Why Two Screens Are Better Than One

Gizmodo leaked a video yesterday showing Microsoft’s Courier, a dual panel touch screen (+ stylus) computer that is drawing obvious comparisons to the currently non-existent Apple iTablet. I mean there is an unhealthy amount of speculation going on trying to guess at what Apple’s next move will be and the Courier provides, if anything, a brief distraction from that. But it does raise some interesting UI points that Apple may already be considering. Not one screen, but two.

Courier, dual screen tablet computer from Microsoft
Photo: Gizmodo

Perhaps the folks at Pioneer Labs (a team within Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices unit) were peeking at recent Apple’s patent filing (deliberately dorky drawings which are half-wireframe, half-police sketch) which many have speculated represents their design for the iTablet:
patent for dual screen
Notice the dual screen concept. Just for perspective, this was their original patent filing for the iPhone, next to the actual thing.
the original patent for the iPhone, and how it turned out
Credit: Unwired Review

So it is in this context that we must remember that Courier is just a concept piece wrapped in an enigma shrouded in vapor. There has been no release date, no evidence of production, and for all we know, it could cost $12,500 retail. (What, did somebody say Surface?)
Courier

In any case, what is noteworthy about Courier is that it makes a really good case for the dual screen environment as optimal for reading, and by extension, for e-books and e-readers. Reading on the Nintendo DS
The Nintendo DS has been doing this for some time.

Of course, we had to start somewhere, and right now the Kindle and the iPhone are, well, “somewhere”. The iPhone is admirably performing many tasks, one of which is displaying books and reading material, which it does somewhat grudgingly. I have two hesitations reading on my iPhone: I can’t really read while I’m fearing for my battery life, and the screen size is just too small to be luxurious. I want reading books and long articles to be a pleasure and not simply super-convenient. The single screen iPhone today as a reading platform just isn’t going to do to the book publishing industry the same thing the iPod did to the music industry.

And the Kindle, well, every time I look at it I think of my first Palm or my first iPod (both of which I still have): dull, monochromatic, and awfully low res.

We Are Not Cyclops

When it comes to screens, more, in this case, really is better. I recently upgraded my home office setup to include a second monitor, and by golly, the doubling of screen real estate, while not exactly doubling my productivity (studies show a 20-30% increase in productivity, whatever that means), sure gives me a lot more breathing room and I find myself spending less time moving windows out of the way and manipulating the furniture, and more time doing what I’m doing.

But it’s not just about sheer number of pixels at your disposal. I think there’s something psychologically useful about the actual separation of the total area into two regions, left and right, that allows us to take advantage of peripheral, ambient information. It’s almost like the second screen is a big margin that gives the main focal area a needed dose of breathing room.

Maneesh Agrwawala, a “Computer Vision Technologist” who just won a 2009 MacArthur Genius Grant, elaborated on the benefits of a dual screen approach in a 2008 paper (and video) called “Navigation Techniques for Dual-Display E-Book Readers”. (Credit on the paper also goes to Nicholas Chen, François Guimbretière, Morgan Dixon, Cassandra Lewis.) They made the observation that when we read (especially longer pieces) we tend to flip back to a previous page to refer back to a character or name or concept from before, and I think the visual memory of where that information was positioned on the visual field is helpful in recall. Which is why two opposing screens that are framed separately (rather than simply dividing one monolithic screen) makes cognitive sense to our modern brains, which have grown up in a culture of the codex. The “page” (or, as I like to call it, the “unit of reading”) that we just read is a convenient glance away if we need to refer back to it, instead of completely out of our field of vision in the ether somewhere requiring me to find some button or other to get it back.
One monolithic screen
One monolithic screen = bad

But my biggest argument for a dual display e-reader is really an intimacy issue. Having two screens allows you to shield what you’re reading from the person sitting next to you, and helps bring the act of reading back to a private experience, where you can cuddle up and luxuriate with the words, just you and the author, and get lost in another world.

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