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Realistic Displays Degrade Performance


Finally! Research has been done on the effectiveness of realistic displays (Smallman, H.S. & St. John, M. Nave Realism: Misplaced Faith in Realistic displays, Ergonomics in Design, Vol. 13, No. 3, 2005, p6-13). In this case the research dealt with threat detection in the real world, but the results raise caution for all involved in display design. The researchers found that 3D, highly realistic displays generated worse performance than a matrix-based display for the same task. In fact, the matrix display produced 80% faster response time with no errors. Which display did the users prefer? Why the realistic one, of course.

This de-correlation between preference and performance is not new, but this is the first research that uses the type of high resolution graphics we have become accustomed to seeing in video games. Part of the preference for and fascination with operational displays that look like the real world comes from a flawed understanding of human perception, which the authors referred to as nave realism. Too many people think that the eye is a lens that projects a picture onto the brain, sort of an inner screen. It doesnt work that way. Your eye has 1 billion bits of data striking it (yes thats with a B), but you can only handle about 7 bits in your consciousness1. All sorts of filtering, chunking, and processing occur in order to allow our brains to function with this onslaught of information.

Matrix-based, or more abstract displays, are designed such that some of this filtering and chunking is done for the individual. This is one reason that they function better than realistic displays. For example, in this study the authors used symbols with F15 or F16 to represent aircraft in one version of the display versus the highly realistic pictures of the actual aircraft in the realistic display. The question of What kind of aircraft is that? was answered for the user, in essence doing some of the mental processing that would have been required of him.

So which is better, a pump symbol with a T or M on it for turbine or motor, or a highly stylized representation of what a motor or turbine looks like? Which one do you think would be preferred? What do you value, preference or performance?

1 McCormick, E.J. Human Factors in Engineering and Design. McGraw Hill, 1976, p. 37.

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