Sunday, January 17, 2010

Widescreen Obesity and HDTV

Since the advent of widescreen televisions, be they Plasma, LCD or (the latest big thing) LED tvs, I have noticed something very odd: an affliction I like to call 'Widescreen Obesity'. These ultra slim (unbelievably so in some cases) and ultra shiny gadgets adorn countless households, borne of the frenzy not to be left behind in the consumer technology boom, and are the staple of display almost everywhere. Some of the time, technology noobs get the input right, the aspect ratios sync up, and all is well. Most of the time, however, especially when the input is a regular television broadcast - either NTSC or PAL, both of which the aspect ratio is 4:3 -, everything is stretched and distorted in order to fit the original aspect ratio into a 16:9 or 1.85:1 or some such mid-widescreen ratio. The end result is that everything onscreen appears noticeably fatter.

The weirdest part, for me at least, is that people seem perfectly okay with it. They proudly mount their sleek new screens on the wall, turn them on and seem never to notice that everything's messed up.  I believe that this is the moden version of the 'Emeperor's New Clothes'. They watch people who're obviously uncomfortably pulled, but cannot admit that this quite costly investment is - to all appearances - a bust. The solution, of course, is high definition television broadcast, which is sent out in widescreen resolution, but that is, as with any new technology, unaffordable and far from widely supported.
A less satisfying but more attainable answer, is to make standard a function that some screens have, that allows the ratio of the onscreen picture to be detected and adjusted accordingly. The downside to this is that after spending all that money on a massive screen, the final picture is only about as big as that of a 50cm 'old fashioned tv' after adjustment.

Even the letterbox format that most DVDs use doesn't fit. It doesn't stretch it, but instead leaves black bars above and below the picture, thereby wasting much of the valuable screen real-estate.

Speaking of high definition television... I think that it is one of the biggest gimmicks of all time. Think of the original chunky crt tv:

Remember them?

Well, I have a question: what was so lo-def about them? Really? Surely the images onscreen didn't look anything like this?


We've still got our trusty Panasonic Tsunami Home Theatre 54cm CRT TV, and my eyes do not suffer any mals because the picture is unclear or undefined. I cannot deny that the vibrance or sheer size of an HDTV is spectacular and colourful and very very attractive, especially to a tech-geek like me. But is it REALLY necessary?

It always tickles me when an advert for high definition television airs because they usually have some high action shot (I'm thinking of extreme urban cycling) set in some exotic and gorgeous location to grab your attention. The cyclists whip by, jumping against a clear azure sky, crashing into the rich ochre paving, while controversial camera angles steal your breath, and cranked up contrast turns everything glorious. Suddenly the camera zooms out and pans left to show some attractive and appropriately awestruck people being blown away by the picture on their oh so amazing LED HDTV. Yes, you say, I have to have that colour! That definition! That smoothness! All of which you've just seen on your very own, but now unworthy television. If you want strange cinematography and  unreasonably high contrast, just watch CSI Miami.
Another gimmick is high refresh rates. A standard screen's refresh rate is between 50 and 60Hz, which means the display is updated between 50 and 60 times a second. I think that's pretty often. Maybe I'm slow, but I can't make out that kind of change when I'm just, you know, watching TV. Newer televisions boast refresh rates of 100 and even 200+Hz. Really? It makes motion that much smoother that any human could notice? Once again, an old chunky box displays smooth - to the eye, which is what matters - movement.

Due only to societal pressures always to advance, even at the cost of sense and satisfaction, HDTV will one day be ubiquitous. But I already hear tell of new technology that allows SUPER DUPER MEGA ULTRA HIGH DEFINITION, which claims detail so fine it is 10 times smaller than current 1080p screens, approaching the definition of human sight. This is all very cool, but cooler still is that the human eye and brain can be tricked into believing that visibly clear and smooth pictures are, in fact, clear and smooth.
That should be enough for anyone who sees in colour and pictures, and not in numbers too large to comprehend, or too small to matter.

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