Ideas, Stories, and Profiles

The futurist Shawn DuBravac, author of Digital Destiny estimates the number of screens in the world to be over eight billion. Half of these are T.V.s and the rest are smartphones, computers, and tablets. This number makes image-display one of the most widespread technologies in the world. This piece is my attempt to explore the journey that brought image display technology into our hands.

A breakthrough technology

Just like any technology in its infancy, previous display technologies were complicated and lacked the efficiency we have today. All the first attempts to display moving images on a medium lacked visual components such as colour, sharpness or the right frame rate (or frequency) that our eyes can capture.

Unlike today’s flat displays, T.V. sets used to be bulky. The core of a T.V. set was the Cathode-Ray Tube (or CRT). For this component to fit in the TV set or the computer monitor they both had to be cubical in shape because the CRT is conical by default for practical reasons.

You can think of a CRT like a firearm shooting bullets on a wall except, for this case, the bullets are electrons, the wall is the screen, and the impacts are the lit pixels. The CRT fires like a machine gun from left to right, top to bottom just like how we read. Over and over again, the impacts get erased quickly to make way for the new ones, the observer is located on the other side of the wall but can see through it. Our brain interprets this visual phenomenon as a moving image or video.

What is amazing about electronics is we can tap into the incredible speed of electrons to make things happen so fast that our intuition loses its mind over it. This makes technology look like magic.

The first commercial colour CRT was produced in nineteen forty-five by Radio Corporation of America.

Sight

By far, the most important organ of sense is the eye. We perceive up to eighty per cent of all impressions by means of our sight or else the eyes convey way more information to our brain more than our ears, nose, tongue, and skin combined. In fact, vision best protects us from danger and that is why it is naturally overrated.

For technology to be relevant it has to embrace our senses, we innovate to bridge the gap between the efficiency of our senses and the inadequacy of our invention. The TV set produced in the eighties could only display images in low quality. In today’s pixels, the average smartphone is two times better for a screen ten times smaller.

LCD display

The liquid crystal display is another technology that came after the CRT. It is mostly used in devices like watches and calculators. They work on a principle called Twisted Nematic Effect, where an electric charge is used to align or twist liquid Crystal molecules. The manipulation of this effect allows the display of numbers. The first wrist watch using LCD was produced in 1972. With the rise of this technology and its migration to TV screens, the CRT death sentence was pronounced. Devices can be flatter and consume low power, hence becoming suitable for portable devices.

From LCD, we move on to another more resolution efficient technology.

The OLED

One of the most used electronic components is called a diode. Some diodes emit light when subjected to an electric current, and these are called Light Emitting Diodes (LED).

LEDs can be very small. When you put millions of them together, you get a screen. Modern screens still use Twisted Nematic Effect but on a larger scale. A pixel is actually not made of a single diode but rather three of them. This placement exploits the RGB colour model to allow full colour display.

The Macintosh Portable was the first consumer laptop to use this technology, in 1989, but it would take more years to populate TV screens and smartphones.

Display innovation

The human eye is a marvel. It has features every cameraman would only dream of, except maybe the zoom. The excellence of human vision is an enormous challenge to optic specialists and engineers — because they have a lot to catch up with.

Though we are comfortable watching video in high resolution on a bi-dimensional space (2D), our visual perception is three-dimensional (3D). There is a need for a 3D image display technology to bridge the sight-display gap.

Before I experienced 3D cinema, I could not wrap my head around the idea of displaying a tri-dimensional visual on a bi-dimensional space. Then Century Cinema opened. My first 3D experience was rather less impressive. In fact, what we call 3D display today is just a parallax effect of 2D or else 2.5D. To be able to display a 3D image, we need a hologram, not a screen. A hologram needs no medium; it just appears, like Tupac at Coachella. Hologram display technology is still under development, otherwise it would be commercial by now.

Interface to technology

The image display technology’s previous role was confined to a passive visual performance output. With touch screen technology, its role has changed from passive to reactive. The penetration of computer processors in most machines has equipped them with display technology, wiping out a ton of push-button commands and making them accessible to operate. Today, image display has managed to impose itself as the interface between humans and other technologies.

The reproduction of images has both creative and practical purposes. From cave painting to smartphone screens, we capture and immortalise visuals to leave a trace of our presence on earth. We communicate better not only with proximity but posterity as well.

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