A Biography of the Pixel
The Great Digital Convergence of all media types into one universal digital medium occurred, with little fanfare, at the recent millennium. The bit became the universal medium, and the pixel—a particular packaging of bits—conquered the world. Henceforward, nearly every picture in the world would be composed of pixels—cell phone pictures, app interfaces, Mars Rover transmissions, book illustrations, videogames, virtual reality. In my soon-to-be-released book, A Biography of the Pixel, I argue that the pixel is the organizing principle of modern picturing, and I present a few simple but profound ideas that unify the dazzling varieties of digital image-making. I call that general field Digital Light, comprising all pictures made of pixels. This talk is my announcement to the world that my 10-year project to establish the foundations of Digital Light is about to bear fruit.
My story of the pixel’s development begins in 1800 with Fourier waves, proceeds through the Sampling Theorem and Turing machines in the mid-1930s, and ends at the millennium with the first digital movies from Pixar, DreamWorks, and Blue Sky.Digital Light is much vaster than just digital movies, but the movies serve as dazzling exemplars of the astonishing developments in the last half-century, fueled by the supernova explosion in computational power represented by Moore’s Law.
Along the way, I discovered how shaky were the foundations of Digital Light. I believe that this book will start to turn that around with a more careful retelling. I begin by making a clean distinction between pixels and display elements, often conflated. Then I properly establish the creators of the Sampling Theorem and of the movies. I share with you the discoveries of the first computer, the first pixels, the first color pixels, the first character animator, the first digital animations, the first interactive videogames, and other firsts along the way. I show that simple narratives with single heroes are hardly ever the way to present the history of a high technology. I give several illustrations of the role of chaos and tyranny, or a tyrant, in such developments.I articulate, for the first time I believe, the Central Dogma of computer graphics, and then urge artists to break through it. And I do peek at what’s happened since the millennium and what might happen yet.
Publisher: The MIT Press. Release date: Spring 2021.