Monday, April 08, 2013

Digital Evolution: Part 2 Images

Yesterday we explored the evolution and impact of digital music and today we look at Images. This can be ‘still images’ such as photography, or ‘moving images’ such as film, animation and television.

We now all take television, photography and film for granted, but it was less than 200 years ago that the only way to capture images was literally with a pen, ink and paint. It wasn’t until the 19th century that photography, followed later by film was invented. Many of the technologies first adopted were time consuming, proprietary and gave low quality results but the seeds of mass adoption and audience were sown.

Although Kodak proudly boasted of their camera in 1889, ‘you press the button we do the rest,’ the rest was what made companies such as Kodak very rich.  The first movie camera didn’t appear until 1880 but it wasn’t until ‘The Jazz Singer’ in 1927 that sound on film became reality. Ironically, at the same time in the ‘20s, Logie Baird was creating the very first television signals.

The digital evolution which began 1957 with Kirch’s first digital picture (176 x 176 pixels) and later with Kodak’s first megapixel sensor in 1969. The next decades have somewhat mirrored the experimentation phases of the 19th century and at the same time have had the same profound impact on how we now, create, develop, share, distribute and consume images.

Tim Berners-Lee published the first photo on the web in 1992. Today we all post our pictures on the likes of Facebook and store our digital libraries on the likes of Instagram. The once mighty Kodak has fallen and technology has consolidated and shrunk into the smartphone we all carry. This means that we are all now capable of capturing that moment and instantly posting it, not just to friends, but to everyone connected to the net.

We witnessed the bloody video wars between VHS and Betamax which were won by the availability of the first consumer camera and some would suggest the take up of the technology by the porn industry.

Television is no longer restricted to the schedule. The likes of Tivo and later BBC iPlayer have redefined TV on demand. The increased capacity of today’s network means we don’t have to buy the DVD, or the lost Blue ray, we can click and watch almost anything on demand when we want, where we want and on what we want. This is now resulting in the merging of services. The likes of Netflix, iPlayer, Sky and others are commissioning their own unique material to supplement their existing content. Film channels that were once provided on the back of a connection service, such as Sky, now have to compete with services such as Netflix who don’t have the same infrastructure. TV schedules and ratings have become less important and the money is shifting to the value of the rights, content and brands.

We have seen the production experts and expert tools continually fall. To alter an image you once needed an expert, then you needed very expensive and complex software tools, now the likes of Adobe Photoshop, digital publishing and movie publishing software is freely available to all. Even the relatively new world of CGI, which commanded an expensive software price, has now plummeted down in price and is available for all at £5K and falling. Technology, or its cost is no longer a barrier to creative entry.

YouTube has not only started to redefine music consumption it has helped redefine moving image quality. What once would have been frowned upon as sub standard filming is now more acceptable. Even the movie industry has made ‘hand held’ films and recognised that everything doesn't have to be perfect. CCTV surrounds us and what appears to be our every move. The smartphone has also started to redefine news coverage, where news can be instantly capture and contrary to the words of Gil Scott Heron, the news will be televised.

However, finding a digital needle in a digital haystack still requires effort. Still images are all too often badly indexed and their rights unclear. Semantic tagging is still a holy grail with one person seeing ‘Hay’ and another a ‘straw hat’ and another seeing neither and just a painting by Van Gogh.

So what is the future of imagery? Sharing and distributing and being able to consume content has never been simpler and available to all. However, a good photograph still requires a photographer, a good film a director, script and actors.

It’s not so much about technology, it’s about human creativity.

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