21 Oct

There will probably be no 8K. In fact, there will probably be no pixels at all in the future

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The end of pixels The end of pixels David Shapton/RedShark


RedShark Replay: Another chance to read this controversial article, which is also one of the most read-ever pieces on RedShark. What do you think?

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

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.

But the miracle of digital video is that if you have enough pixels, you won’t notice them. Your mind sees the digital image as if it were an analogue one, as long as you don’t get too close.

That’s the thing. If you don’t have enough pixels and you’re sitting too close, you’ll be able to see the grid.

Most people reading this know this stuff already, and I’m reiterating this part of the theory simply to show that pixels aren’t ultimately the best way to represent images. Yes, if you go to HD for “normal” sized TVs in the living room, it looks good; great, even. And if you want a TV that’s twice that size (and four times the area) then it absolutely makes sense to move to 4K.

Genuine reasons for 8K

There are genuine reasons why you might want to have 8K. For example, even if you can’t see the individual pixels in HD or 4K, if you look closely at diagonal lines, you can see jagged edges, and the closer the line is to horizontal or vertical, the worse it gets. You could even say that aliasing magnifies the pixelation by making it more noticeable. Quadrupling the number of pixels reduces this.

There are a number of developments that make me think that not only are there other improvements that will be of more benefit than the pain and expense of moving up to 8K, but that perhaps we might move away from having pixels at all.

Now, please note that we will probably always have to have pixels when it comes to displaying pictures. Unless we invent a digital method to display video that has some kind of organic, non grid-based method, then we will always see the world through a spatially quantized grid when we see recorded or transmitted images. But what will, I think, change radically, is how we store the video.

Vector Video

What I think will happen is that we will move towards vector video.

If you’re a graphic artist, of if you’ve ever played or worked with Corel Draw or Adobe Illustrator over the last thirty years or so, then you’ll be familiar with the distinction between vector and bitmap images. A bitmap is the familiar grid of pixels, each with a set of numbers that describes the colour of the individual square. A vector is completely different. Instead of explicitly stating the colours of each and every part of the object, a vector is a description. You could almost think of it as extremely detailed metadata.

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David Shapton

David is the Editor In Chief of RedShark Publications. He's been a professional columnist and author since 1998, when he started writing for the European Music Technology magazine Sound on Sound. David has worked with professional digital audio and video for the last 25 years.

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