SHIFT: Aspect ratio, the one thing the tech world just can't figure out

A company recently sent me a DVD called Living Earth. It's a disc full of high-resolution pictures of spectacular nature scenes that you play as a slideshow. The idea is that you'd have it on while throwing a party, presumably to give your guests something to look at other than your crappy living room.

After popping in the DVD and hitting play, I was horrified. Both sides of my widescreen flat-panel TV were completely black, while photos cycled in and out inside a squarish area in the middle. That's right, the disc was made with a (gasp!) 4:3 aspect ratio, with no widescreen (16:9, to those in the know) option. When was this DVD made — 1998?

The real tragedy is that Living Earth is just one example of how technology gets aspect ratio wrong. All. The. Time. Why is it that my browser can resize websites when I change my window size, and my iPhone can resize photos when I turn it 90 degrees, but somehow the tech world gets video aspect ratio wrong again and again? Click Continue for the answer — and the solution.

Reason 1: TV Equipment Is Stupid
There's a lot of history to the multiple aspect ratios that pepper today's video entertainment. Movies used to be shot in 4:3 (technically 1.33:1), but when TV arrived the studios realized they had to offer something more than TV and started shooting in widescreen. Now it's not uncommon to see movies in extreme aspect ratios like 2.35:1, the ratio for The Dark Knight and many other blockbusters. There are a lot of different aspect ratios flying around, and it's tough for your TV to sort them all out.

Why? Because TVs (and DVD players and cable boxes and receivers) are stupid. They don't know or care what you're hooking up to them — they're just throwing stuff up on the screen. It's up to you to make sure all your equipment is talking to each other properly, so your TV knows your cable box is sending a widescreen signal and should therefore display it in widescreen. Today's TVs all have processors to help them do this — some of them very powerful — but again, they're stupid. They only do what you tell them to, and if you don't know what you should be seeing, they can't help you.

Reason 2: Companies Are Lazy
It doesn't help that companies like the one that produced that Living Earth DVD are mucking up the works by providing 4:3 content when almost all TVs being sold are widescreen now. Think about it — to come out with a video product that's visually incompatible with today's TVs is a monumental act of laziness.

You only have to click around on old YouTube videos for a few minutes to see how long that site took to address the problem. Eventually, YouTube got a little more sophisticated with aspect ratios — witness how this trailer for a recent episode of Prison Break looks in full-screen mode compared to one from two years earlier. The site still needs work, though; for instance, why do so many clips look squeezed? I know it's partly because of the people doing the uploading, but there's no reason software couldn't correct mistakes like that.

Want to see a stunning example of aspect-ratio incompetence? Head on over to CNN's video page. Go ahead and click through a few stories (with the sound down, if you must). Notice the thing they all have in common? That's right, each and every one (at least each and every one I clicked on, and I clicked on a lot) is stretched horizontally. They're all trying to fit a 4:3 aspect ratio in a 16:9 window. This stuns me. CNN shoots most of their shows in HD, which means they're in widescreen. Real widescreen. I watched the debates in widescreen on CNN HD — why are they all in stretched 4:3 on the website? Epic fail, CNN.

Here's another example: Several TV makers such as Sony and Panasonic are now offering Internet video through their sets, letting you dial up YouTube on your home TV. I saw Panasonic's version demo'd earlier this year. Calling up a 4:3 YouTube clip, I noticed that the TV's automatically stretched it across the 16:9 screen — with no way to turn off the stretching. When I asked Panasonic's tech guy why there was no way to defeat the stretch, he said, "It's just Internet video." Kind of brings up the question why you've designed this fancy interface for Internet video if you hold it in such low regard, Panasonic. Lazy, lazy, lazy.

Reason 3: People Don't Know Any Better
So why haven't all these companies apologized and fixed their problems? Because they know most people don't care — or rather, most people don't realize there's a problem here in the first place. I've lost count of how many people's DVD players I've corrected to the proper aspect ratio, finally getting their TVs to display something other than severely stretched video (which they've presumably been watching since they first hooked the player up). Somehow, when TVs went widescreen and pictures got squeezed and stretched, a lot of folks must have thought, "Well, I guess that's how TV is going to be now" and surrendered.

Shaping the Video Future
Well, the war's still being fought, people! There's no reason we need to settle for movies and TVs with pictures that are constantly deformed. There are fixes to this persistent problem, and they don't involve everyone becoming a video expert.

I propose that new HDTVs get smarter. They already have chips in them and program guides — it shouldn't be too hard to have them simply ask you how you want 4:3 and widescreen material displayed. It would work just like a dialog box on your PC. For example, if you played a DVD that's in 4:3, the TV would ask you "Display stretched or with black bars?" with sample screencaps of each, and a box you could check so you don't have to answer the question every time. Of course, you could go into your preferences and change things back anytime if you make a mistake.

But that would be just the beginning. For video that's in 4:3 format, but within that 4:3 area the actual video is 16:9 (take a second to process that if you need to), the TV would have to recognize the material's "real" aspect ratio. TVs should be able to constantly scan an incoming signal and know what it should look like within the confines of its screen, automatically resizing the picture. Of course, it might not work for every video, so it would have to be defeatable, but it should be standard, not just in the high-end sets with the fancy processors. Similar software could be incorporated into online video players.

What Are Your Ideas?
Of course, that's just one idea. Do inconsistent aspect ratios make your blood boil, too? What do you think the solution is? The comment field awaits.