The resolution of resolution

by Gautam Raja

In the 1980s, I used to play a game called ‘Elite’ on our 8-bit home computer. It was a fiendishly difficult space simulator whose 3-D graphics were considered ahead of their time. To our modern eyes, however, they look like sets of jagged white lines against a largely empty screen. Spaceships, for example, are the most rudimentary wireframe with no textures or lighting effects.

There’s a new version of Elite out now, and as different as you can possibly imagine. Close-up stars that in 8-bit were rough circles with a couple of longitudinal arcs thrown in, are now stunning fireballs with solar flares, and seething orange and yellow surfaces. The white dots that represented space are replaced by feathery dust clouds and realistic galaxies.

A BBC journalist who had played the original 8-bit game, recently reviewed the current one in an online news video. As he played it using the Oculus Rift headset, he said in wonder, “This is what I wanted the game to look like.” And exactly as I thought it, he added, “Well this is what the game did look like to me; in my head in 1984.”

It’s true. In a way those plain wireframes were the base for the lighting effects and texture maps projected in our head. We never questioned the realism, and were kept occupied for hours. Today though, I believe we are within sight of the ceiling. As the amount information we can stream, store and display finally matches or exceeds the limits of our senses, we will be free of all the numbers we encounter when we deal with digital content.

Two years ago I wrote here about buying my first high-resolution music download—a 96kHz, 24-bit version of Metallica’s “Black Album”. Today, 192kHz, 24-bit recordings are a familiar sight, and just the other day I noticed a 352kHz download. The consensus online seems to be that once you’ve made the jump from 16 to 24 bits, it’s hard to differentiate between the sampling frequencies, and that anything above 96kHz could well be overkill. For music that was recorded in analogue on studio reel-to-reel, we’ve already surpassed the “resolution” of tape. (Though an analogue signal has a theoretically infinite resolution, there’s a limited number of magnetic particles in the tape.) There’s the suggestion that with current high resolution music, we are approaching the limits of our ears. (Barring developments such as music that is spatially encoded, and plays back through tens of channels over millions of transducers embedded in the paint of our homes of course.)

But really, how long now before all new audio is “ear quality” and all new video is “eye quality”?

As our minds do less work filling in or ignoring the gaps in our digital content, we’re free to feel on a deeper level. One Oculus Rift wearing reviewer of Elite Dangerous (the new version) talked about how many moments there were of sheer wonder during the game. That he stopped just to gaze at, say, blazing twin stars, and planets that seemed to hang in space with actual weight to them. This is a future where to experience ‘awe’ and ‘wonder’ in the true senses of the words, you don’t have to hike out in Yosemite or the Himalayas, but can strap on a virtual reality headset and have these emotions in your living room.

That’s really exciting, and I look forward to it, but interestingly would not wish it on my 1980s self. My 8-bit game play will be my version of ‘walking 10 miles to get to school every morning’.

First published in Gulf News, January 6, 2015