How Important is Screen Size to Television Watching?

by James Wallace Harris, Mondy, June 11, 2018

Some people love watching movies on their smartphone even though those film premiered on IMAX screens using Dolby Atmos speakers. Evidently, the essential quality of a film is in the storytelling. Television viewers used to watch widescreen Technicolor movies on nineteen inch black and white sets and still enjoyed them immensely.

So why should I worry about upgrading my TV to a larger screen and better sound?

Last night I watched a 1957 western, Night Passage, on a 56″ DLP television via a local over-the-air station called Grit TV. I had recorded it with my TiVo and it cut off the last few seconds. Luckily, I had a DVD copy to watch the ending. When I played the disc I was startled to discover this old western was in 2.35:1 widescreen and the color levels were completely different. When watching the over-the-air version, it didn’t feel like the aspect ratio of 4:3 of old TV pan and scan, because the frame was more rectangular. It had been cropped to be slightly widescreen in appearance.

Below is my way of faking what I’m talking about. I wish I could provide real screenshots, but this is close. I just cropped a widescreen scene with Brandon De Wilde and Jimmy Stewart to 400 x 300 pixels and converted it to black and white to imagine what 1950s TV might have been like (it would have been fuzzier). The second is a photo I found that feels more like the Grit TV version. I assume the third photo is the right aspect ratio.

Night-Passage-fake-4to3

Night Passage cropped

Night Passage widescreen

The thing is, I enjoyed the heck out of seeing this movie again. I especially enjoyed the beautiful scenery. The first time I watched this film was on a black and white television set — and I love it then too. I always remember it as a black and white movie even though it’s in color because of first seeing it on a black and white TV set. But when I looked at the DVD version, I felt like I had missed a significant portion of the film. The DVD widescreen view showed far more scenery, was much sharper and probably the color palette more accurate.

What artistic qualities do we miss from movies and television when we only focus on the storytelling? We could just read books instead if all we wanted was a story.

Would I have enjoyed the film more if I had watched the DVD from the beginning? I have dozens of my favorite westerns on DVD and Blu-ray, but quite often I watch them off of Grit TV. It’s just convenient.

I’ve been contemplating giving up the physical technology of CDs, DVDs, SACDs, and Blu-ray discs. 99% of the time I stream music or television. It would simplify my life if I got rid of all my discs.

I love the idea of minimalism, but what am I sacrificing by rejecting the higher resolution discs of my favorite movies, TV shows, and albums? For the most part, streaming music via Spotify isn’t that different from listening to CDs unless I’m concentrating. Streaming movies with Netflix and Amazon are almost as good as Blu-ray if I’m not concentrating.

Watching the DVD on my 56″ TV is probably as close as I can currently get to having seen Night Passage in the theater in 1957. That would be even truer if I had a larger television set. I assume the more I can recreate the cinematographer’s original vision, the more I can experience the original story to its fullest. But what are those extra dimensions beyond storytelling?

Visual and aural realism.

I was looking at TVs at Best Buy today, thinking I’d upgrade to a 65″ television. But my eyes loved the 75″ screens more, and I was blown away by an 83″ model. The bigger the screen, the more I felt like I was seeing reality. That’s also the difference between books and movies. Before movies, writers spent more words describing what readers would see. Such descriptions added realistic details. The better the author was at describing the world in details, the more readers felt like they were reading something based on truth.

Movies give verisimilitude to storytelling. The widescreen version of Night Passage made me feel Jimmy Stewart was actually in all those natural settings and not on a soundstage. When movies were black and white and had an unrealistic square aspect ratio, they were mostly filmed on sets and backlots. Those old films had a tinsel town feel. When we got Technicolor and widescreen, moviemakers went on locations around the world to give us more realism.

Would I experience art as more true-to-life if I built a home theater with a projector TV with a screen in the 100-120″ range? Probably. Is it needed? No. If I was watching a 4K nature documentary I’d certainly feel like I was there more than when watching a smaller set. It’s like when I play CDs and SACDs, I only hear the extra sound texture if I’m concentrating diligently.

It was when I watch a turtle swimming underwater on the largest sets a Best Buy that I noticed the details of the sand and plants it swam over. I then felt like I was there scuba diving. If I watched The Sweet Smell of Success, another 1957 film, I’d feel what it was like sitting in a glamorous smoky bar in New York City with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis.

If we watched Downton Abbey at an IMAX theater, the realism of the sets and costumes would be stunning compared to TV watching. Of course, when I tell my wife I want to get a giant screen television she thinks I’m crazy. Why spend so much more money when we already love our twelve-year-old 56″ television? Well, Susan isn’t a good judge of TV technology. She watches television while playing games on her laptop or using Facebook on her iPhone. She needs much less from a story to enjoy it.

The older I get the more I withdraw into my home. Our television set is the way we view the world and visual arts. Is it worth upgrading to 4K? If Night Passage was available on Blu-ray or 4K discs, should I buy them for that extra realism?

Should I give up over-the-air TV? MeTV shows old Perry Mason episodes cropped for modern widescreen TVs without any distortion. Perry never looked better. I tried to find a streaming version of Night Passage to compare, but it’s not available that way. Handmaid’s Tale is stunning to look at on a 56″ TV at 1080p, but what would it look like on a 75″ 4K set, or even projected to 120 inches?

Is wanting a humongous screen just crazy? I could give up all my high-resolution discs, and only live with convenient streaming on a modest 65″ television, but what would I be missing? I suppose someday streaming music and movies will have the same quality as discs and wall-size televisions will be affordable by all and we won’t have to worry about making such decisions.

JWH

 

 

 

Social Media Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, March 9, 2018

AFF_MarApr2018_400x570I’ve been reading the new March/April 2018 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. I’ve found two stories we could call social media science fiction. I’ve read many other examples of this emerging sub-genre but can’t recall them at the moment. But I smell a trend.

Since I’ve been reading stories from Astounding Science Fiction, Analog’s previous title, from 50-80 years ago I can’t help but imagine what readers 50-80 years from now will think about these two stories.

The first story, “The Streaming Man” by Suzanne Palmer is about a fellow named Rohn who is an inventor of implantable medical monitors. For fun, Rohn programs these monitors to also play different musical instruments based on data from his body, so his body generates music and he puts that feed online. His unique compositions gather a large following of online listeners who become addicted to the music of his body. Rohn likes to interact with his followers via something like Twitter. His followers try to guess what Rohn is doing based on the music he makes. The story itself has other characters and complications but for us readers, this story tells us how creative the internet is and will be.

The second story, “Razzibot” by Rich Larson is about a fourteen-year-old girl, Marisol, receiving a Razzibot for her birthday. This device is a small AI driven drone that flies around Marisol filming her life for a live feed to the internet. Between Marisol’s need for followers, and the AI’s ability to always seek shots that flattery Marisol’s looks and appeal to the viewers’ voyeurism, the number of her followers grow and grow. Through the story, Marisol knows when she’s playing up to the camera, but also knows when she’s revealing too much of her personal life. The tale is about ego and technology.

These two stories are very engaging. Besides good writing, I assume their relevant topics would make them appealing reads to most people. Both of these stories feel very possible. In fact, the science might already exist to allow them to happen. The stories are so close to now I have to wonder if we should even call them science fiction. They could be considered contemporary social commentary. If a reader in 2068 reads them what will they think? I can easily imagine future readers believing these stories were realistic fiction about 2018.

That’s the thing. When I read technology and science news I often feel that I’m already living in a science fictional future. I also find it really hard to imagine the next fifty years experiencing as much change as I have in the last fifty years. It’s one thing for Dick Tracy comics to imagine a wrist phone back in 1946 that’s a lot like an Apple smartwatch, but it’s a whole other thing for us to imagine what people will be using in 2090. All the easy to imagine inventions have been fictionally invented.

That makes it hard for science fiction writers. Coming up with the idea of making music from monitoring bodily functions is clever. Thinking up an always-on selfie robot is good too, but less original. They already have drone selfie cams on the market. Building in the AI to make users internet interesting is not such a stretch. SF writers probably have a hard time keeping up with real science and technology.

Dick Tracy’s two-way wrist radios go back 72 years. It wasn’t called a phone. His creator didn’t imagine cell phones. Portable two-radios were already getting smaller back then, so it wasn’t a big leap to imagine one on the wrist. We’d be far more impressed if Chester Gould had imagined a cellular phone system or a computer network.

Science fiction often imagines too much, thinking up magical inventions, like teleporters, brain downloading, holodecks, or spaceships that can make interstellar flights in a few hours. We know computer chips are getting smaller, but should we expect smartphones to get smaller too? They were, but then they got larger. There’s a practical limit to what’s useful to hold. I figure most people want to over-imagine things and suggest people in 2090 will have smartphones built into their heads, and thus providing techno-telepathy.

I find Blu-tooth headsets annoying to wear and use, and I don’t see many people sporting them like years ago. And if you’ve ever talked to Alexa or Siri you know that there are limitations in doing things verbally. I suppose we could wear necklaces that are phones which operate by voice commands and have auxiliary tablet screens for reading. But I find hearing people talk on their cellphones annoying, so picturing a world where everyone looks like they are talking to themselves and not holding anything will be even more aggravating. The other day I saw a man walking down the street shouting angrily. I told myself, “I hope he’s on a phone.”

There are countless implications to everyone having a smartphone, especially one tied to our physiology. What happens to privacy? What happens to crime when everyone’s location can be tracked in great detail? There are endless stories there, but what happens to the old-fashioned mystery novel? We’d always know who-did-it. Have you ever noticed how many classic movies would have had their plots invalidated if the characters had cell phones?

Both “The Streaming Man” and “Razzibot” assume technology will make certain individuals more interesting than others. But if everyone has the same technology will that be true? Marisol is interesting because her friends don’t have a Razzibot. Rohn is interesting because he’s the only person making music with his body.

I’m wondering if technology will eventually even out and a return to privacy will become compelling. Today I read “For Two Months, I Got My News From Print Newspapers. Here’s What I Learned” by Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times. Manjoo got better news by getting his news from slower news sources. I would think some science fiction writers might work on imagining a backlash to more technology.

I know I’m getting irritated by so many people calling me every day. Maybe we’ve become too accessible. Which is the driving force of the plot lines of these two short stories.

JWH

Tim’s Vermeer–Art History Meets Technology

Penn and Teller’s new documentary, Tim’s Vermeer, is about Tim Jenison, founder of NewTek, a man with no drawing skills, deciding to paint a picture equal to one by Johannes Vermeer by using technology to aid him.  Jenison was inspired by David Hockney who wrote Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, which developed the Hockney-Falco thesis.  Basically, Jenison attempts to completely recreate a Vermeer to test this theory, and David Hockney appears in the film to judge his results.  Jenison decides to paint The Music Lesson, and goes so far as to recreate Vermeer’s studio in a warehouse, use the same handmade pigments Vermeer used, and grind his his own lenses to exclude modern technological advantages.   The film is about the years it took to prove a Vermeer like painting could be made using the Hockney-Falco like techniques.

I found the film dazzling for several reasons.  First, Tim Jenison is an inspiration for anyone with big ambitions.  Second, and most importantly, I loved seeing the Vermeer paintings blown up to the size of theater screens.  Third, the film shows just how tedious it is to paint a picture.  Fourth, it’s just so damn far out to see how technology works.  It really doesn’t matter if you believe the hypothesis or not, because the documentary is a wonderful example of how inventors works.

Here is the original Vermeer.  Click to see larger version.

the music lesson

Here is Jenison’s painting.  It’s different because the studio and models he used were different.

jenison-the-music-lesson

The trouble with the hypothesis is it can’t be proved.  We have plenty of contemporary painters who paint dazzling photo-realistic paintings that don’t use similar optical technology.  Tim’s Vermeer’s feat of invention just proves that photo-realistic painting can be painted by a non-artist using technology.  Essentially, Tim Jenison became a very slow photographic emulsion.

The hypothesis contends that beyond a certain point the eye can only see so much and the Vermeer paintings represent something beyond human capabilities.  I’m afraid they are misjudging the capabilities of the mind.  Just study Oliver Sacks.

Look at this video about Stephen Wiltshire’s ability to see, remember and draw.

 

Or look at what modern painters can do, such as Alyssa Monks.

monks_smirked_450

 

Or watch this painting of Morgan Freeman being made on an iPad by Kyle Lambert.

If you want to know more, please read:

JWH – 4/2/14

Please Recommend SF Books for a Course on Technology and Culture

A friend of mine has a friend that wants to create a course on the impact of technology on culture as seen through science fiction.  Since she knows I’m a Sci-Fi nut, she asked me for author and book recommendations.  This sounded like a fun challenge until I started thinking about concrete examples.  I wondered if most classic science fiction books and authors from the past still count?  When does science fiction go stale?

windup-girl

Does Neuromancer still work to show off the effect of a wired world?  Or would Little Brother by Cory Doctorow be more relevant now?  What’s a good book about robots?  Everyone immediately thinks of Asimov, but his stories are so quaint now that we have real robots.  Would Robert Sawyer’s Wake, Watch, Wonder Trilogy be a better story about intelligent machines and what they would mean to society?

What would be a good book for genetics and longevity?  I could recommend the movie Gattaca, but what book?  What about Holy Fire by Bruce Sterling?

For the impact of technology to deal with global warming and running out of oil, I’d highly recommend The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.

There’s zillions of space travel books but do any of them explore the impact of space travel on world culture?  Quite often science fiction is about a technology without being about its impact on society.  Think of all the stories about SETI.  Contact by Carl Sagan is the most famous, but does it really say much about what it would mean to the people of Earth if we started getting messages from the stars? 

How would our lives on Earth be different if humans colonized Mars?

If you think about it, our current society is far more tech driven than any science fiction book I’ve ever read.  What novel captures us now?  I thought about Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.

And should we list books where technology destroys civilization like The Road by Cormac McCarthy?  Or what about books that want to rebuild technology after our culture collapses like Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett and A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.?

Are there any technological utopias portrayed in recent science fiction books?  2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson is very hopeful I’d say.

I’m sure I’m missing the obvious, but I also believe there are many great books written in the last twenty years that are excellent but I haven’t read them.  Tell me about them.

JWH – 12/3/13

Beyond the iPod

Because the iPod and iTunes has had such a fantastic impact on the music industry, I have to wonder if another industry shaking revolution like it is possible?  I’m reading The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria, where he praises the U.S. for economic innovation, so I assume for us to stay ahead of the pack we’ll have to keep inventing new tech to market.  We’ve seen a lot of technological change in the last 50 years, but does that mean we’ll see constant growth in the next 50 years?

And will other emerging capitalistic markets start beating us at our own game?  Zakaria claims that America is not declining but the rest of the world is rising.  That means both new markets and new competitors.  But will anyone anywhere create another product like the MP3 player to change the marketing of music again?

I remember the days before video recorders – where few people saw the advent of the VHS revolution coming, but once it was underway it was very easy to accept a steady stream of new tech acronyms like CD, PC and DVD.   The MP3 was even more revolutionary and economically disturbing because music moved from physical objects to bits, bytes and electrons.  There was no need for any of these inventions other than convenience, which shoots down that old theory about necessity being the mother of invention.  We’re now into the HD and Blu-Ray upheavals.

I originally started collecting music by buying 45s and LPs.  Then I had to start over with CDs.  And for a short while a few years ago I had started moving to SACDs.  I’m hesitant to make another move, but I’ve finally committed to the MP3 format.  The question is, will I have buy my favorite songs all over again in another format in the future?

But back to my questions about iPods.  Assuming that the iPhone is really an iPod merged with two other revolutionary technologies, a cell phone and a computer, is there theoretically room for a new paradigm shifting music device?  If Steve Jobs sanctioned subscription music there would be a slight bump in the iPod road, but not much.  People would still be listening to music with white plastic buds in their ears.  Once you get rid of the physical media where is there room to invent?   Sure, we could talk science fiction and imagine ESP delivered music, but we have to stay somewhat realistic.

Maybe I’m not imaginative enough, but no matter how much I rack my brains I can’t imagine a new gadget for music.  I can imagine variations on the current iPod, lots of them in fact, but they’re all just improvements:  larger hard drive, larger flash memory, better sounding headphones, tiny built-in Hi-Fi speakers, SACD quality files, better filing systems, but nothing that offers drastic change.  I feel the same about personal computers and televisions.  Once you go beyond the physical medium of DVDs like DVRs, improvements are more of a matter of storage space and video quality.

Gadget junkies are going to need to look elsewhere for big society-changing technology.  Before long I think the geekiest of geeks will be buying home solar power generators.  If you can generate a significant portion of your own power, getting into a plug-in hybrid cars is the next gizmo that’s going to change society.  Now those two technologies are going to be huge game changers.  It will be like the iPod – you won’t need to buy that much gas to run your car – or at least not much compared to how things are now, and the secondary fuel may not even be gasoline.  See the trend – away from the physical.  Think 1950s movie science fiction where all the aliens did everything with glowing balls.

Mechanical evolution is moving towards fewer moving parts (hard drive to flash drive) and away from the physical (CD to MP3).   Electric cars have a lot fewer moving parts, and fewer parts in general.  Solar energy panels, LCD TVs, iPhones don’ have any moving parts.  If computers move to flash memory storage and became completely net oriented, they could even jettison the optical drive, and the only moving parts would be in the keyboard.

There’s a chance that Blu-Ray won’t even catch on because we’ve already gone beyond the physical with online movies and DVRs.  I would buy a Blu-Ray player now if it was $99.95 and get discs from Netflix, but if they don’t bring down the price soon they will have competing products that distribute HD video over the web, or cable companies will figure out a way to distribute HD programs on demand.  Cable companies are already teamed up with Rhapsody and other subscription music services to provide songs on demand.

My guess is the end is near for revolutionary gadgets for music, movies, television, audio books, e-books and other media that can be digitized.  What we will see is refinement in software.  Putting a cell phone, GPS, camera, computer into an iPod styled package isn’t revolutionary, just evolutionary.  What makes the new iPhone 3G so exciting is the software.  Now that the iPhone is opened up to developers it becomes very promising for endless speculation of what it could be, but it’s still the same old gadget.  That’s why Google saw the Android phone as such a big deal – open development – build it and they will come.

If a person could ask his iPod to play the ten most played songs on iPods in America during the last 24 hours, that would effect the music industry.  If she could ask for the top iPod songs from Russia, India or Dubai, that could have a new kind of impact too.  Or if you’re on a road trip and could ask your iPod to play the most popular songs of the towns you are passing, that would be another interesting variation.  The Zune song sharing feature is very cool and Apple and others should copy it.

All those features effect the distribution of music, making music more global and making it more social.  Sheet music was the technology for spreading music in the early days.  The first gadget to change the world of music was the phonograph.  Then came the radio, creating the mass audience.  To understand the impact of radio watch Ken Burn’s Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio, which you can buy from Amazon or rent from Netflix, but if you want even more details, track down the out-of-print book by the same title written by Tom Lewis.   The phonograph went through many refinements including the CD, but ultimately, the ethereal MP3 player replaced it.

At first the MP3 file technology, combined with technology to play the file set music free.  Bad for the industry.  The goal of the music industry is to sell music as widely as possible.  Illegally free MP3 music has a wide distribution, but it’s not necessarily the best way to promote music.  Kid’s pretty much stole what they already liked.  Radio has always been the best medium to educate people about new music, and it’s always been free too, because it came with programming and promotion.

What will be the next big revolution in the music industry won’t be a gadget but software.  The networked computer part of the iPhone and iPod Touch has the ability to promote music in ways never possible before.  Whether you buy songs 99 cents at a time, or subscribe to them at $15 a month, getting you to commit ear time to a song is the dream of all musical artists.  People have complained about the stale rotation of Top 40 music for decades, but with a world of hundreds of countries and thousands of cultures, and all their musical history, there’s a lot of music to discover and play.

Let’s say you want to get into music history, wouldn’t it be fun to tell your iPod to start with 1950 and begin playing the Top 100 Hits of that year and move forward in time, and then use your click wheel to rate the songs.  Or buy a future edition of “How to Listen to and Understand Great Music” from the Teaching Company and have it play full pieces while it instructs you about the history of music?  Or buy a special edition of Richie Unterberger‘s history of folk rock and whenever you hear the narrative mention a song, it pauses to play the song.

Just remember, it’s not about the iPod stupid, it’s about music.  What we want is great music.  What we want is for as many composers, performers, producers and publishers to become wealthy or at least make a good living as possible.  We want music to stimulate the economy.  We want it to be a driving force in culture and art.  Every decade needs their own Beatles, Springsteen, Madonna and Prince.  Modern pop music is produced like candy and not art.  It needs more new waves like Rap and Hip-Hop before they got tired like rock, jazz and country.

I’m willing to call it quits with the development of MP3 music technology.  I don’t need any more convenience.  What I miss is the excitement I got from music back in the 1960s when I was growing up.  What I love is discovering a new song that I’ll play over and over again for two weeks.  It’s been a long time since I’ve found such a song.  Susie and I are watching The Beatles Anthology, an eight part DVD documentary and it’s riveting.  I don’t need or want a new generation of iPods, what I want is the new Beatles.

Jim