Magazine article American Cinematographer

Asking the Right Questions: An Interview with Nicholas Negroponte

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Asking the Right Questions: An Interview with Nicholas Negroponte

Article excerpt

MIT Media Lab founder offers bold predictions as he assesses the impact of digital technology and charts a course for the "brave new world" of the Internet.

Nicholas Negroponte is a visionary with a clear bead on the digital future. As a founder and the director of the Media Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Negroponte has focused his research on future forms of human communication, from entertainment to education. In his new book, "Being Digital" (Alfred A. Knopf), Negroponte describes how digital technology will transform the way we live. He also deals with some important issues that will influence cinematography in the future. Frank Beacham recently interviewed Negroponte in New York for American Cinematographer.

AC: In your book you harshly attack the current efforts to establish a high-definition television standard in the United States. You write, "We are still mindlessly addressing the wrong problems, those of image quality - resolution, frame rate, and the shape of the screen. Worse, we are trying to decide once and for all on very specific numbers for each and to legislate these variables as constants." Why did HDTV go so wrong?

Negroponte: None of us goes home at night to agonize with our spouses about the picture quality of television. We agonize about the programming. Yet nobody, absolutely nobody, in the high-definition television world really thinks of programming. In the early 1970s, when the Japanese looked at the next evolution of television in a totally analog world, they picked resolution-and to some degree aspect ratio - as the variables. They postulated that the move from black & white to color should be followed by higher-resolution images. In an analog world this was a logical way to scale up television; it is what the Japanese did for the next 14 years, calling it HiVision. When television went from analog to digital [in the early 1990s] the decision-makers made a mistake. They carried forward with them the analog motivation of higher resolution that the Japanese started 20 years ago.

High definition isn't the issue. Being digital is the issue. What can we do [with television] in the digital world? Instead of asking that fundamental question, they took the presumed answer from the past - then insult added to injury. There was a competition and then it became the Grand Alliance. But this thing is going to die of its own weight. There's not a chance in hell it's going to survive. I'm in some sense sorry for the members of the Grand Alliance, which ineludes MIT by the way, because it's a dead-end proposition.

If HDTV doesn't have a chance, what does have a chance?

Negroponte: What does have a chance are the parallel efforts that have been going on in the computer industry to embed more video in computers. That will become the de facto TV set. There is no question in my mind that the TV set of the future is a PC, with or without a keyboard, with as big a screen as you want, with as many pixels as you want - and you will probably pay per view per pixel.

And a PC-based TV will adapt to any aspect ratio?

Negroponte: Absolutely. The fact that some people think that aspect ratio is an issue we can agree upon in Geneva, as if it were like figuring out what the troy ounce is or what the Europlug should be, is absolutely loony.

Why then are these companies in the Grand Alliance still spending huge amounts of money trying to invent HDTV? Why are they still pursuing higher resolution?

Negroponte: I guess the answer is threefold and no single one of [these answers] would explain it. Maybe added together they explain it. There is a certain pigheadedness. Pigheaded means you know you are wrong but you are going ahead anyway. That's one. There is a certain bit of disbelief that they might have been wrong. And there's also the point of no return. Who's going to raise their hand in the Grand Alliance now and say wait a minute, we should stop? …

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