dr. Baudisch said. "In one experiment, in
which they played a video game, the users made less errors when
using our screen compared to when they used the others."
George Robertson, a senior scientist at Microsoft (news/quote)
Research and an expert on focus-plus-context visualization, said the
research center's technology offered a way to get many of the
benefits of high-resolution wall-size screens at a much lower cost.
"Their studies show that people are able to take advantage of
information in the periphery, even when it is at a substantially
lower resolution," Mr. Robertson said.
In addition to the more obvious applications, the Palo Alto
researchers expect the screen to be used for videoconferencing,
classroom teaching and for making 3-D video games more