Friday night topic: Limits of human perception

— 4:00 PM on August 31, 2001

I have been intrigued lately observing PC enthusiasts talk about things. There are earnest discussions, and have been for a while, in which one or both sides of an argument advances a proposition like so: "The human eye can only see up to 60 (or 30) frames per second anyway, so what's the point?" Put aside for a minute the question of averages versus low scores or things like that, and concentrate on the statement itself. Somehow, somewhere along the way, you had a statement of fact morph. It probably started out something like this:

"It takes 24 (or 30 or 60) frames per second to fool the human eye into thinking it's seeing motion."
...and morphed over time into this:
"Once you get to 24 (or 30 or 60) frames per second, the human eye can't detect anything faster, anyway."
The first statement is widely regarded as true, and it seems to be true. The second statement is also probably widely regarded as true, but I think it's 100% false. Human perception is better than that, or at least I sure think my own is, based on my experience. I've always appreciated higher frame rates, within reason. 30 fps is OK, but 60 is visibly better, for instance—and I want more.

I've seen similar statements made in the realm of audio, and all over in graphics—from pixel density to color bit depth. There seems to be an accepted set of supposed limits of human perception out there amongst PC users, and those limits correspond pretty closely to the best a PC can do. It's an oft-repeated claim amongst those who think PC upgrades have become superfluous. We seem to have forgotten, somewhere along the line, that even our best audiovisual reproductions involve serious compromises. "CD-quality audio" is an obvious compromise, as is "photorealism."

So, to those who think 48 or 64-bit color sounds outrageous, I say: Nyaaah. You're way wrong. To those who think a 19" monitor with a .25mm dot-pitch is the end-all, be-all, I say: Fuzzy math! To those who believe 24 (or 30 or 60) frames per second is all we'll ever need, I say: Show me the science. I'm still excited about the future of the PC, and about our ability to push digital reproductions of reality to heights unheard of in the analog era. Aren't you?

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