Turning off the disco lights on the Start screen


On the Windows 8 Start screen, you can pan left and right, and if you are using touch, you can whip the entire screen left and right and send all your tiles flying past.

One of the effects we saw when you panned quickly around the Start screen was something we called disco lights, but which formally goes by the much more mundane name stroboscopic effect.

When you pan quickly through the Start screen, the items are moving so fast that the human eye can't register any of the fine details. It's just a bunch of colored boxes whizzing past. But video displays are not continuous. They refresh at a particular frequency, so it's as if there's a strobe light flashing on your Start screen.

Therefore, what you perceive is not a bunch of boxes whizzing past, but rather a bunch of boxes moving around in strange patterns.

When the panning hits a magic speed, each frame's tiles happen to land in nearly the same spot as the previous frame's tiles, but since they are different tiles, the colors are all different. At that critical speed, you don't get the effect that the tiles are whizzing past. Instead, it looks like they are blinking different colors, like disco lights.

Photosensitive epilepsy warning: Do not view the disco lights simulation if you have or may have photosensitive epilepsy.

Otherwise, you can click the colored box to see the disco lights. Music sold separately. I created two versions of the simulation, a more realistic one and one with an exaggerated disco effect to show you what inspired the name.

The fix was to turn off the colors and just show plain tiles. That way you still felt the motion but you didn't get the disco effect. (It also mean that the Start page was less likely to induce photosensitive epilepsy.)

This is an interesting example of the sorts of design problems that show up when you start implementing a feature. In the original design for the Start screen, it seemed obvious that the Start screen should show what the user is scrolling through at full speed. But when you actually did it, the hidden stroboscopic effect showed that doing a better job actually looks worse.

Tomorrow marks the 36th anniversary of the disco dance movie Saturday Night Fever. Sorry we couldn't keep the lights on for you.

Comments (43)
  1. Joshua says:

    So what? All this work for waste. Metro will die a slow and painful death because Microsoft will not address key usability and accessibility issues.

  2. Antonio 'Grijan' says:

    IMHO Metro is great for tablets. The problem is that its experience isn't as good on desktop computers, but most people insist on installing and reviewing Windows 8 on them. If rummors are true (Thurrott et al.), Windows 8.2 would come with the two most important missing features for pros: the return of the Start Menu, and the ability to run Metro applications windowed in the desktop. Those will allow it to be used easily by pros in desktop computers and full featured laptops. But I guess I'm getting too off-topic for this blog :-) .

  3. Anon says:

    Don't know what the big problem people have with Metro on non-touch computers.  I use Win 8 daily for several months now and it is great.  Granted, as soon as I log in I "Win+D" into the desktop and I use exactly zero Metro apps.  But I do use the Start Screen as a combo Search+Laucher for programs and control panel entries, and I honestly think it rocks at that, much more so than the tiny start menu of earlier versions.

  4. Anon says:

    @Anon

    "As soon as I log in, I X" That's what's wrong. You have to do the exact same thing each time you log in, something that you never had to do with any previous version of the OS, something that interferes with workflow.

    8.1 "fixes" that, of course, but hides the option.

    As for the Start menu, the problem is that it takes additional keystrokes to use the search in Win8 to launch applications/open files/etc. That's a step backwards in usability, especially for Accessibility.

  5. Anon says:

    @Antonio

    When I can buy a ~23" touchscreen monitor for $100 and a ~50" touchscreen TV for $700, whether or not it is "great for tablets" will matter.

    [Hey, guys. Remember when we were talking about the effect of the stroboscopic effect on your animations and how you need to take that into account by making your animation worse in order to look better? Me neither. I wonder if you guys do this in real life. In response to a cooking demonstration on how to bake a cake, you say, "That brand of oven sucks." -Raymond]
  6. CmdrKeene says:

    "The fix was to turn off the colors and just show plain tiles."

    Hmm? Are you saying in the Start screen if I scroll fast enough the colors will disappear?

  7. SimonRev says:

    "As for the Start menu, the problem is that it takes additional keystrokes to use the search in Win8 to launch applications/open files/etc. That's a step backwards in usability, especially for Accessibility."

    Huh?  

    On Win7 I tap Windows button and start typing, once results appear I use the arrow keys and press enter.  

    On Win8.1 I tap Windows button and start typing, once results appear I use the arrow keys and press enter.

    The workflow is identical.  Overall I like the new start screen, although it is different.  The big step backwards for me is the flat UI.  The removal of the shadows and other UI tweaks actually makes it hard to tell where one window ends and the next begins.  That and even if Aero is a bit cheesy, flat shaded rectangles are so 1990.

  8. Random User 1094727 says:

    Anon#2,

    Admittedly, I have not had to use it much yet, but so far the search-to-launch behavior in Win8/2012 seems to match my experience in Win7. [Win], type the first few letters, [Enter]; desired item successfully launched.

    Am I thinking of something else, or what did you have in mind?

  9. Skip says:

    CmdrKeene,

    If you get it up to 88 mph, it starts to go backwards.

  10. Random User 1094727 says:

    Raymond,

    "I wonder if you guys do this in real life. In response to a cooking demonstration on how to bake a cake, you say, 'That brand of oven sucks.'"

    Actually, I have indeed seen exactly that kind of thing happen, all the time. And if I was a participant, and if I attempted to move back to the original topic, the other participants pretty much always got thoroughly annoyed. "We stopped talking about that 20 minutes ago!" (Actually 1 minute.)

  11. Joshua says:

    [Hey, guys. Remember when we were talking about the effect of the stroboscopic effect on your animations and how you need to take that into account by making your animation worse in order to look better? Me neither. I wonder if you guys do this in real life. In response to a cooking demonstration on how to bake a cake, you say, "That brand of oven sucks." -Raymond]

    Will you open your heart?

  12. John says:

    So if you arranged tiles in the appropriate order could you send subliminal signals to the user?

  13. Mark says:

    Now let's all have a whinge about how no self respecting computer user would use that Fisher Price start menu in XP. And celebrate our victory over the mighty Microsoft when, after years of carping from righteous internet experts, they turned it off in service pack 1 and removed it entirely from Vista.

    Keep fighting the good fight guys. What would the world's most experienced usability and interface design experts know that we don't? Microsoft could save millions if they closed their usability labs and turned over ui design to blog commenters!

  14. Evan says:

    I can't believe no one has pointed out how awesome the simulation is! I'm gonna have to play around with my tablet (even though it's "fixed") when I get home and see what it looks like on the real thing.

  15. Cesar says:

    @Robert: that is not enough. Even if you had a 1000Hz refresh rate, the 60Hz flicker of the ambient lighting could still get you and trigger the visual effect. You could say "buy better lights", but that does not help if any user somewhere has a 60Hz flickering light (and when you are using a portable computer, you might not be the one who controls the ambient lights).

  16. Jason says:

    What about adding a blur?  It's how movies get away with having 24 fps.

    [Thanks to the stroboscopic effect, the blur would be in exactly the same place each frame, so you still get the disco effect. -Raymond]
  17. Gabe says:

    How does the scroller determine when to turn off the disco lights? Does it depend on the refresh rate of the monitor?

  18. Brian_EE says:

    @Cesar, As we move away from incandescent and CFL lighting to LED-based lighting (which operates on DC current) that will become less of an issue…

  19. Theraot says:

    @SimonRev a problem I have seen with Windows 8.1 is that when somebody is reading instructions of what to type from a document (sometimes I write those instructions), they can't see the document once they open the Start Screen.

    Another detail is the lack of sub menus. I would like to be able to group tiles, so they are presented as a single one, and when I open that I will find the tiles I have put in.

    Yes, I know I type the name of the app. I used to forgive the name "KDiff3", I just know it is something "Diff" but if I type it wont come up, because it a radix search. Instead I have copied the shortcut to the desktop which I sorted with third party software.

    A smaller complain is the size of the tiles. I cannot change the sizes en-mass. I have select them all, one by one, and then select rezise. If I could use a selection box (as you select icons) that would be mitigated. Why do I want them to be small? Because I want to take a loot at all my tiles at once – by default, not behind a click – and then I can select (I find it easy to remember icon and relative position). Then my start screen would be like a hidden desktop with supper powers.

    Or you can give me the Start Menu back.

  20. Yuri says:

    Actually I'll try to keep it on topic ;)

    This reminds me of a phenomenom in fighting video games. The switch from 2D to 3D enabled the animators to provide 30/60 fps animations but the games felt wrong. They had to slow down the fps of the animation to match the one used in oldschool 2D games.

  21. alegr1 says:

    >And celebrate our victory over the mighty Microsoft when, after years of carping from righteous internet experts, they turned it off in service pack 1

    Did they? They evil Search Puppy (and Desktop Cleanup Wizard) is still there in SP3. They didn't even kill Desktop Cleanup in Windows 7, they just made it running behind your back, deleting your shortcuts to network shares every week or so.

    >Even if you had a 1000Hz refresh rate, the 60Hz flicker of the ambient lighting could still get you and trigger the visual effect

    Last time I checked, LCD monitors don't work off the ambient light. And most fluorescents these days use electronic ballast which doesn't give you any flicker. Even the residual flicker would be 120 Hz then.

  22. alegr1 says:

    Speaking of refresh rate, go see 48 fps Hobbit. It's VERY smooth. In the first movie, though, there seem to be a sequence shot in 24 fps (when they run across some plain), and you can see it's choppy.

  23. Juho says:

    So how do you turn off the colors in Windows 8.1? All the boxes were blue in Windows 8, but since I upgraded to 8.1 they're all different colors and the disco lights are on.

  24. Anon says:

    @SimonRev

    Now try opening any non-Program item. You have to change the type of object you're searching for.

    I can no longer hit Winkey and type "Document 43827," then hit Enter. I have to hit the Winkey, type "Document 43827," use the arrow keys or mouse to select the appropriate type of search, then open it.

  25. Anon says:

    Oh, and @Raymond – If you everyone to stay on topic, you shouldn't cover the topic so thoroughly! :p

  26. Anon2 says:

    Anon: the default is to search everywhere (programs, settings, files) in Windows 8.1. I presume something important is keeping you from upgrading from Win8, else why wouldn't you?

  27. Timo Kinnunen says:

    I hadn't actually noticed the solid color boxes before this. There appears to be a certain ramp-up time which scrolls past couple of screens already, then there's a noticeable jump in scrolling speed as the boxes turn single-colored and a fraction of a second later the screen is at the end. In practice the simulation doesn't capture different box sizes and extra space between groups of boxes and groups typically not being completely full which all work to break the uniformity.

    This is on a desktop and a mouse with hyper-fast scrolling. No tablet needed for flick of a finger scrolling!

  28. alegr1 says:

    >So how do you turn off the colors in Windows 8.1? All the boxes were blue in Windows 8, but since I upgraded to 8.1 they're all different colors and the disco lights are on.

    No. Microsoft KNOWS what's good for you, and DON'T YOU EVER DARE TO QUESTION THAT.

  29. Enai says:

    If people typically have so many tiles that they have to scroll through them like that why not implement a zoom feature? Either a zoom setting that scales all tiles or a SupCom style tactical zoom (zoom out, point cursor at desired tile group, zoom in on cursor).

    There is a zoom button, but as far as I know (I don't use W8) it only enables the user to rearrange tiles, not to actually use them.

    …I hope to god the answer isn't "because phones don't have a scroll wheel".

    [There is a zoom feature, and you can use it to navigate quickly. But people like to pan quickly through the unzoomed list because it's fun. -Raymond]
  30. 12BitSlab says:

    The stroboscopic effect reminds me of a project one of our teams worked on last year.  

    It was a .Net WinForms project.  Part of the project showed a list of open orders in a very typical grid.  The users wanted easily see at a glance the status of each order so they wanted them color-coded.  The team working on it advised against, but you know how users are….

    The developers did what the users wanted.  However, the list of orders could be very big and some of them were used to scrolling the list vertically to fins what they wanted even though they had filters where they could easily subset the list.

    After this "enhancement" went production, the users were clamoring to have the added color removed because it was, in their words, "hard to look at" when scrolling.  Fortunately, the team that built that put in a config option that would allow them to turn the color mess off is they wanted to and every single user did just that.

  31. Joshua says:

    [There is a zoom feature, and you can use it to navigate quickly. But people like to pan quickly through the unzoomed list because it's fun. -Raymond]

    Or the zoom not discoverable. I didn't know it existed until just now — although my experience with Metro is "how do I close this thing that's physically hurting my eyes as quickly as possible".

  32. Ian Yates says:

    I can't believe readers of this blog haven't heard of Semantic Zoom before (ok, certain readers :P).  All of the early Silverlight demos were about support for it years ago.  Same thing carried through to the start screen in an obvious fashion.  As someone who's recently got an iPad at work (testing our internal web-based app) I much prefer the Win 8 start screen over iOS'.  I don't mind it on my desktop PC either.  Those complaining about the search should either

    a) Move back to Win 7 and stop complaining.  Then, as someone else said about XP, in 5 years we can all want the glory days of Win 8 back because Win 10 sucks or something.

    b) Get up to date (since you sound like early adopters) and move to Win 8.1 already!

  33. William says:

    @Enai: Ctrl+Scroll wheel. If you're ever curious about zooming something, give it a go, because that usually always zooms the active program, and it has for a very long time.

    If you don't have a scroll wheel, then the little "-" in the bottom-right corner does the same thing.

  34. Robert says:

    > But video displays are not continuous. They refresh at a particular frequency,

    That is the main problem, in my opinion. Even after 25 years, we are still far away from *really* smooth scrolling or mouse pointer movement. If you move the mouse or another object across the screen in 1 second, a typical display with around 50Hz refresh rate will never do better than show you the object in 50 discrete positions.

  35. Neil says:

    Here's my chance to complain that the lack of submenus takes you back to the glory days of 16-bit Windows.

    Actually I tripped over this recently when I was using a Windows 8 tablet with two HP multifunction printers installed. Each one puts its icons into an appropriately named submenu of the HP start menu folder, but within each folder all of the icons are named identically, giving you apparently duplicate icons without an obvious way of distinguishing them.

    [You lost that battle eight years ago. I can't believe I'm feeding the trolls. -Raymond]
  36. chentiangemalc says:

    I enjoy the win8 UI on my desktop or laptop even without touch. My major issue is I don't use any Windows store apps/games….

  37. Mark says:

    I think you missed the point a bit there, Raymond. Though the third comment in your linked article contrasts with current comments about the start menu in an interesting way…

  38. Nick says:

    I am a developer and always try to be uptodate with applications/environments.

    On my desktop I installed Windows 8 from the preview onwards and it rocks; the speed difference is enormous!

    My machine starts up (= till moment that the login screen appears) in 5 seconds; the same machine with Windows 7 took like 20+seconds.

    And in Windows 7; what did you use of the Start menu?

    Just like SimonRev says:

    On Win7 I tap Windows button and start typing, once results appear I use the arrow keys and press enter.  

    On Win8.1 I tap Windows button and start typing, once results appear I use the arrow keys and press enter.

    One thing I don't use on my Windows 8 desktop is Metro apps; if there are desktop version I use them because on my desktop I don't need the metro-specific versions of the apps atm. But I personally have no problems regarding the Start screen/tiles/… and I love the speed improvments.

  39. Medinoc says:

    >I wonder if you guys do this in real life. In response to a cooking demonstration on how to bake a cake, you say, "That brand of oven sucks." -Raymond

    The flaw in your analogy is that here, the demonstration is "how to work around this unpopular feature of the oven to bake a cake".

    [So you're saying the stroboscopic effect does not appear anywhere else? -Raymond]
  40. ZLB says:

    This is a real-world effect too, not just affecting computer monitors…

    When I was a kid I was always facinated by the way a car wheel appears to reverse direction when slowing down. It's the same thing, just its based on how fast your eye samples rather than computer refresh rates!

  41. Rick C says:

    Lot of comments on here so I may have missed someone pointing this out, but if you don't like having to Win+D when you log in, don't.  Drag the desktop tile to the top left corner of the start screen and just hit Enter.

  42. CupNoodle says:

    @Mark

    Your blind faith in some unknown usability and interface design experts is both naive and misguided. In the history of business, there have been numerous failed projects where millions had been spent and scores of experts has given their guidance. These failures are  not just known as flops, but are known as expensive flops. Now, if there is someone who really know how to design a user interface, it must be Steve Jobs and his lieutenants at Apple. And as Steve Jobs once pointed out, the problem of Microsoft is that it has no taste. Without a good taste, it failed to judge if a user interface is better or worse than the others. Indeed, it would have been much better for the user if Microsoft skipped wasting these millions of dollar and simply copy what Apple does in providing separate user interfaces for desktop devices and handheld touch based devices.

  43. CmdrKeene says:

    Off topic I know, but if you want to search without covering your desktop (so, like Vista/7), you can.  Just press Win+S and start typing: skeene.net/start-an-app-without-leaving-the-desktop

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