Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Forget High Definition - 4K is Here

Don't get me wrong. High Definition (HD) television and video are far improved over old-style television. But HD will be replaced by 4K technology in a few years.

To compare HD with 4K, it all comes down to how much information is gathered for each frame. HD tops out at 1,920 x 1080 pixels per frame, or about 2 million pixels per image. 4K tops out at 4,096 x 3,072 pixels per frame, or about 12.6 million pixels per image. Simple math indicates that 4K has more than six times the amount of information per frame than HD does.

What does this mean to you and me?

It's very simple: All this extra data means we will see clearer, more realistic images with 4K than with HD. Also, when it comes to creating 3D images, having more data will allow it to be more realistic. 3D is still struggling, but as soon as the technology appears where groups don't have to wear glasses, I predict we will see virtually every movie and video shot in 3D.

So far, the only people using 4K gear are professional videographers and filmmakers. There's no real consumer equipment available. Even if there were, there's little to no way to obtain 4K content.

But I recently did have a 4K experience. The Bow-Tie Cinemas in Trumbull, Connecticut recently opened up a Bow-Tie Extreme, or BTX, theatre. Not only does it have a 2,000-square-foot screen, a 30,000-watt sound system and very cushy seats, but it sports a 4K digital projector. A few of my friends and I went to the BTX theatre recently. Watching some of the "warm-up" stuff was pretty uninspiring. The video was kind of grainy and the sound was disappointing.

Then someone seemed to flip the "4K switch" and the theatre came alive.

The video was spectacular, as was the sound. All sense of digital grain was gone and the images were astonishing. The sound had far more depth and clarity than I had heard in a long time — certainly from a local cineplex.

While Bow-Tie does charge a few-dollar premium for its BTX theatre, it's worth it for the truly big-screen movies. But I like movies where there are plenty of spaceships, car chases and things blowing up. Big screens and great sound systems always make those movies worth a couple of extra bucks.

Eventually we will see 4K sets in our homes, but it will be a few years, I predict. The challenge is the lack of 4K content, plus the ability to deliver it to us. DVD players — even Blu-Ray — don't have enough space to store 4K movies and I think Cablevision would have a problem delivering that much content to people over its Internet services.

But I like going to the movie theatre and am quite happy to have the 4K experience from time to time. I can wait for a few years before it shows up in my home.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 29 August 2012.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Sky-High Value of Curiosity


Early Monday morning, NASA's newest Mars rover, Curiosity, landed successfully.

One of the most dramatic parts of the flight to Mars was the final seven minutes when the whole payload has to land, fully automated, with no input from Mission Control. NASA calls this the "Seven Minutes of Terror," and created a great video, which can be viewed at http://1.usa.gov/OKNVaI.

I happened to be listening to NPR Monday morning, and to hear the people in Mission Control as each step along the way succeeded was truly heartwarming.

As I listened to the story, tears came to my eyes. I think of the hard work, years of dedication, obstacles, decisions and the risks inherent with interplanetary space travel that could have had just about anything go wrong. Yet it didn't.

I used to live just a few miles from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and even did some work for them, so I've been at the facility, in Mission Control — it's a lot smaller than you'd think — and even seen its Mars test area, where they try out their rovers. My daughter attended preschool with the children of these true rocket scientists. So JPL missions have a special place in my heart.

I have trouble comprehending the magnitude of an endeavor such as this. But I am glad we have people who can and do these sorts of projects. Curiosity is the size of a Volkswagen Beetle and weighs close to a ton. That's all that's left after a liftoff, space travel for a few months, and numerous parts to deliver Curiosity safely to the surface of Mars.

Think of the thousands of people working on their parts, large and small, the engineering, the contractors and subcontractors, the quality assurance and testing. Makes any "large" project pale by comparison.

Yet, I connected with the engineers in their success at a job well done. While we all learn from our mistakes, it's fair to say that the successes are a whole lot more fun.

Now that Curiosity is on Mars, one of its jobs will be to start exploring and gaining more information about Mars. Already the photos Curiosity is sending back are stunning. While visually we will be receiving good information, the other devices and detectors on Curiosity will provide us with other valuable scientific knowledge that can only be gained by being on Mars.

Curiosity is a great reminder that we still have national skills in space exploration.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 8 August 2012.