The best (and most fun) explanation of screen resolution ever

Author’s Note: There is a more recent post on this subject that includes a video explanation based on the pinscreen examples mentioned below: Screen Resolution Explained.

 

Have you ever struggled to explain computer screen resolution?

Yesterday a colleague and I were discussing the challenge of PC users with computer screen resolution set to 800×600 pixels. Yes, I know that’s very low resolution by modern standards (especially with relatively inexpensive large LCD screen availability), but I’m pretty sure the end users in this case had no idea how to change their computer’s screen settings (if they even knew it was possible.) This is certainly not the first conversation I’ve had on resolution. Resolution confuses a lot of people. After all, you couldn’t change your television’s resolution, so it never occurs to PC users that anything about the display might be changeable.

Now, it’s not hard to show users photos of different computers running the same content at different screen resolutions to help them understand that the computer can display things differently. But if you really need someone to understand the concept of resolution, you have your work cut out for you. For years I also struggled with this task until I happened across the best prop-analogy ever for explaining resolution. Back when I worked for the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, they were starting to build a new hands-on science center for students. One of their exhibits featured a display about resolution, and they found a clever and fun way to convey the concept: pinscreens. (You’ve likely seen one of the handheld models in a novelty or museum store, or the large tables at Epcot Center in Orlando, Florida.) One unit used traditional pins, but the other was a special model custom-built to use roofing nails instead. The dimensions of both units being the same, the only difference was in the size of the “head” and the number of pins/nails that fit on the screen. Viola! A prop-analogy for explaining computer screen resolution! Thanks, Fermilab!

So the next time you’re facing this task, get yourself a traditional pinscreen to explain high resolution and whip up a quick low-resolution example with a box of roofing nails and small sheet of cardboard. Your learners will “get the picture” more clearly, and you’ll get to have fun making impressions at the same time.

Author’s Note: Check out Screen Resolution Explained, a video in which I took my own advice and built the nail-based pinscreen.

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