Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Hear the status "cymbals" clash!


I know it's probably poor sport to rag on XKCD these days, but I can't really control what inspires me to write...and here we are. It must be more than a year now since I found an old three-tube CRT projector on Kijiji at a student-size price (shout-outs to Devin, whose blog you can find at the bottom of the link list since  it can't detect his updates: he drove us there and back when we were getting the thing). It's resolution is a "paltry" 480i; that is to say it is a grid with 640  horizontal pixels and 480 vertical pixels. Each time the screen is refreshed, only every second horizontal line refreshes (complete re-draws consequently take two  cycles). We could not possibly care less.

In the computing world, advances in technology are fast yet incremental. This makes fools of most anyone who claims to have a "revolutionary" product, because ~18-month development cycles just don't work that way. It is for this reason that you hear geeks chuckling when Steve Jobs calls the iPad "magical"*. It's easy to become jaded in such an environment, and to some extent that's good. Where I think Mr. Munroe has gone wrong in making this comic is that he is applying the logic of one environment to another, quite unrelated one. Forget that LCD TVs and monitors are almost the same product in different packaging; that's not actually very important. More pixels will always be better on a PC, bottom line, and there's a fairly simple reason that this is so: scalability. You can always use more room for text, photo/video editing, web surfing, multitasking... as you will always have a)more pixels in the content you're working with than you have on your screen and/or b)more menu bars than you can comfortably fit on a smaller screen. If you're a gamer, you generally don't have to wait for someone to code new games to take advantage of your high-res display. Games use vector data to represent their 3-D worlds, which is then rasterized down to two dimentions: detail is conserved. TVs, on the other hand, have been displaying content in 480i or thereabouts for decades. HDTV resolutions are a greater-than-sixfold increase over the previous standard. Because - as far as I know - we don't encode video in vector format and then render it in real-time inside the TV (I imagine this would be awesome but slow or very low-fi with present technology) you actually need content tailored to your resolution in order for it to be worthwhile. Incremental advances in television resolution would actually look pretty awful, which I can prove to you with a simple experiment. Set your LCD display to a lower resolution than native. If you kept buying LCD TVs with progressively higher and higher resolutions, you'd go through long periods of everything looking like that, because the standard signal would get stretched and skewed unevenly to fit. Upgrading TV tech really only makes sense if there's sufficient content available to make it worth everyone's while to upgrade. The upshot is that the advances will be infrequent but very significant, and hence impressive to someone who has become accustomed to a decades-old format.

*Ask any D&D player worth their salt, and they'll tell you that the magical traps are the dangerous ones. "Traps? I thought this was about the iPad?!" Yes. Yes it is.

What bothers me even more about this comic is that Mr. Munroe is not just making fun of the average consumer for being impressed with a quite substantial upgrade. In mocking HDTV for being technologically inferior to other currently-available technology, he's just saying "mine's bigger, ha ha". It doesn't matter how unimpressed he is with 1080p; he's already fallen into the trap of bigger=better. What happened to XKCD tackling the real problems with modern entertainment, like DRM vs. fair use? Or hey, even better, what about the quality of content available? I think I'm surprised that people find HDTV impressive when you're still renting or buying the same shitty movies...only bigger now. With the title-text he just keeps digging himself into this hole; as you'll see if you look in the forum thread for this strip, the quality of film derives from the equipment, lighting, post-production...not just the framerate. Mr. Munroe is buying into the ridiculous fantasy that you can quantify quality (the idea of "better framerates", for example: different framerates are often as not aesthetic choices, and different settings produce different effects. The only place where more is actually always better? videogames). It's the same unfortunate logic that has brought us to where we are today in the world of entertainment: it is very difficult to blow someone away with careful scripting, nuanced acting, and artful direction...so instead we blow them away with hollow-point bullets and hollow bullet points.

One commenter on the XKCD forums said something that I thought was very perceptive:

"If it's not 24fps, it doesn't look like a movie. That's just how it is.

Let me guess, you guys think it's a travesty that lots of studios still shoot movies on film, too?"

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