This is to suggest that the "Big Picture" concept for fighter jet cockpit displays be applied to the desks of knowledge workers and students. Instead of a cumbersome arrangement of multiple screens, there would be one large flat panel display the width of the desk and extending up to, or above, the height of the seated operator. In an open plan office cubicle, the display screen would cover the entire panel above the desk. In a learning commons the screens would be wall mounted just above desk height and could be used for a group presentation or by an individual, using different furniture configurations. In an large one person office, or an office shared by a small team, the screens could be used by individuals and for small group presentations.
Big Picture Cockpit
During the 1980s fighter aircraft cockpits evolved from having individual analogue gauges, to a number of multifunction computer displays. Chief Cockpit Designer for McDonnell Douglas, Eugene Adam, then proposed a "Big Picture" display, with just one large display screen taking up the whole panel in front of the pilot (Tactical cockpits-the coming revolution, 1991). This concept is only now being implemented in the latest generation aircraft, with the availability of suitable screens and the need to display more information. I suggest the same approach be applied on the desktop for knowledge workers.
Big Picture for Software Development
Last week I suggested converting the computer labs at the ANU Research School of Computer Science into a Learning Commons on the ground floor of the Computer Science and Information Technology Building (CSIT) at the Australian National University. This would require removing the desktop computers so the fixed benches they are on could be replaced with more flexible furniture. My colleagues pointed out that the students would then have to reply on laptops and tablet computers, which may be good for general education but do not have a screen big enough for serious software development.
The common practice is to provide software developers, and other knowledge workers, with one or more large LCD displays. When I visited Google Sydney in 2009, I noticed the technical staff had 30 inch monitors. This is about as large as a single monitor can be and still comfortable for the average person to use.
The 30 inch display is the largest monitor Barco sell for Air Traffic Control (ATC) systems. ATC previously used larger CRT displays, but the smaller screens have better ergonomics.
A common set-up today is three monitors for a larger wrap-around console, but the width is still limited. See drawing 27, "Classic Consoles for Man and Woman" in "The Measure of Man and Woman: Human Factors in Design" by Alvin R . Tilley of Henry Dreyfuss Associates (Wiley, 2001). These are not technical limits of the display technology, but of the human body. There is no point in making a screen which is so big the user can't see the edges of it, nor can the screen be so large it makes the user feel uncomfortable.
Some very specialized set-ups have more LCD screens above the row at desk height, starting with an extra one in the centre. This might be used for a financial trader's desk, or the operator of an industrial plant or a military system. However this arrangement is cumbersome for an ordinary office.
Virtual Wrap-around for the Big Picture
One option would be to make use of the large LCD panels now being made for digital TV. The current "sweet spot", for low mass production prices, is around 50 inches, with these now available for under $1,000. Current LCD LED TVs are mostly designed for 1080p video mode, with a screen resolution of 1920 × 1080 pixels, but 4320p Ultra High Definition Television (UHDTV) would use 7680 × 4320 pixels.
Normally a large flat screen would not be considered suitable for a user to sit at, as the outer edges of the screen would be hard to see, which is why a wrap-around console with the two outer panels angled in is normally used. However, the outer edges of the image on the large screen could be modified to emulate a wrap around console. In this mode the central portion of the screen would display normally, but anything toward the edges would be enlarged for easier viewing. This would give a slightly immersive effect (which could be enhanced with 3D glasses).
A 50 inch, or larger, screen would be difficult to simply stand on a desk. However, the screen could be mounted on a wall, or partition, just above desk height. A 5o Inch diagonal screen, with a bezel, is about 1m wide, which would provide a suitable separation for operator stations where space is a premium, such as a learning commons, trading room or military operations centre.
A 50 inch or larger screen could also be used for a presentation to a small group, which is not something which can be done as well on a wrap-around, faceted display. In the learning commons, the walls could be equipped with screens just above desk height. These could be used for small group work, with the participants seated at a board-room table, or standing. A smaller table could be used at the same screen for individual work.
No special hardware would be required to drive the screens. The students could use software with their laptops for group activities on the wall screens.