Why does everything look better on TV, and even better on a tablet?

Yeah, the easy answer is… because there are people hired to tweak the lighting and the color and everything goes through some sort of filter in the computer. There’s more to it than that. Not only does a properly calibrated TV show you a picture that’s both realistic and beautiful, but most tablets simply look better than a TV. There has to be some explanation.

The answer, as Shakespeare once said, is not in our stars but in ourselves.

When you look out at a real-life nature scene, you’re looking at reflected light. Light starts out at the sun, hits the objects around you and bounces toward you. That light goes into your eyes, but no matter how perfect an object is, it doesn’t reflect back 100% of the light that comes its way. At best you get a small fraction of it.

In nature, almost all objects come to your attention via reflected light. The only natural light sources you’re likely to encounter are the sun and a fire, and thinking back with your caveman brain, fire is actually a pretty bad thing. That’s why you’ve evolved to pay special attention to light that’s actually coming to you from a direct source. Not only is direct light more intense, it’s actually more interesting.

Television and all mobile displays (except early e-readers) are direct light sources; they shine right at you. This has two effects: first the colors can be brighter and richer than they are in nature, since a greater amount of light comes into your eyes. Second, you’re wired to pay more attention to direct light, since in nature direct light is dangerous and bears watching.

Interestingly, there have been experiments with using reflected light for TVs and computer displays but they never quite work. Whether it’s an old-school calculator or an e-reader, displays that use reflected light never seem to capture our fancy, even though they’re a lot more energy-efficient. It’s simply because we’re used to how interesting those direct displays are and we just don’t want to accept anything less.