The Odd Love of Distorted Aspect Ratios

You may use this content, but please cite my ideas as (c) 2005, Dr. Bruce Klopfenstein.
There is an odd phenomenon going on as we transition from NTSC to HDTV. I have witnessed it myself in many settings: in my lab at UGA where my graduate assistant and I battled over the remote, in people's homes, and in retail outlets such as Best Buy (where, full disclosure, I did a participant observation study during the Christmas 2005 season as a salesperson in the home video department). The oddity is that there appears to be a preference amony many viewers to deliberately distort the 4 by 3 NTSC presentation on a widescreen TV like this (the image does not quite make the point as strongly as I'd like):

to the 16 by 9 aspect ratio that is available on these sets. This results in stretching out the image artificially on the horizontal (Robin Williams appears a little "fatter" in this distorted image, and would look fatter still if the original were not also already letterboxed).

see The Digital Bits for more discussion (thanks, Bill!).

(This is the 90 degree equivalent of the tall and thin cowboys of 1960s television when some stations squeazed the cinematic wide screen down to 4 by 3.)

Is this just a curiosity or what does this tell us? Do viewers think that they are getting more bang for the buck by not having the black vertical bars on the right and left of the widescreen monitor? Perhaps there is research available on viewer preferences regarding letterboxing (I'd be surprised if there aren't proprietary consumer research studies on this due to the importance of the exploding DVD market).

I'd like to come back to this will example pictures. By the way, as near as I can tell, CNN is doing this with their newly freed video online. They put the 4 by 3 source video into a widescreen window on the computer screen. This was true as of this writing, 13 July 2005. After I wrote this I did an hour or so worth of investigation. I'll see if CNN will verify this, but it appears that this is a web page trick. That is, CNN is taking its 4 by 3 video and using controls on its web site to widen the picture to appear to be widescreen. So I did certainly see the distorion. The proper 4 by 3 picture was there when I removed it from the web presentation.

Perhaps people just are annoyed by the vertical black bars. Makes me wonder who might be interested in that screen real estate. Could an advertiser seemless add content to the sides of a 4 by 3 video viewed on a 16 by 9 screen? Nah...


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