Digital Video and the Human Psyche

by Fred Gault

© 1993 Frederick P. Gault, Jr.

In the beginning there was television and it was good. But then having eaten of the forbidden fruit, humans decided that it wasn't enough to simply watch television. They need to OWN the images on tape. Never satisfied, people next wanted MORE video images and they wanted it NOW. Hence there came upon the darkness - cable. Who hasn't seen the pathetic visage of the American Couch Potato(e) , his cold clammy fist clutching the channel changer as he surfs helplessly through station after station - looking through 55 channels of crap and still not satisfied.

There is a deep need in the human soul to experience amazing and exciting things, which is balanced by the need to remain safe and sound. Video images satisfy the primal urge for epic story telling with the more prurient need to see whats going on, especially if its really gory or scandalous. But with each new step in technology there remains that vague uneasy feeling that its not as good as really being there.

Well, now, there is another step forward in video technology - Digital Video. The wrong way to think of digital video is a new kind of video tape. What it really is, is a way to make video closer to REALLY BEING THERE. The question is, how will it do that?

Digital Video offers a way to work with video, just like you do with video tape. If that was all it did, no one would be interested. Video tapes are cheap and the equipment to play them is only a few hundred dollars. Computers on the other hand are expensive, and digital video comes on CD-ROMs which require expensive CD-ROM drives. This tells us there must be something really special about digital video to make people buy all that expensive stuff. So what is it?

Digital Video is randomly accessable. You may skip anywhere in the movie (and here is the secret) INSTANTLY. Unlike video tape which has to be rewound, or TV which offers no control save turning it off, digital video is intoxicatingly versitile. You can locate any frame in the movie instantly. You may skip around in the movie, instantly. I'm sure that many of you reading this are scratching your heads and muttering to yourselves - WHO CARES? Whats a little rewinding on the VCR, its a little annoying, sure, but its tolerable.

Well, consider this. You may skip around in a digital movie so rapidly that you can provide the illusion of looking around in a room, under the users control! Also consider that digital image manipulation software is so sophisticated that a cottage industry of digital artists has sprung up to doctor movies. Anyone who has cowered in a dark movie theatre while digital dinosaurs have stomped around on the silver screen, knows that computers and images equals magic. Now imagine putting this all together and see yourself navigating around inside a digital space (what once might have been called a movie). Lets face it, thats a lot cooler than having a VCR any day. This is the promise of digital video.

Its not just entertainment that drives this either (although God knows there is plenty of money to be made entertaining people, just ask Madonna). Business has much to gain from this razor precision control of images. Real-estate agents are chomping at the bit to allow their buyers to visit scores of houses electronically in the time it would take to drive out to visit just one. The office workspace will benefit in amazing ways. Perhaps someday a database will be queried by moving around in a digital space. Instead of typeing in an SQL command to locate a bank balance, perhaps you will simply "walk into" a digital bank and "ask" the clerk for the balance.

This type of digital world is BETTER than actually being there. I think its a lot more fun to be chomped in half by a digital dinosaur than by a real one! You still get the thrill of being up close and personal with a T REX without the headache of becoming his dinner.

The software to do this kind of digital video manipulation already exists. So why hasn't it happened yet? For one thing the computer equipment and the data throughput rates (better known as bandwidth) are not quite able to sustain this kind of an effort. And there still is a lot of software yet to be written. But its not far off! The so called "Information Highway" and the 500 channel "Interactive TV" are all made possible by digital video. Look for it soon in a theatre near you!