Sunday, September 5, 2010

The most important problem in computer science

Richard Lipton chooses The Projector Problem:
I believe that we are sorely in need of an Edison who can invent a projector system that actually works.

Here here. What makes this so hard? I've had a lot of opportunity to muse on it while waiting at the beginning of talks while people fiddle with projector and laptop settings. Here are the main ones that have come to mind:

  • It takes an obscure manual intervention to turn on the projector output. Thinkpads have the best option, but it's not saying much: you hold down Fn and press F5. On other systems, you have to fish around in the UI for the screen settings dialog. Given the importance of this problem, I think it deserves a large button right next to the VGA port.
  • The laptop doesn't detect the projector's resolution. I'm sure it can, because CRTs have had this ability for eons. It's vanishingly rare that anyone will want a resolution other than the projector's max resolution, but for some reason the screen settings UIs don't just do that for you. In many cases they don't even gray out the settings that aren't going to work on that projector.
  • The settings UIs are universally terrible for switching to projection mode. On an Apple, you are given a list of 10-20 resolutions, almost all of which are bad ideas. On Windows, you have to click to a separate tab to even get to the place where you can turn on projector output and modify resolution. The NVidia UI on Linux, meanwhile, takes the horror to a new level. It would take a small novel to describe it all, so let me just mention that it involves knowing what "Twinview" is. Thanks, NVidia. You took what should be a trivial problem and instead of just making it work, you are making it a teaching moment for customers to learn your brand names.
  • If you use an Apple product, you additionally have the problem of finding the right dongle before you can plug in. These things are like pencils and pens: no matter how much you replenish the supply, they keep disappearing. Once one conference room loses one of its dongles, people start borrowing them between rooms, so they all share in the pain. I tried carrying my own, but that doesn't work, because eventually I loan it out and it disappears. There must be some alternate universe that is collecting all the Apple dongles from this one. They really just disappear.

This doesn't seem like a terribly challenging problem, really. It just takes a laptop maker to consider it a problem worth solving. A laptop maker could, if it chose, have a VGA port with a big "Project" button next to it. When pressed, it would switch to mirrored display mode at the max resolution the projector supports, and it would pop up a dialog asking if everything looks ok. If the user clicks Yes, that's it -- done. If the user clicks no, it would switch back to the previous resolution and drop the user into a settings dialog.

Would any laptop maker care to do this, or are you all going to keep working on those gimicky CD player buttons?

No comments: