Watching Video on iPhone: You’re Holding it Wrong

2 minute read
| Editorial

David Pogue has made an interesting observation about how millennials are watching videos on their smartphones.

We are vertical beings with opposable thumbs.

Here’s the article from the March, 2018 issue of Scientific American.

Author Pogue points out that:

Fewer and fewer people bother turning their phones to watch widescreen videos—72 percent of millennials don’t, in fact.

Of course, that age range doesn’t cover all smartphone users, but it does punctuate an interesting trend. It’s interesting because a lot of video is people-oriented as opposed to theatrical oriented, and many people aren’t used to that yet. Pogue explains:

Fans of vertical video argue that vertical shots do better justice to buildings, trees, mountains and scenes of a single upright person. Instead of just head and shoulders, you’re seeing torso and hands, too.

The self-centered nature of the explanation is hard to overlook. But I think there’s more to it than that.

A Smart Analysis

Before I go on, I want to compliment author Pogue. He doesn’t try to assign blame for what he calls “the age of aspect-ratio hell.” And he doesn’t try to offer any kind of cooked-up solution to the problem. It just is, and we need to be aware of it.

That means that organizations that deliver video are also aware of this phenomenon and are about the business of catering to those who like to view videos in this fashion. (The rest of us will grumble.) That means you may more and more frequently encounter a viewing mode that seems odd to you. By odd, I mean that you may ask yourself why you didn’t need to simply turn your iPhone into landscape mode, as one does with, say, Netflix.

The Long Haul

The more I think about this physiological effect, the more I’m intrigued by the evolutionary manner in which we’ve become accustomed to holding a smartphone. Our hands are uniquely suited to holding something slender. (A tool, an arrow, a stick, etc.) It’s our innate human ability brought on by the structure of the hand and the opposable thumb. It worked out great for our evolution. Plus, holding an iPhone in landscape mode is physically awkward; we’re more inclined to drop it in a crowded subway. Or, it seems, put a finger on the camera lens.

On the other hand, as author Pogue points out, our vision is skewed towards the horizontal. That’s probably because we evolved as two dimensional land creatures (except for our smaller, arboreal ancestors), and early threats tended to be in the horizontal plane. That is, we’re more concerned with being eaten by lurking lions in the bushes than hawks overhead.

As this splendid article points out, there is no imminent resolution. Moreover, as more and more personal video, by leaps and bounds of exabytes, gets recorded, the inward focus of human beings gets more priority than grand panoramas. As with any emergent technology, it’s just one more thing to get used to.

I will, however, surmise that as soon as the smartphone is freed from its dependence on the physical display that we hold in our hands, this aspect ratio duel may well dissipate.

But for now, get ready to view a lot more video in what seems like a silly preference for portrait mode. Because that’s how we clutch our iPhone, the modern window into our immediate world.

8 Comments Add a comment

  1. Lee Dronick

    Fans of vertical video argue that vertical shots do better justice to buildings, trees, mountains and scenes of a single upright person. Instead of just head and shoulders, you’re seeing torso and hands, too.

    It is easier to film one handed while the iPhone is in portrait mode. Can the iPhone be designed and coded so that you can electronically rotate the camera?

  2. gGrant

    I blame the phone makers for allowing vertical video in the first place. 😀 It makes perfect sense if you want to view a vertical scene and get best coverage. And if you’re only going to watch it on a phone, who cares?

    When you see it on a ‘normal’ screen, suited to the natural aspect ratio of human vision, it sucks worse than a black hole!

    I tell people I’ll take a portrait orientation photo/video when they start making humans with vertical eyes… if only it were true. There are times when vertical suits. I don’t like it and ‘people’ have a way of proving the theory wrong, but that’s just how it is. Corporations love to pander to the lowest common denominator and if mobile viewing is the majority… we’re going to get vertical video, like it or not.

  3. JMaldaner

    VVS, vertical video syndrome, is a disease. When I see it, I simply pass on viewing the video. When I see someone taking such a video, if I know them, I usually suggest they hold their phone horizontally. Or else, I simply pass them by as the ignorant fools they are.

  4. Andrush

    Humans have two eyes, creating a horizontal aspect ratio, unless you hold your head sideways. The landscape orientation mimics this very well. So, while portrait mode works for still shots, videos should always be landscape mode, and phones and video cameras should always use this, whichever way you hold the device. Problem is, older digital cameras didn’t have the orientation sensors, and produced whatever view your device gave. Smarter devices mimicked this un-smart behaviour, and portrait-mode videos became an unwelcome thing.
    My 5-yo kids were happy to watch tiny landscape video on a vertically held iPhone, but I think they liked it better when I rotated the phone.
    Given that the device’s lenses work in 360˚, shouldn’t they be able to shoot video in landscape mode, whichever way you hold the phone?

  5. Lee Dronick

    Once again people. In a tense and moving situation try to securely one handed hold your iPhone above your head, when you need the other hand for safety. What is more important, getting the video or pleasing critics? In an artistic situation yeah, whine about it.

    I will continue to whine about the trapped-in-a-box iPhone designers who won’t give us a user setting for rotating the camera no matter the phone orientation.

  6. LV_Doc

    Video still shows up in proper aspect ratio when holding the phone vertically. Yes, the video is a lot smaller than if you watched it while holding the phone horizontally; but the aspect ratio of the actual video remains intact. So, while the article is not necessarily misleading – one might have a more enriched experience of the video – it is inaccurate. The orientation of the phone does not change the aspect ratio of the video.

  7. gGrant

    Per the podcast discussion – and I can’t wait to say this – Blame Facebook.
    The number of times I’ve had friends hand me their phones (no, I don’t partake) to show me vertical display of horizontal photos. Staggers me that people use such a thing, but for most people, Facebook is the internet, I guess.

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