The future is Vectorized

I know it's been a while since I've posted. But I've been busy. With, um, you know, stuff! Writing stuff. Coding stuff. Drawing stuff.

I'm especially interested in drawing stuff. In particular I've noticed a growing interest in SVG and vector displays. I'm personally a fan of vector formats since it makes a great base for interesting drawings in Photoshop, but I've started to discover other uses too. This article covers the history of SVG on desktop Linux.

What I find most interesting about SVG is that it was created as a webcentric technology but it's finding great traction on the desktop in places like icons and window decorations. So why the new buzz about SVG in a technology world still in the doldrums? I attribute this to two things. First, processor speeds have continued their inexorable rise, making realtime vector drawing feasable for lots of non-standard (wasteful) uses. Second, Flash, SVG, and other tools have raised a generation of people who think of vector art outside the confines of Illustrator and it's print mindset.

Of course, if we rendering everything as vectors the curves and angled lines won't be as sharp as they could be with bitmaps. Even with modern anti-aliasing nothing will be as clean as an image from photoshop. Assuming you have a normal resolution screen.

We are reaching the limit of usefulness for normal desktop screen size, but what happens as pixel densities increase instead of screen inches? My ibook had a 109 dpi screen and I found it to be much more readable than the larger 92dpi laptops I tried. Years ago when I interned at Xerox PARC I saw a prototype of a 270dpi flatpanel. It was black and white, not even greyscale, but at that resolution you can start doing halftoning. The clarity was amazing. Many people also noticed the announcement of Sony's href="">epaper initiative. This is the kind of product that requires real vector art.

So now that the tools, devices, and the platforms are coming along, what can we actually do with SVG and other vector formats. We've still go the usual suspects: clipart in Word, animation for games, and technical diagrams. But somehow I think more is coming. So where could we use vector rendering creatively?

  • Scale the desktop icons. This happens to some extent in OSX and now in Gnome and KDE. That's how we get those nifty dock effects.

  • Theme your app's UI with CSS. Change the selection color. Make every font bold and every line thicker. If it's all drawn with SVG then CSS for style will be a snap.

  • Scale the screen widgets. Menus, icons, buttons and checkboxes, everything. Rumors are that this will happen in OS X 10.5: Jungle Cat's Revenge. Adjust the screen to match your eyesight, distance from the monitor, and lighting.

  • More special effects: how about a ripple through your screen when you receive an IM?

  • Vectors on gadgets: My Palm Zire71 is fast enough to do quite a bit of vector drawing. We need more screen readers and vector games. Not to mention a really good drawing application.

  • How about Alice in Wonderland with the original illustrations? Or maybe mathematical texts with the real symbols. Vectorizing chunks of Project Gutenberg could go a long way towards making the etexts more accessable.

The possibilities of commonplace vector rendering are limitless. The only limiting factor I see is that we don't have a good archive of opensource vector art to start with.

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Posted March 30th, 2004