We explorers of science normally look to the future for our inspiration. What fantastic, new inventions will arise as the clock ticks ever forward? Will humanity finally break our bonds of Earth and travel the cosmos? What will the next new breakthrough be that takes an idea out of the domain of ‘magic’, and put it into the pockets of consumers? These are the questions I pander in the late hours of the night. That, or I’m just procrastinating beyond belief.
Anyhow, sometimes a moment of the past emerges that gives my love for innovation a kick. Sometimes the brilliance so simple, that I often wonder how many other simple solutions to difficult problems lay out there for one person to just stumble upon and change the world. The story of one such moment goes something like this.
In the 1990’s, computer monitors were not what they were today. They were these boxy, CRT displays. Computers were quickly becoming something that everyone would come to personally own, and so engineers naturally began to think of how they would be used.
Around this time, LCD monitors began to gain traction in the market. Although they were much more sleek than CRT’s, they still didn’t have the resolution that today’s monitors do. In fact, they contained a resolution of about 640×480 pixels (sometimes a bit more). This usually resulted in a 15 inch monitor that contained about 50 pixels per inch – or PPI.
Around 1995, a team at Microsoft was tasked to take the act of reading on a computer screen, and bring it up to par with the joy of reading your favourite book. For those of you who love to read, you’ll often find that you almost get ‘absorbed’ into the text. Your eyes have no trouble grabbing the authors thoughts from a page, and sending them full speed into your own mind. The big question was, what makes reading a book so effortless? After much thought, the team realized that the ‘resolution’ and clarity of a page in the real world is really what eased the eyes and allowed the reader to read comfortably.
Now, with the displays we have today, this would be a piece of cake. As most devices are at least 1080p or more, text generally appears rather sharp and easy to digest visually. You can expect most displays to be anywhere from 90 to 400 or more pixels per inch. 400 PPI is so high, that some would argue the human eye can’t tell the difference once you cross the 300 PPI threshold.
However, in this age of low resolution screens, a breakthrough was needed to bring the ease and wonder of reading to the ever increasing users of computers. Unfortunately for this team, they were stuck in an age where the resolution to accomplish this feat simply didn’t exist. Technology had not caught up to their desires, or so they thought! In turns out, the technology was just hiding in plain sight.
As you may well be aware, pixels on an LCD monitor consist of 3 individual vertical bars of colours. They are: red, green and blue. The team discovered that if they could write drivers to control these sub-pixel colour bars, they could effectively double or triple (depending on this theories effectiveness) the resolution of their relatively low quality displays! This is known as sub-pixel rendering. If you’re a gamer, you may recognize this from a menu item in the graphics tab of games known as ‘anti-aliasing’. Anti-aliasing smoothens objects on the screen to make them appear sharper to the human eye.
What the team did was use these less-than-pixel colours to pad a black interior in order to boost the resolution of fonts. Here is an example of what that would look like up close:
Obviously, at this resolution, we’re not fooling anyone. In fact, it doesn’t look clear at all. However, if the font was say, the size of the text you’re reading right now – the human eye has a hard time seeing anything but the black. It automatically ‘merges’ the colours into an illusion of clarity! The team announced this discovery in 1998 and it was patented. It was named ClearType.
When I first read this, I was utterly blown away. Here I am, a programmer, who would have heavily relied on this technology had I been writing code 15 years ago. Such a simple minded solution lifted the seemingly impossible restraints of technology, and allowed textual information on a computer to be easily consumed by everyone. They had invented sharp fonts, just like the font you’re reading right now!
It is amazing to think that everything we use today, relies on the ingenious thoughts of the past. To often, it’s easy to get comfortable and forget this simple notion. If we as innovators look to the future to populate our dreams, we must not forget that it is in fact the past, that permits our imagination to enter the world of reality. Soon enough, our present will be that past. In fact, maybe one day, we will look back at the innovations of today, and find inspiration that will help overcome the interesting obstacles of tomorrow.
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