Spreadsheets, Spreadsheets Everywhere

One takeaway from CES 2024 is that we’re going to need a longer measuring tape. Most top out at 96 inches or less, meaning they’ll fall short when measuring the diagonal on a gigantic TV set…. But wait. Pythagoras to the rescue! Just measure the screen’s horizontal (a) and vertical (b) dimensions, apply the formula (a2 + b2 = c2) we learned in geometry class, and calculate the longer number — the diagonal (c). No need to upgrade your measuring tape!

Except for addition, subtraction and multiplication, formulas are not really my thing. I’ve always had a hard time understanding the math in computer spreadsheets. Still, I can’t stop thinking about them, especially as they relate to display devices. I watch TV and see Lotus 1-2-3. I look at a phone screen and see Excel. You know how the kid in the movie The Sixth Sense sees dead people? That’s me, except I see spreadsheets

Weird, right?

Not really. There was a time when the rows and columns of an electronic spreadsheet ruled the computer revolution. VisiCalc and its offspring were the killer apps that sold millions of PCs, obsoleted paper ledgers, and doomed adding machines to the dumpster. They also launched scores of computer magazines, several of which I edited. I frequently used jargon like “productivity” and “mission critical.” Not precisely home entertainment-worthy, but then I was talking to an audience of office workers and business managers.

Fast forward a couple of decades and we see the spreadsheet’s matrix design deployed in every flat screen. Superficially, a 16-by-9 screen ratio can be expressed by highlighting cells A1 through P9. Making the picture is more involved, dependent on organizing thousands of columns and rows wired on a microscopic level. For instance, in plasma displays, now passé, the inert gasses through which electricity flowed and excited phosphors were individually contained in what was called a cell — sheet lingo for addressing the meeting of row and column.

As I watched the live stream from CES 2024 on my computer, the axes of a spreadsheet seemed to be superimposed on the screen. When TCL’s vice president of product marketing paced relentlessly on stage, I imagined him personifying the horizontal. Then, he announced that every new model of the company’s soundbars will include Dolby Atmos. “We’re taking sound to all new heights,” he declared.

The most overt appropriation of spreadsheet technology can be seen in the electronic program guide (EPG) that viewers summon to see what’s on TV at the point of need. Typically, the rows are channels, and the columns are time slots. Each cell contains a program title with an embedded, unseen formula for further action. When you highlight a cell and press select on your remote, you can summon a detailed program description or change the channel to where the program is currently playing. If you’re using the EPG to look ahead, pressing select can set a reminder or launch record options. Manufacturers now pack more rows and columns on the screen than ever, thanks to larger displays and higher resolution. EPGs have come a long way, but fundamentally they’re wordy spreadsheets.

While today’s EPGs can sail through the week on X and Y axes alone, the buzz of 1986 in the spreadsheet world was the addition of the Z axis. It was a reason for consumers to upgrade their software. Z empowered the user to place one worksheet behind another. This innovation was called the “multi-dimensional spreadsheet.” Suddenly, you could drill down. That meant creating a stack of worksheets, each fitting the boundaries of the screen instead of one enormous sheet that sprawled off the screen. Trying to find something on this humongous spreadsheet was a nightmare. But suppose you imagine the Z axis acting as a gutter collecting data from multiple levels. In that case, you can understand the significantly increased efficiency of navigating with the X, Y, and Z axes.

This kind of spreadsheet design is still very much with us. Every time we spread our fingers on our phones to enlarge an image to see the florets of a flower in a photo or decipher a street name on a map, we’re drilling down using the Z axis.

One could even argue that the newest kind of screen device, the head-mounted display, is heavily invested in the Z axis. Where would “spatial computing” be without the layers of a multidimensional spreadsheet? In the world of a mixed-reality headset, you can layer a virtual schematic on top of a real engine that a mechanic is trying to repair. In an interactive movie that takes place in your own home, you can generate characters at your side on the couch. Flip a switch that turns a transparent headset opaque and move through settings that are entirely computer-generated settings.

Ready. Set. Drill down. Move forward. Turn around. While some see virtual reality, I see a multidimensional spreadsheet.

The Author
Michael Antonoff is a freelance writer specializing in AV technology and industry trends. He was a senior editor for Popular Science, executive editor for Video magazine, technology editor for S&V, and a tech columnist for USA Today.

nepaci5's picture

Not weird at all! It's fascinating how our minds connect everyday experiences with abstract concepts. | www.irvingconcretecompany.com