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The Electronic Broadsheet


Recent advances in display technology include the development of both large and flat displays: CRT technology is approaching laser printer resolution; flat screen technologies are making rapid strides, mostly due to the popularity of portable displays and the perceived attractiveness of a large flat screen television. Such technologies enable one to rethink the way in which electronic information is accessed.

In this thesis I discuss how large computer displays will change the human interface of computer applications. I have been using a broadsheet-sized color monitor as the primary display on my workstation for more than a year now. Through the X11 window system, the screen gives me access to all normal computer applications, e.g., electronic mail, word processors, drawing programs, and games--lots of them! Using a generous programming editor window, I developed a news presentation system that takes advantage of the screen's similarities with a newspaper front page.

The display has four times more pixels than an average X11 workstation, and it is used differently. The difference cannot be measured in square centimeters only; when using the large display, screen space management shifts emphasis from screen area conservation to screen overview. Suddenly the peripheral vision becomes a communication channel [Mollitor 90] , and new metaphors become available for interacting with the computer. See figure 2. One of these metaphors, the newspaper metaphor, is discussed in detail in this thesis.

The hypothesis in this project is that large screens are better for electronic newspapers than smaller ones, and that they are increasingly competitive with newsprint.

1.1 Digital News

News has been available to consumers in digital form for some time now . On-line systems like Compuserve offer news from several wire services, and many newspapers provide subscription access through a modem. Some of these systems also let users specify topics of interest to offer a certain degree of personalization. Still, most people prefer to receive the paper version on the doorstep every morning instead of reading news off a screen. This project applies state-of-the-art technology to see if it is possible for an electronic newspaper to start competing with paper.

There are many reasons why paper-based newspapers are preferred to their electronic counterparts. The paper-based version is cheaper, it's easier to fold over a breakfast table, and it's illustrated. The front page gives readers an instant overview over the most important stories, and the headlines make it possible to scan large amounts of information quickly. Paper-based news distribution has a long tradition and centuries of experience stand behind today's formats. Pages, headlines, columns, and fonts have been tuned in form and function. They all are a part of a user-friendly and universally accepted product. I believe the newspaper metaphor is highly applicable to large screen interaction in general, a topic which will come up throughout this thesis.

Current screen-based news distribution lacks many of these properties. Limitations in display technology have barred the presentation of a full-sized page with attractive text and images of acceptable legibility. This is about to change. Developments in screen technology and computer hardware have given us color displays with resolution up to 2000 lines and a screen area as big as a newspaper broadsheet-sized page. These features enable the computer display to rival paper for the first time and present an opportunity to present full-size on-screen electronic newspapers.

The single biggest obstacle for computer displays to compete with paper is the physical properties of the media. Paper is a very flexible medium that can be folded, torn and eaten. No known display technology approaches these properties--even if we extrapolate ten or twenty years ahead. Therefore, in order to compete with paper, an electronic newspaper needs additional functionality in areas in which paper cannot compete, e.g.:

* personalization

* dynamics

* user participation

* navigation.

The latter one, navigation, is essential to the implemented presentation system. Little work has previously been done in this area and I examine navigation in virtual space diligently.

1.2 Context

Over the past years the Electronic Publishing Group in the MIT Media Laboratory has been conducting a series of media experiments that explore personalized newscasts. These projects are described in [Lippman 86] , [Lippman, Bender 87], and [Bender, Chesnais 88] and are collectively referred to as "Newspeek". The most recent project, "Newspace"--the name is borrowed from the virtual space in which articles are displayed-- is an attempt take advantage of advances in display technology to create a scalable electronic newspaper [Bender et al. 91]. The project addresses news gathering, manipulation, and presentation; The Electronic Broadsheet is an implementation of a presentation module for a large display under the Newspace project. See project outline in figure 3.

Personalized news filters select news according to the reader's interests and levels of knowledge. The selected news is passed over to a display application that is responsible for formatting the news and presenting it to the reader. The presentation is sensitive to the preferences of the reader and the display equipment available. A major part of this thesis project has been to implement the presentation system for a broadsheet-sized monitor.

Other projects [Hoffert, Gretsch 91] [Erickson, Salomon 91] , in addition to previous Newspeek projects, have also taken news in digital form and presented it screen-based newspapers. The innovation in this project is the size and nature of the screen; I explore the impact large screens have on human-computer interaction in general and especially electronic newspapers.

1.3 Definition of Terms

This report does not use a difficult language and the concepts and ideas presented are easy to grasp by people familiar with newspapers and computers. However, there are some terms that need to be clarified. Some are key concepts that borrow their names from an everyday vocabulary with no clear definition, while others are terms introduced in this thesis. Synonyms used throughout the thesis are listed in parentheses after the terms.

The Electronic Broadsheet implements the user interface of an electronic newspaper--readers (reader = user) read it directly on the computer display (display = screen = monitor) instead of on paper. The newspaper consists of articles (article = story). Each article is made up of one or more of the following: text, still pictures and video sequences. An article has a headline, various tags (e.g. the name of the author), and one or more columns containing text and/or illustrations. A video sequence contains several picture frames that are being displayed continuously in sequence at the request of the user.

The primary display for the Electronic Broadsheet is a color display with a resolution of 2048*2048 pixels (2048*2048 display = 2k display xbb 2000-line display). Before articles can be displayed on the screen they must be rendered into pixmaps that are 8 bits per pixel (bpp) deep. The monitor displays the pixmaps at 100 dots per inch (dpi). The size of the monitor is comparable to the newspaper broadsheet, i.e., the format used by the western elite press.

Pages in The Electronic Broadsheet are laid out in a newspace--a concept that also lends its name to the group of projects in which The Electronic Broadsheet is a presentation module. When referred to as the project Newspace I capitalize the word, else it refers to the virtual two-dimensional space in which news articles are laid out. The secondary display provides the reader with a map of the newspace. The 2k monitor pans over the newspace to display a selected page.

The resolution of the secondary screen is 1280x1024--referred to a 1K monitor. The different sections of The Electronic Broadsheet occupy one page each in different areas of the newspace.

1.4 Organization of this Thesis

In the first part of this thesis report I analyze some merits and flaws of the newspaper format in general, and particularly the broadsheet format used by the western elite press. I also describe my hypothetical ideal newspaper in an imaginary world with a plethora of digital transmission channels, a surplus of processing power and elevated display technology.

The second part of the thesis describes resources currently available for digital news manipulation and presentation, and how The Electronic Broadsheet was implemented under the given constraints. It is far from the perfect product, but it offers some features of the ideal newspaper.


1.1 - Digital News
1.2 - Context
1.3 - Definition of Terms
1.4 - Organization of this Thesis

The Electronic Broadsheet - 30 JUN 95
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