Friday, May 8, 2009

Spec as a double entendre

You're probably familiar with mosaics, the kind of pictures made from individual blocks of color. It's an ancient, beautiful art form, and it's been used to immortalize things like the Holy Land, the Greek hero Ulysses, Jesus, and of course Pac-man.

Because mosaics came full circle when we entered the digital era. Suddenly the ability to create images out of colored squares was not a matter of styling anymore, it was built into the spec. Pixels were the new tiles, and we didn't have that many to work with at first.

And that's why the early era in digital art, which is to say the 8-bit (Original Nintendo) and 16-bit (Super Nintendo) periods, is especially remarkable. Take this image, for instance, which is rather close to my heart. It's the tiny image of Fox McCloud from the SNES game "Starfox":

You can tell that this is a picture of a fox, that he is anthropomorphic, that he is wearing a headset, that the end of his nose is shiny.

And all that from an image that's about 30 pixels by 26 pixels. When you realize that the "shine" on the end of his nose is, in fact, a precisely placed single white pixel, you'll understand why I find it impressive.

This kind of artwork represents a sort of mosaic haiku, bringing out a creative efficiency by way of limitation.

How appropriate that so many artists in this field are Japanese.

Today, we have much "higher resomolutions" to work with, so this kind of careful design isn't needed. There's no reason to carefully manipulate the human eye's visual perception when we can create images at a higher resolution than the eye can perceive.

And that's the terrifying part.

Oh I'm not scared that these great technical freedoms will spoil us as visual artists. I'm scared that, having reached the limits of what our minds can view, the only way for us to make better images will logically be . . .

. . . to alter our minds. Or our eyes. To change ourselves in some way that lets us appreciate the quality of images our screens can describe.

You thought the first cyborg implants* were going to come out of the military? I've got news for you, they're going to come from Sony.

*It's not a question of whether or not there will BE a robot apocalypse, gentlemen, but merely whether we can time it with the zombie apocalypse so that they end up fighting each other.

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