Vertical text

Let’s say it’s twenty years in the future, and everyone, to borrow a phrase from Verner Vinge, is wearing. That is, we all have our cyber-contact lenses, and we take for granted that we will all have augmented reality floating in the air between us.

Suppose you and I want to discuss some text. If the text document just floats in the air between us, then either (1) we each see the document the right way forward, or (2) one of us will see it backwards. The problem with the first scenario is that if I point to (or look at) some part of the document, the place where I’m looking won’t correspond to what you see there.

In 1989 Hiroshi Ishii dealt with a similar issue very cleverly in his “ClearBoard” interface. People interacted face to face through a video screen. The video flipped everybody’s image left/right, so that you always saw the other person in mirror reverse. This meant that we could both look at the same document floating between us, and everything worked out — text was forward for both of us, and our gaze directions always matched.

But you can’t do that if you’re physically face to face with somebody. One possibility is that people will just learn to read backwards, but somehow I doubt that this will catch on — from a social perspective, the situation is just too asymmetric.

Another possibility is that augmented reality will use a convention that text runs vertically, rather than horizontally. We can already read vertical text just fine, so this won’t require any new skills or training. The left right reversal will take place within each character. For example, we will both see the letter “E” rather than one of us seeing the letter ““.

In this arrangement, one of us might find ourselves reading the vertical columns of a document from right to left, rather than from left to right. But that doesn’t seem like a real obstacle to comprehension. To make it clear whether you’re reading left to right or right to left, the text in each column could be either left justified or right justified. Below is an example of the same text, as seen by two people who are face to face with each other:

4 thoughts on “Vertical text”

  1. It seems to me that the vertical text solution still smacks of making people adapt to technology rather than the other way around. It might work for small amounts of text (e.g., a label) but I’m skeptical that it would catch on for full sentences or more. Also, isn’t it rather space-inefficient? If two people need to read large amounts of text together, why not just do it the way that has always worked, either whiteboard-style, or table-top, with both facing the same direction. Another alternative would be with each looking at their own copies of the text, using a virtual pointer to point to things (so they can be pointing to the same places). If the text doesn’t completely obscure their views of each other they can still look up at each other when eye contact is needed.

  2. Thanks — these are all great suggestions. I don’t really think we’ll be reading vertical text, but it made a pretty graphic for the blog page. 🙂 Mostly I put up this (admittedly provocative) post to start the conversation going.

    Clearly something is going to win out in the actual physical space where people will hang out together. I could very well be that people will just stand next to each other and look off to the side, as though reading a virtual book or screen together.

  3. Standing next to each other can sometimes be very nice. We wouldn’t want technology to remove all those chances for contact 😉

  4. This made me think about how historical Chinese and Japanese documents were written with vertical text. The reason for that was probably due to the format of scrolls- fixed vertical height but variable horizontal width. People liked it just fine. In fact, some Chinese books are still printed with vertical text.

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