Thursday, 7 June 2007

Dusk and Lightwaves

I was just talking to an engineer.

I do like engineers, mainly because I like their imagination. They are enthusiasts after all. Why else would they be so committed to whatever their particular crevice of the mind/reality split is ?

I also get on with them because I can partially speak their language - a sort of pigeon-Enginese. I can sort of understand what they're saying as they speak in a language loaded with jargon in some kind of meta-language. I can sort of (badly) understand the maths and I can sort of understand the difference between Discrete Fourier Transforms and Wavelets. Sort of.

But coming back to their imagination they are sometimes far more practiced in its use; I was describing an idea through a metaphor to my new friend and the idea was based upon an understanding of that moment at dusk when the traffic lights are too colourful. I learned later, after first noting this phenomenon, that what I was seeing had a direct physical cause: the rods and cones of the eyes were switching. The cones are good for colour, the rods are good for luminance - or lack of it. We employ mainly the cones during the day when the light is bright (because they're not so good with luminance but good with colour) and we use mainly the rods at night when colour isn't so important, but seeing the edges of things is, in case you bump in to anything.

At dusk the brain is switching its use from one technology to the other. During dusk, light levels fluctuate a bit and you see a driven intensity to the colour.

If you've seen that, or noticed it then you'll know what I mean - if not, keep a look out.

Now - using that as a metaphor, there's a moment in the use of definition within an image, standard definition, High Definition, 35mm, 2k, 4k all of those different kinds and levels of definition, where what is real and what is not becomes confused. Obviously in future developments of technology there will be a moment when a displayed image can be mistaken for the real thing. For instance: a few years ago with digital sound, as my new engineering friend said, there was a moment when you could place a string quartet behind a curtain and also some very good speakers and a digital recording of the string quartet and the listener couldn't tell the difference between the two. The same will be true with images.

NHK in Japan are experimenting with Super Hi Vision as they call it and with Ultra Hi Definition as we call it. The use of English is revealing in that the Japanese have furry friends and we have strategically placed guided missiles with surgical incision. Their new system is 8000 lines resolution and a raw signal has a bit-rate of 24-Gigabits-per-second. That's a lot of data. But this means we have an understanding of what we have to do to make it work as a system. The first reports tell us that the images are immersive - not immersive in the old two telescreens strapped to a headband where you wander around in a lousy graphic environment not really believing why you are actually doing this - but immersive in the sense that you 'buy' what you're being shown in much the same way that you're happy to stand in line to buy the popcorn and take a seat and for 90 minutes believe that monsters are threatening the Enterprise or your sympathies really do lie with a bloke that has scissors instead of hands.

So for me, more interesting than the heady realms of a technology that supplies more detail than the eye can actually use, will be the place where you are both convinced at one moment and not convinced at another moment by what you see. A flickering place of acceptance and non-acceptance. It's a similar 'place' using the metaphor of the rods and cones to the one you find yourself in at dusk. It is a liminal place, a borderland where some interesting work can be done. It is a place characterized by ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy.

There are issues of belief and suspension of disbelief - and as so competently understood by my engineering friend - that is where the art can be found.