Future Tense: 2020 Vision

Maximum PC Staff

My father was a professional photographer.  He worked hard to master his craft and he built his own cameras to his own precise specifications.  I watched him build them in his workshop, fascinated by the process.  In those days, a camera was a large and bulky box with a frosted glass plate in the back for focusing—you stuck your head under a black velvet hood to line up the shot.  The image was upside down on the glass, so you had to mentally invert it.  (Talk about your single-lens reflex system!)

Every exposure required an 8x10 sheet of film.  You loaded each sheet into one side of a large two-sided plate — kind of like a cartridge-thing, only huge.  You put a sheet of film on each side and you slid a covering slide over each piece of film to protect it from the light.  Did I mention that you had to do this in the darkroom, so called because you were literally working in the dark?  You loaded the film into the plates in total darkness, by feel alone.  You couldn’t risk even the slightest smidge of light.  You couldn’t even risk a spark of static electricity.  (I loaded film for my dad a few times.  It was time consuming and tedious.  It was not my idea of fun.  I’ve had fun, this wasn’t it.)  You loaded up as many plates as you expected to use and lugged them around in a heavy case.

When you were ready to take a picture, you slid the cartridge-thing into the back of the camera, just in front of the glass panel, pulled out the slide that protected the film from light, squeezed the air-pressure bulb that clicked the shutter, slid the covering slide back over the film, pulled out the cartridge-thing, flipped it over, reinserted it into the camera so you could expose the film on the flip side.

After you had exposed enough of these plates, you went back into the darkroom.  You filled some trays with sharp-smelling chemicals—one to develop the exposed film, a second to fix it, a third to rinse it—and you ended up with a negative image on a transparent cellulose sheet.  To make a print, you shone light through the negative onto special photographic paper.  Where the negative was dark, it blocked light, you got white on the print.  Where the negative was transparent, it let light through, and the silver grains on the paper darkened and turned black. After exposing the print, you had to develop, fix, and rinse again—and then you had to hang the prints to dry or put them on the large rotating drum of a special drying machine.

The finished prints then went to the retoucher.  (My father’s retoucher was named Betty and she had a great smile.)  Working with very fine brushes and a humongus magnifying glass, a skilled retoucher would gray out any small white spots left by any specks of dust that might have crept in during any of the steps in the process.  And then, when the retouching was complete, the final step was to impress a small gold-stamp into the lower-right corner of each one, identifying it as a product of Lewis & Rhodes.

When my dad expanded his business to include color photography, the process got even more complicated.  The lighting was a lot trickier, because all of a sudden color-temperature was a lot more critical.  I know he experimented some with his own color developing, but most of it he sent out to Eastman-Kodak.  (I have no idea how you develop color film, only that it involves eye of newt, and toe of frog, wool of bat, and tongue of dog, adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting, lizard's leg, and howlet's wing—and there’s some boiling and bubbling involved too.)

My dad was one of the very best portrait photographers in Los Angeles.  He also shot weddings, banquets, bar mitzvahs, whatever.  In those days, the film industry used a lot of photographers, every event was recorded.  If you had gone into any of the better hotels in Beverly Hills and asked the banquet manager to recommend a photographer, he would have passed you my father’s business card.

I used to love visiting my dad’s studio in Beverly Hills and paging through the sample albums—partly for the fun of recognizing the different movie and TV stars he had photographed.  He also shot 3D slides for many of his customers.  Those were the most fun to view.

My dad died before there were personal computers.  He never saw a digital camera, let alone what you could do with Photoshop.  I can’t pick up a camera or boot a photo-processing program without thinking of him and how he would have enjoyed the digital revolution.

A few days ago, I had to write a letter to my son.  I decided to include a photo in the envelope.  I have an Epson Artisan 810—it’s an all-in-one ink-jet unit, very capable, and it delivers a lot of bang-per-buck.  The 810 did a fair job with the letter, of course, but its real strength is photos.  After printing the letter, it kicked out a gorgeous 4x6 print on Epson Glossy Photo Paper.  The photo had bright well-balanced colors, great contrast, beautiful detail, and the dynamic range was startling.  The shadows were dark, the highlights were dazzling.  It was as good as anything ever produced from my father’s studio—and the production time was less than a minute.  (Some of the pictures taken with my cell phone have also printed out beautifully—it’s a little scary!)

Looking at the picture, I felt suddenly wistful and nostalgic.  My dad loved to experiment with technology, whether it was cameras or high fidelity stereo or stereoscopy.  He was obsessive about image-quality.  (Which may be why he never bought a color television, he said they hadn’t been perfected yet.)  I inherited my dad’s love of technology, and he encouraged my hobbyist attempts with stop-motion animation and 3D movies.

Once, I bought a holographic image from the Edmund Scientific catalog—a transparent film, you held it up to the light and looked through it to see the three-dimensional image.  I asked my dad if he could make a duplicate of it onto a negative.  (Theoretically it was possible, but the details weren’t clear.)  It was one of the few times I’d seen him stumped.  It was beyond his experience.  He shook his head and said he didn’t even know what exposure to use.

I wish my dad could have lived to have seen the digital era.  He would have loved it.  (I’m sure he would have even been impressed with HDTV.)  And I would have enjoyed sharing digital photography and photo-processing with him, and learning from him about apertures and depth of field.  I know he would have had some important insights to share about what film can do that digital still can’t—like overlighting and stopping down to produce intense color saturation.

Thinking about how far we’ve come, thinking about what’s still percolating in the laboratories, thinking about the next few generations of technology, it’s obvious to me that we are nowhere near the maturation of digital photography.  We’re still inventing, exploring, discovering.  The last ten years have taken us from digital photography as an exciting possibility to digital photography as an explosion of hundreds of new possibilities.  Cameras today can do facial recognition, multi-point focusing, panoramic sweeps, HD video and stereo sound, time lapse, HDR, noise-processing, and more.

Ten years from now—?

It seems obvious to me that we’re on the threshold of any number of game-changing technological shifts.  (That’s an easy prediction to make, but I’m going to get dangerous and be specific.)

As manufacturing processes and new technologies continue to shrink transistor size down to single-digit nanometers, the number of megapixels in camera chips will continue to increase.  The more megapixels of information, the more that can be done in post-processing.  (Yes, I know, the smaller each sensor gets, the more susceptible it is to noise, but that’s a different discussion.  What if sometime in the next ten years something shifts that noise-receptivity out tenfold or more?)

What happens when we hit a threshold level, a critical mass of mega-pixels?  What happens when a camera can shoot an image with hundreds of megapixels instead of only a dozen?  (Why would anyone need hundreds of megapixels?  I dunno.  But in 1980, we used to wonder why anyone would need more than a megabyte of RAM.  Today we know the answer starts at 6 gigabytes.)

Imagine this use of all those megapixels:  Instead of just shooting one flat image, a camera could capture multiple dynamic ranges of color and brightness, providing not just automatic HDR for the point-and-shoot crowd, but post-processing choices that allow whole new combinations of curves and levels and tones.  Perhaps with that much capture-ability, a camera could record infinitely variable depth of field information, so you could tune the bokeh at will.  Perhaps it could capture enough information about the scene that instead of storing the picture as a two-dimensional field, it could store the information as a three-dimensional matrix from which multiple stereoscopic views could be extracted.  (Adobe’s labs have already demonstrated this possibility, and other exciting applications as well.)

Consider this:  Instead of a camera having one single lens, what if the front of it was studded with a few dozen micro-lenses, each shooting the same image from a slightly different perspective?  Now you’re gathering not only stereoscopic information, you’re gathering holographic information.

For fifty years—ever since the first holograms were demonstrated in the laboratory, futurists have been predicting holographic 3D television.  But nobody has yet demonstrated a genuinely practical holographic technology, because there’s no convenient way to shoot a hologram.  You need precisely aligned laser beams.

But what if we could take all of that image data from all those micro-lenses and post-process that information into a holographic field?  It’s already been demonstrated that a computer can generate holograms.  With enough photo information, could we generate a photographic hologram?  I suspect it’s inevitable.

I’ve seen experimental full-color holograms, recorded with different wavelengths of laser light.  They’re startlingly realistic.  One of the best was of a foot-high Chinese doll.  It could be viewed in normal light and it was like looking through a pane of glass at a genuine object.  Even when you know that it’s a flat panel hanging on a wall, your mind continues to insist that you’re looking into a cabinet with a bright colored doll inside.  Imagine that kind of realism—moving.  It would be a lot more startling than a 3D movie, that’s for sure.  It would be a window.

Here’s the prediction.  Holographic television cameras will require at least a hundred megapixels of image capture—maybe more.  So the cameras will also need fast multi-core processors to encode the images into data-streams.  Transmission will require enormous bandwidth, probably fiber optics carrying multiple channels.  Holographic monitors will need at least 4K lines of video information to create the holographic field on the receiving end, maybe more.  Blu-ray discs will be insufficient.  We’ll need holographic data storage too—Fuji is already working on that.

As good as HDTV is, it isn’t the final evolution of television.  As good as 3D may become, as long as it requires ‘those goofy glasses,’ it isn’t going to be a standard.

It’s been a long journey from my father’s darkroom to the present, but I think we’re still only at the beginning of a much greater voyage.  It looks to me as if the combination of multi-megapixel image-capture chips and multi-core post-processing software may very soon make holographic video possible, practical, and eventually inevitable.  I think it could happen before the year 2020.

What do you think?

David Gerrold is a Hugo and Nebula award-winning author. He has written more than 50 books, including "The Man Who Folded Himself" and "When HARLIE Was One," as well as hundreds of short stories and articles. His autobiographical story "The Martian Child" was the basis of the 2007 movie starring John Cusack and Amanda Peet. He has also written for television, including episodes of Star Trek, Babylon 5, Twilight Zone, and Land Of The Lost. He is best known for creating tribbles, sleestaks, and Chtorrans. In his spare time, he redesigns his website, www.gerrold.com

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