Higher resolutions = proportional revolution in UI

76,800. That’s the number of pixels a UI designer controls at any one time on a 320 x 240 screen – currently the most common display resolution on mid-range handsets. Increase that to 800 x 480 (the resolution found on devices such as the Nokia N900 and Google Nexus One) and the number of pixels increases 5x to 384,000. Any way you look at it, that’s a lot more design work.

Chipset manufacturers like Intel, NVIDIA, Marvell, Qualcomm and TI are all demonstrating impressive graphics capabilities in their core platforms, tempting UI designers with the ever greater pixel density, higher frame rates, support for 3D and – increasingly – the ability to run multiple displays simultaneously.

Paul Chen and Sandra Peterson of NVIDIA provided an interesting insight into the kind of product categories which are emerging in response to these new graphics capabilities. Larger form factor tablets are an obvious segment, but also products capable of running dual displays simultaneously, such as a mobile phone sharing content with the home TV system. Also, smart wireless boxes which grab video content from the web and make it available within the home entertainment environment.

One of the major stumbling blocks here is battery life. Displays are by far the largest single consumer of power on most mobile devices and typically more advanced graphics capabilities go hand-in-hand with reduced battery life. However, NVIDIA is among the chipset manufacturers investing in power optimisation techniques, doing everything possible to shutdown the processor during any idle moment, thereby reducing power consumption.

The topic of abstracting display size from the physical form factor the mobile device came up in several conversations today, ranging from design consultancies to software developers and chipset companies. This was one of our Manifesto statements (no. 9) for the December 2009 MEX Conference.

The Manifesto statement read: “We believe the size limitations of physical screens and keyboards are constraining innovation in form factors and the virtualisation of these elements will be made possible by a multi-platform approach to design.”

However, after discussions today, I am starting to re-evaluate the practical potential of this approach. While the concept remains logical and valid, I am yet to see a practical example of the kind of eyewear, pico-projectors or screen sharing technology which make this a reality.

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