Excitement and discussion over the iPad’s potential as a media consumption device is fierce, but one element that’s not really debateable is how, exactly, video will be displayed on the device. The Unofficial Apple Blog yesterday posted a graphic laying out how various aspect ratios of films will play out on the new Apple device. And it turns out that unless you’re watching a classic film or a pre-2000s TV show shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, you’re not going to be making full use of that 9.7″ screen.
The aspect ratio issue might be a small one, but it’s been a key issue for hardcore media consumers ever since film and TV began to move digitally. It’s something I started observing over a decade ago, in fact — in the late 90s, when the DVD was just beginning to inch its way into the American home, I was working part-time in an independent video store that was one of the first to rent and sell the new format. (They’re one of the last few mom-and-pop stores still in business, by the way — if you’re ever in Mountain View, stop by Videoscope and say hi to Nona for me.)
As a budding cinephile, I often found myself in the position of explaining to customers that were used to VHS why DVD and laserdiscs were a superior format. And a key part of my argument was the fact that unlike on tape, most films on DVD were released in the original aspect ratio — which, for the average consumer watching TV on their 4:3 CRTs, was bewildering. At that time, most people had no idea that when they watched a VHS tape of a film shot in a 1.85:1 or 2.35:1 aspect ratio, they were literally watching only a percentage of the original image, because those versions were formatted to fit traditional 4:3 screens.
Some understood what this meant and chose to upgrade — others, though, didn’t care because they didn’t like “all that black space” on the screen. Of course, that was the late ’90s. Since then, 16:9 HD TVs have gotten a foothold in the market and most consumers have gotten used to the black bars — even the films of Stanley Kubrick, who was a legendary widescreen holdout, are getting released in their theatrical aspect ratio.
Which video services are available for the iPad will definitely be a key issue for those considering purchasing the device. However, the question to raise is this — will a consumer’s tolerance of “the black space” be different on the iPad? On a very basic level, after all, the device is designed to be held intimately — a much different user experience than watching a TV across the room. Up close, it could be that people grow frustrated with only some of their screen in use.