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May 12, 2009

Digital Interfaces and Analog Eyeballs

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

"It's exactly twelve forty-eight" a teen-aged guy announced after glancing at his digital wrist watch in 1985. This might have been followed by a trace of smug smile directed toward those of us wearing those old fashioned analog watches with hour and minute hands.

Of course the time he announced wasn't really exact, especially if the display only provided hours and minutes perhaps along with a pulsating seconds indicator. Even assuming that the watch was set exactly, it couldn't show how far into the displayed minute actual time had moved.

What I described above is from a half-remembered incident. But the prestige of digital displays was plenty real during the 1980s when personal computers moved from rarity to commonplace.

Another digital affectation was the digital speedometer display for automobiles. If I remember correctly, the first American car sporting one was the Oldsmobile (correct me if I'm mistaken). There it would sit, centered at the top of the instrument panel. The miles per hour numbers were large -- perhaps as much as an inch tall. As one drove, the number would keep changing as speed varied. I once drove a rental car with this feature in the Bay Area and found myself annoyed, not impressed.

Apparently potential buyers weren't attracted to the space age gizmos either, because they never caught on. Though in the late 1990s when I was in France, I happened to rent a Citroën Picasso (something like a crossover SUV) that had a digital speedometer. Instead of being in front of the driver, the Picasso's was mounted at the center of the car at the top of the dash. This made it more difficult to monitor and the distraction level was heightened because my eyes had to stray even farther from the road than in the case of the Olds.

For me, the problem with digital speedometers is that they are distracting; every time the number changes (which is pretty often, even when cruising), I'm temped to take my eyes off the road to see what it says.

Analog speedometers, the kind found in most cars, are positional. Small, seemingly random changes tend to be tuned out by the viewer. There is far less chance of unwanted distraction. (Another vague memory is of having read that some airplane control panels were designed so that the normal instrument position of the analog pointer would be up, at the 12 o'clock position. This allowed deviations to be spotted immediately on a quick scan of the panel. This ergonomic feature would be impossible if an instrument panel relied totally on digital readouts. And yes, in actuality warning lights would be added today, much like on instrument panels of modern cars.)

As for wrist watches, most people don't need to know the precise time, so analog timepieces are handier to use than digital watches. A glance is good enough to spot the approximate time and a little positional reckoning indicates relationships to other times ("Hmm, about two hours till I have to pick up the kids"). This might have to do with human evolution and our well-developed spatial sensing. Digital watches require the mind to shift over to numbers before such estimates can be made. Nowadays, if one wants an accurate time down to the minute, a glance at a cell phone screen answers that question.

One setting where digital has largely displaced analog is alarm clocks -- especially those incorporating radios. Digital clocks are also commonly found here and there around the house on places such as stoves and microwave ovens. The little Bose radio/CD player in our living room also has a digital clock. In these instances, digital wins over analog because the displays are more compact than clock dials.



posted by Donald at May 12, 2009


I got my first digital watch free with a tube of toothpaste. Ever since, I've resented the idea that I might pay for one. Happily all my mobile phones have been free.

Posted by: dearieme on May 12, 2009 4:25 PM

I can't stand digital timepieces. They are annoying and usually unattractive. As for cars, I've only experience the digital speedometer once, on a Celica Supra. Very annoying, as you had to focus too long at the dash to see the speed. You might make a similar case for the radio. With the old ones, you simply glanced at the bandwidth indicator to see approximately where your dial was, then you could look back onto the road as you fiddled with the tuner. Now, some radios require too much attention to the read-outs. Probably unsafe. Putting minimal controls on the steering wheels has helped immensely.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on May 12, 2009 10:28 PM

As for wrist watches, most people don't need to know the precise time

Well, things tend to start and open at precise times. And I'd much rather know what time it is than what time it's half past or about to be.

Posted by: Noumenon on May 13, 2009 10:01 AM

My Movado analog watch (for which I need to get another battery, come to think of it) has the most minimalist face design possible, with no numbers at all. It works just fine.

Posted by: Peter on May 13, 2009 11:27 AM

Around 1976 or so my folks bought me a new alarm clock. It had a digital display, but an analog (AC motor) movement! It was designed to resemble a then-costly LED clock. It had sheaves of little black cards with number cutouts (stencils) which it flipped into position one by one. An incandescent light bulb lit the numbers from behind and a frosted window in the front of the clock let you see the glowing digits while obscuring the shafts and gears. To set the alarm you rotated a little dial on the back-- the main display/movement showed only the current time. The noisemaker was an electromechanical buzzer with a particularly harsh tone.

I wish I had preserved that clock-- it would be real collector's item now.

Posted by: Mark S. on May 13, 2009 12:52 PM

Okay, I'll be the odd one. I was analog until a couple of years ago. But I could not resist the lure of my big, ugly, $65 Casio with 'Atomic Time'; meaning it receives the WWV signal from Colorado. It's just cool to have time to the second on my wrist. I use my analogs now for when I 'dress up' and miss my Casio while I'm wearing them.

Agree entirely on digital speedometers though.

Posted by: mudmarine on May 13, 2009 7:38 PM

mudmarine: I've got one of those Casio watches, too. They're really terrific. But the face on my watch is analog. It also has a little digital screen at the bottom for various functions which I never use.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on May 13, 2009 8:52 PM

Somewhere I read about a digital clock that displayed things like "Just gone half-past five", "nearly quarter to six" etc.

Posted by: intellectual pariah on May 14, 2009 8:03 PM

Anyone interested in this might want to check out the dashboard of a Honda Civic 2006 or later. The whole front end of the car is designed to make it invisible--the view goes straight from dashboard to road. And prominently displayed in the driver's field of vision is a huge, blue digital speedometer.

I quite like it. Took a while to get used to having no visible hood, but the speedometer I liked from the first.

Posted by: Anchovy on May 15, 2009 6:52 PM

GPS's display speed, time, and location digitally. Some show heading digitally, some as an analog display.

Posted by: Thomas Bailey on May 25, 2009 6:09 AM

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