The HD window
If you haven’t been living under a low-poly rock the last couple of years, you know that there is transition going on in the media industries. The DVD format is soon to be superseded by HD-DVD or Blu-Ray. These are new formats that utilize the HD capable television sets that are sold everywhere. In many countries, HDTV has been broadcasted for years. This change is also very present in the videogame industry and has the effect that the content problem is increasing further: rendering HD requires much higher quality content than rendering for stone-age PAL or NTSC television sets.
One might think that switching to HD has little effect other than new disc formats and better quality, but I want to share an idea about what HD might do in the long run.
The notable difference between HD and “traditional TV” is resolution. On the Blu-Ray disc media, apart from higher resolution, the standard also includes much more powerful means of rendering menus and supporting material (I think they are using Java as a platform for this). Of course, plugging in more power into the menu and support system means that we suddenly will be able to do some new neat stuff with the discs. Perhaps will it be possible to run games with adequate performance on the HDTV? Who knows? What we do know, however, is that the resolution is going to be a kicker – in comparison to current (old) broadcast quality.
TV versus Cinema
It you ever watch a TV-movie you know that there are differences between those kinds of productions and “real cinema movies”. Most people can detect that TV-feeling quite easily, but what those differences actually consists of are somewhat more difficult to spot. One of them is production value; most TV-movies have less budget than the average Hollywood movie. But there is another, more striking, difference: media produced directly for TV is made differently – because of the format.
A TV-production has to take in consideration the small viewing window and the fact that it is harder to make out details on a TV-set (because of low resolution). Try watching C’era una volta il West on a 14” TV and you will see exactly what I mean. On that same set, then watch an episode of any TV-show you like and notice the difference. You will see much more close-up work, nore focus on dialog and less panoramic views. TV production has its special limitations that has driven its estethics. Of course, this has had an impact on movies as well, but if you start paying attention to those things you will notice that there are things that work better on TV than on cinema as well.
So viewed this way is the major difference between cinema and TV size and resolution. (There is also a difference to how the audience behave. In a movie theatre the audience is much more attentative and alert – which affects how much demand the narrative can put on the viewers.)
With the advent of larger computer screens there has been an equivalent evolution. Increasing size and resolution affects how information can be and is presented. For example, working on a 30” widescreen display kind of makes the need for desktop switchers moot (well, a little). We can see the interface of operating systems being adapted to the more “spacey” world. Windows XP and Vista is not exactly slim in its design. And one might argue that they don’t have to. Aperture is an example of an application that requires a large display. I run it on a 17” widescreen, but I do feel cramped at times.
So, as the resolution and size goes up on computer screens, it becomes possible to, for example, give better and more detailed overview of information.
Football on HDTV
With the upcoming Football World Championship coming up, I had a conversation with my girlfriend about the merits of live football (on a stadium) versus in the sofa in fron of the TV. My experience is that it is easier to follow football on a TV screen. On the other hand, if you are on a stadium you get the whole picture better (if you have good seats). You see what is going on “outside the TV-frame”. Because of the format restrictions, football on TV is shown with frequent close-up shots. This is good since it reveals detail. You can see who’s controlling the ball and all the cool footwork. But you miss the bigger picture.
Now, with a large sized HD display, its higher resolution and ability to show detail, it would be perfectly possible to have the camera back out quite a bit and reveal more of the playfield. This would be a huge gain when watching a football game. With a large enough TV and high enough resolution, one can even imagine a fixed camera that shows the whole play-field all the time – a HD window to the stadium.
I don’t think that fixed camera football will happen though. Static imagery contains less drama than a moving action camera, but can contain more information. We already see this change in games. Playing RTS games or WoW on a large screen allows the player to get a much better overview of the field of play. Games with large GUIs (like “Oblivion”) also benefit since they can bring more info up-front instead of hiding it in subscreens and menus (although Oblivion has its fair share of subscreens). But with larger space and more information the design needs to tackle information problems a bit differently. Instead of grouping things into menus, screens and such, other means of grouping becomes possible and necessary. Helping the player (or viewer) focusing on the right piece of information becomes another challenge. Furthermore, narrative may perhaps be pushed forward a bit differently since it becomes possible to pull the camera back to grasp a situation more fully, and still have the detail.
I think that within a couple of years, we will start seeing the effect of the HD transition. I believe it will have impact on TV, videogames and cinema, perhaps more so than we think.