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How Big is Big Enough? Projectors Vs Monitor Displays for the Conference Room, Classroom

Traditional presenting was typically one person presenting to many. Before projectors and monitors there were overheads and 35mm slides. Formal presenting is still as popular as ever, but today's technologies allow sophisticated collaboration, as well as other methods of communicating such as video conferencing. It has been said that companies, and schools have not adapted to this changing world.


In 1998 I published an article on the web titled "The Art of Communicating Effectively" on my old Powerpointers website.  Much has changed since then.  Technology has given us new tools, allowed us greater freedom and the ability to communicate even more effectively.  But - there are things to be done in order to take full advantage.

Therefore, today we tackle what I'll call Rules of the Road: 4/6/8 vs Equivalent Visibility:
Determining how big a display is needed in a conference room, classroom or huddle space

I recently read a white paper titled Display Size Matters (more on that later), discussing whether the displays we use for collaboration, presentation, teaching and conferencing are allowing us to achieve maximum productivity.

The short answer in that white paper is:  No! There is definitely an issue with the size of displays being used in many/most situations.

A major issue that the paper addressed, the one I'm taking up here - is that in many, if not most cases:

Many of the displays we are using today, are just too small to meet the needs of people collaborating in conference rooms, open spaces,  classrooms and "tech-forward" hubs.

Now, before we get started, I'm a projector guy.  So naturally, talking about bigger displays gets me pumped up.  I write about and review business and education projectors (home theater ones too).  I should note that as a "projector guy," on the home theater side I'm always picking on those "tiny LCD TVs" as I like to call them:  "Sure, a 37" LCD TV is a perfect size for the powder room."   Or you just got a 55" - great in the kitchen..."  or "Real movie and sports viewing starts at 100 inches diagonal!!!"  So it shouldn't surprise you that I got real interested when reading a technical paper about  about how we really need bigger displays in business and educational settings.

It is a long and technical white paper, the problem therefore is that it takes some real effort to slug through all the science.

I thought I would make an effort to discuss the practical aspects of that paper, and apply some of my own perspective, to create a shorter, more "readable" look at the issues the white paper raised.  Let's get started!

In simpler times, communicating effectively to groups - small and large, was often a matter of one person addressing many - Powerpoint, Harvard Graphics, etc.  In those oldest of times (say pre-1990), the visual aids used were either overheads or 35mm slides (and handouts).  And many of these "presentations" were primarily one person addressing many.  Overheads and slides may have pretty much gone the way of 8-track tapes and cars with carburetors, but if anything we are presenting and collaborating in many ways previously not done.

The rise of video conferencing and especially collaboration, causes us to revisit the rules of the road in terms of Effective Communications.

In as few words as possible:  Most companies and individuals are not choosing the right equipment for effective collaboration - or for that matter, successful video conferencing, because for the most part, over the last 10-15 years, we haven't rethought what is really needed.

The old rules that applied primarily to formal presenting, don't work well for collaboration and conferencing.

The white paper (titled:  Display Size Matters) raises the question of:  Why don't we apply what we know about how far to sit from our computers, to the world of collaboration and conferencing?

It's easy to see what's wrong:

Look at your computer screen.  If a laptop, you are probably sitting with your eyeballs less than 2 feet away.  If a desktop computer, the industry tells us that your typical screen size is 21" diagonal, and that normal seating distance is 28" from eyeball to screen.

At those screen sizes and distances you can read those spreadsheets, emails and documents.

Shouldn't the information being discussed in a typical collaborative meeting be just as easy to read?

If only that was so!

Today, its rare that people collaborating are all close enough to the display being used, to be able to read the numbers on that spreadsheet - or easily read a word document, or an engineering diagram or other "non-presentation" documents.   We're talking point sizes on documents in the 9 to 14 points.

Try a Test:

Print out a spreadsheet or email or internal document.  Set it up somewhere, and stand 5-6 feet from it.  

Read it out loud!  The sound you are now hearing is silence because at 5-6 feet the type is simply too small for you to read (without binoculars).

Now if that was a typical Powerpoint slide, instead of 9-14 point text, you'd have titles that are typically 36-60 points, 24-36 point body text.  Those sizes of type would be easily readable at 5-6 feet.

Sadly, many if not most of us, when collaborating at today's companies, simply can't read a lot of what is being discussed, because we all can't sit close enough to a smaller display to effectively view the content.  That is no way to maximize productivity!

Below we'll explore what the common "rule," called 4/6/8, is, and why it isn't serving us as well as it should.  The white paper discusses a new rule to replace 4/6/8, called Equivalent Visibility, which I'll discuss as well.  The bottom line is in many cases, those responsible for AV within organizations aren't aware that for successful collaboration we need bigger displays than many organizations are choosing.  My own take is that the Equivalent Visibility rule is more realistic than 4/6/8.

Rethinking display size in a collaboration world

When I first got involved with presentation products - back in the mid '80's presentations were the dominant form of business communicating involving groups.

Even today, there are millions of individuals getting up each day, in front of a group, and presenting - or lecturing - the audience on some topic or another.  In small rooms, it was primarily overhead projectors in use.  In large rooms, 35mm slides, and now projectors rule.


Today, more and more meetings - or "gatherings" are no longer "one addressing many", but rather multiple people sharing information with each other in real time.

While the small monitor/conference room image above may be adequate for a Powerpoint presentation, there's no way people sitting toward the back of that table would be able to read small, or and perhaps some medium sized type - sizes typically used when collaborating!

In the classroom, it's students presenting their work, not just teachers teaching.  It could be by sharing documents, but one could also include video conferencing into that category.  Oh not everyone in the room may be "presenting," but it's no longer just Powerpoint, or similar - pre-prepared presentations, optimized for the "one addressing many" approach.

Small type presenting

Large display surfaces are needed for collaboration so all can read the content

Rather, today, collaboration means someone putting up a spreadsheet onto the screen that people discuss, and build on.

And it's not just passive.  Thanks to first smart boards, and now interactive projectors and other interactive displays, we're modifying those documents in real time, saving them, printing them, transferring them.  We can even work on documents from multiple physical locations, at the same time, often in conjunction with video or phone conferencing.

The content we collaborate on can cover quite a range:  Graphics, text, photos, videos and diagrams and who knows what else?  It might be a group of architects looking at drawings and redesigning.  It might be a teacher showing four students classwork simultaneously on a large screen, or students coming to the front of the room to work out a math problem, or a social one, on an interactive device be it whiteboard, projector or LCD display).


There are lots of variations, but my point is, it's no longer acceptable to have a "one size fits all" concept for determining how big a display, is really big enough for a physical space.

With Powerpoint, type sizes used are large - Titles come in sizes typically from 36 to 72 points, while bullet points are rarely below 24 points.

By comparison, that spreadsheet you want to present probably has titles that are 12 to 16  point, and everything else is 9-12 points.  Typical documents?  Figure 10 to 12 points.  Browsing the internet or a particular website, again, figure small type - 9 points to 14 points for everything but the large titles.

In a perfect world of collaboration, everyone in the room can read all the information that's on the display!

The bad news is that things aren't working out so well!  Our conference rooms and hubs are too often equipped with screens of sizes that are just fine for a Powerpoint presentation, but not collaborating.

Video Conferencing:  Even the 4/6/8 rule takes into consideration that for effective video conferencing we need to have a larger display, relative to successful viewing.  Video Conferencing is the 6 in 4/6/8.

Without a large enough display, video conference viewers may find that supporting documents are too hard to read, but also that without enough size, the ability to read facial expressions effectively is diminished.  That may not be the case if the video conferencing camera is doing a close up on one person, but if its showing people around a table, then a larger display reveals more to the viewer.

Going forward I will focus on collaboration rather than conferencing, as the issue is more pronounced.  Just remember, video conferencing can also suffer from too small a display (relative to seating distance.

Interactive Displays improve collaboration, but:

Have We Been Giving Up Usability in Exchange for Interactivity?

The temptation to put in interactive displays is strong.  The benefits of interactivity are real, whether in the board room, training room or the classroom.

Unfortunately, since they first appeared, as "SmartBoards" in the '90s, interactive boards have been small.  40" 50" 60" and 72" inch diagonal sizes.  It's only the last few years that we've seen extremely capable interactive projectors, there have been smaller plasma and LCD interactive monitors for more than a decade, but we're finally seeing some larger size interactive LCD monitor displays (but are they large enough?)

Price and demand for interactivity, are two likely elements in part responsible for companies, government, and educators choosing displays too small to do the job right.  

The 4/6/8 Display Standard - and Why It Needs a Fix

I've long been aware of a standard known as 4/6/8 although I confess, I never really learned what the underlying details were.  What you need to know is this:

Relatively, the 8 represents the needed relative screen size for formal presentations.

The 6 represents the size needed for video conferencing

The 4 is for collaboration - meeting the need to be able to read normal documents.

If your need is for collaboration (the 4), that means that you need a display that, per 4/6/8 is 2x the width, and 2x the height of the screen you would need for a presentation (the 8).  Of course, because the type sizes used is so much smaller.

The problem is obvious, that the difference in type sizes used between formal presenting and calibration, is much greater than the difference in screen sizes recommended.  The end result, many people in a collaboration can't sit close enough to read what's being displayed:

Collaboration 12 - Presentation 36 Points


As you can instantly figure out, assuming you can just read the typical "Presentation" 36 Point body text info without difficulty at 18 feet, you won't be able to just as easily read the 12 Point line from 9 feet.  6 feet probably?  OK.

After all, 36 point type is 3X as tall, and 3X as wide as 12 point type.  You'll need to sit at 1/3rd the distance to read the smaller type.

Conversely, you'll need a larger display to display smaller type, if you will be viewing it from the same distance.

Think about that ageless Snellen eye chart, and 20/20 vision.  We'll touch on that in a bit, as it relates to the 4/6/8 rule, and to Equivalent Visibility.  (Personally I would have called the new rule Equivalent Legibility!)

PAGE 2:  Better Collaboration: Display Size based on Equivalent Visibility



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