There's a seemingly unstoppable trend towards more and more pixels. Greater resolution is heralded as the future of video. David Shapton doesn't think it is. He thinks there is another way. It's a radical suggestion, but completely plausible
Living memory is a wonderful thing. For anyone born in the last sixty years, it encompasses more change than any other successive generations have ever seen. And one of the things that we’ve got used to is increasing resolutions.
From our perspective, today, it all seems to have happened very quickly. Anyone working in professional video today will have very clear memories of Standard Definition video. Some of us still use it! But the current working paradigm is HD.
Next on the horizon
Next on the horizon is 4K. And, with almost unseemly haste, we’re already talking about 8K. In fact, some organisations, like Sony and the BBC, kind-of lump together any video formats with greater than HD resolution, using expressions like “Beyond Definition” (although in Sony’s case, that also means that resolution isn’t everything and that there are other factors like increased colour gamut and contrast that matter as well).
Everyone wants better pictures. There’s nothing wrong with the principle that - all things being equal - if you can record your images in a high resolution format, then you probably should.
The idea of digital video is now so well established that it’s virtually passed into folklore. At the very least, the word “Pixel” is bandied around as if it’s always been part of the language.
In reality, it’s not been around for very long. Cathode ray tubes don’t use pixels, and nor do VHS recorders or any type of analogue video equipment.
Before pixels came along, video was recorded as a continuously varying voltage. It wasn’t quantized, except, arguably, by the end of a scanning line and the completion of a video field.
Digital video is exactly that. It’s video represented by digits. It’s rather like “painting by numbers” except that rather than representing an image by drawing lines that separate distinct colours, a regular grid is imposed on the picture. Each element in the grid is a pixel, and it is allocated a number that can be used to look up the colour under that part of the grid. It really is that simple.
But of course, it’s not the best way to represent an image. Nature isn’t made up of a natural grid, and even if it was, it wouldn’t match the superimposed pixel grid.
When you think about it, it really does take a stretch of the imagination to understand how something as subtle and organic as a flower can be represented by a string of binary digits. The two concepts might as well exist in different universes. And actually they do: the analogue domain and the digital domain.