Smoke Screens

Paying a visit to the towering, bloodcurdling Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton at the American Museum of Natural History remains a time-honored grade-school tradition. The first glimpse of that huge skull with steak-knife-sized teeth has seared itself indelibly into the memory banks of generations of thrilled children. With the addition of video displays to the Fossil Halls, though, poor old T. Rex loses top billing. Seemingly shoved to the side, he's become little more than a stage prop. Instead, children race to and cluster around the computer screens for virtual representations, poking at keys and fighting over the trackball, oblivious to the mighty remnants of a vanished world all around them. It's as if they don't trust their own powers of observation; the packaged electronic images are far more authentic to them. The universe is now an alluring array of pixels, quickly becoming more important than molecules. And this phenomenon is not exclusive to dinosaurs or to children: We've all had the familiar experience of taking so many pictures on vacation or spending so much time shooting video at a party that afterwards it seems as if we hadn't really been there. The screen lets us distance ourselves and become observers instead of participants. Composing the real into its representation supersedes enjoying it on its own terms.


T. Rex skeleton at the American Museum of Natural History in 1937 (left) and 2008 (right, photo: dinogirl/Flickr).

For designers, whose imagination and expertise allow screens to work their magic, this is both good and bad news. We might ask ourselves: is incorporating a video component into a project going to add another layer to a viewer's understanding, or is it only going to function as a visual magnet drawing a disproportionate share of attention? “Pixel dependent” used to refer specifically to software that uses screen pixels rather than vectors to create an image, but increasingly the term describes our daily lives. From the constant companionship of personal hand-held screens to the little TV screen in every new building's elevator or the annoying screen in the back of taxicabs (which, thankfully, you can turn off), screens are commonplace furniture of the modern designed environment.

Fans watch concerts through their small screens: at a RZA as Bobby Digital show (top, photo: Aram Bartholl) and Busta Rhymes in Berlin (photo: svenwerk/Flickr).

To be sure, screens represent an exciting frontier in today's ever-expanding multimedia design arena. They allow designers to explore narrative, type, image, color, and time in ways never before imagined. Many of us take for granted the ability to create, share, and watch very brief movies from very tiny mobile screens. The development of electronic ink means that soon a screen can be printed on any flat surface, opening up even more possibilities of format, context and function. Multimedia elements can contribute additional richness to exhibits or performances and provide a viewer with insight that can't be gained through real-world observation. Watching footage of the artist slinging enamel onto canvas brings Jackson Pollack's action-painting process vividly to life. And subtitled simultaneous broadcasts of opera performances projected on monitors offer translations to patrons of the arts so they can more fully appreciate the story unfolding before them. The screens flanking a concert stage could almost be considered the modern-day equivalent of opera glasses, by bringing the scenes closer to the audience instead of the other way around. Even live sporting events like the Super Bowl are arguably better experienced on screens.

All too often, however, screen images divert attention from the very things they show us. Would you pay $250 for a seat at Giants Stadium to ignore the Rolling Stones onstage? Put that way, it seems ludicrous, yet that is exactly what many fans do: go to a concert and spend the entire event with their eyes glued to the Jumbotron. When the show is concurrently playing on a monitor, everyone unable to resist the lure of the screen sees exactly the same thing—framed, presented and served up on a platter. And we're so used to those screens that most of us eventually give in to them, exhausted by the continual effort needed to look away.

Hot apps: Virtual Zippo Lighter (left) and iFlame for iPhone.

Weirdest of all is what happens when the (real) band walks off and the audience wants an encore. No one carries cigarette lighters anymore, since the advent of near-universal bans on public smoking. Instead, fans cue up images of waving flames on their thousands of iPhones and hold these cold pixel fires up to the now-blank stadium screen (or, more likely, the screen that now blasts advertising for Bud Light), creating a poignant postmodern scene that definitely loses something in translation. Fire burns hot, after all, but no one gets scorched with an iZippo.

Years ago a well-meaning relative gave my toddler a kid's computer program by a company disturbingly named Comfy. Its “Joy of Music” game features Boom-Boom the drum, or rather a screen image of a drum and drumsticks. By learning to manipulate the special Comfy keyboard, a child can “play” the “drum.” I found this inexplicable. Parental headaches notwithstanding, isn't it better to buy a real drum and let the kid whale on it? Drumming is a physical as well as a musical experience, and like so many other parts of life is better when it's not pixel dependent.

As long as screens perform a unique function by giving us something we can't get from our 3-D world (think of the alternate universes found in video games, where we can fly and battle and drive cars all over the sidewalk without feeling pain or dying), we're safe. When a screen representation feels realer than real, we find ourselves in some scary territory. In our day and age, the image—less risky, more convenient, for sale, downloadable, and deletable—is often preferable to the real thing. Now there's a bloodcurdling thought.