The Last Days of the Pixel (Ones You Can See, Anyway)

I was driving a rental car recently that had a small display between the speedometer and fuel gauge. When you started the car, a little animation played, showing the car company's logo. And I thought: "That looks cheap." The color palette was limited, but, more important, so was the resolution. The whole thing looked pixelated. Pixelated means inexpensive.

Pixels are an anachronism, the clumsy brush strokes of the digital world. There are no technological reason we should see them, only economic ones. Within a few years, pixels will be relegated to the world of retro chic. It's simply a matter of cost, of our ability to manufacture high resolution, flexible, sturdy displays cheaply.

That we've been on a journey to a pixel-less world is only apparent as you near its end.

Hanging in my kitchen is a scoreboard that I picked up at an antique store a few years back. This is what it looks like plugged in:

Scoreboard.jpg

Each of those zeroes is comprised of 18 pixels from a palette of 28; the one is seven pixels high. The scoreboard is entirely analog (when running, you can hear the seconds tick in the controller) but the concept is the same - lighting particular points at the proper moment. Think of the first digital alarm clock you owned, the sort with numbers that glowed a deep red. Those digits were comprised of seven (very long) pixels. To make a 7, three pixels were lit. These are the bones of our earliest digital ancestors.

Consider video games. Pong. Atari. Street Fighter. Doom. Call of Duty. Battlefield 3. As processors became better able to handler smaller and smaller sprites (game objects), the sprites started using smaller and smaller pixel footprints. The smaller the object, the more realistic the scene. Pixels are an impediment to the suspension of disbelief. The only game in which seeing pixels is an asset is in the recently viral Where's The Pixel, which is easier to win if you drop your screen resolution.

When announcing the iPhone 4, Apple trumpeted a new feature they called Retina Display - a higher resolution screen packed with more (smaller) pixels per inch. The smaller the pixel, the less visible it becomes, the less aware we are that we're looking at a screen. Now, rumor has it that this same higher resolution display is coming to Apple computers. Apple's claim that the resolution of a Retina Display is so high that pixels can't be seen is debatable, but at some point we'll get there incontrovertibly. The introduction of this higher resolution into the full range of Apple products will be a key shift, akin to Apple's lead role in eliminating floppy drives.

Last week, I stumbled onto a video released by the glass manufacturer Corning presenting the myriad ways in which durable glass will impact our digital world.

It features a car, the dashboard of which is one large, high-resolution display. It looks expensive, futuristic (and a little painful in the event of an accident). But the scenario it presents is compelling. It's easy to see this world existing within our lifetimes. Until then, we'll just drive rental Ataris.

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Philip Bump is a former politics writer for The Atlantic Wire.

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