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Red Button and widescreen

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Andrew Bowden Andrew Bowden | 08:30 UK time, Friday, 19 March 2010

One of the questions we occasionally get asked is why our red button services aren't built in widescreen.

As it's now very hard to buy a traditionally shaped television, and widescreen has become the new standard, it's a fair question to ask.

The answer boils down to the fact that most digital devices still only allow us to build services in a traditional 4:3 format - even if the device is HD.

We build our services in 720x576 - the size of a standard definition television picture, and resolutely 4:3. When viewed on a widescreen TV, the picture is simply stretched out to fill the whole screen and it's not possible to find out how someone's TV is set up - there are no flags available to us to tell us whether someone is viewing in 4:3 or widescreen, so we can't do any detection and arrange the service appropriately.

One of the problems we face with this is that our graphics have to work in both widescreen and 4:3 - which is naturally not particularly easy! Let's take, for example, the BBC logo. This is something we obviously use in all our services, and thanks to it being made up of three squares, shows up the challenges very well.

If we designed it to look good on a traditional TV set, it would simply look too wide on a widescreen set, as you can see on the image on the right.

Example of the BBC logo shown in different aspect ratios

And, of course, if we designed it to look good on a widescreen set, it would appear too narrow on a 4:3 screen, as you can see below:

Another example of the BBC logo shown in different aspect ratios

What we do is a bit of a compromise and design our images for 14:9 - this is a compromise screen format that's half way between 4:3 and 16:9, and is often used for widescreen television programmes shown on analogue. The result is that pictures - including the BBC logo - wouldn't look quite right when viewed in either, however doesn't look noticeably wrong in either mode.

The BBC logo shown in the 14:9 aspect ratio

Whilst this is the current state of affairs, changes in technology give us new opportunities to design our services with widescreen in mind. For example, games consoles like the Wii and PS3 allow us to build widescreen services - we just position the content in the middle of the screen so that anyone using a non-widescreen TV won't see the edges of the screen.

Freesat HD and forthcoming Freeview HD devices will also offer us the ability to use HD graphic planes, and we're hoping to do some experiments in that area in the near future to see what we can do.

One thing we will continue to do is make sure what we build looks and works the best for all our users, regardless of what shape TV is being used.

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