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Digital Video and Image Quality

Mark Sumner

To exploit the entertainment aspect of the Artemis Project to its fullest, we need video footage of the highest quality. Versatility is a function of image quality.

Super 16mm won't do it. Even 35mm won't do it. We had to have top notch, better-than-real, best quality images anyone has ever seen. If we don't, we will not get shown in IMAX theaters -- there goes the largest money making segment of the documentary industry. We will not be picked up for stock footage. The feature films will look B-grade.

We need the best. To get it, we are going to have to go digital.

Several people have pointed out that HDTV is nowhere close to the resolution of IMAX, or even 35mm. Absolutely true, but that has little to do with the capabilities of digital transmission. HDTV broadcasts have to abide by: hardware that is cheap enough and simple enough to be mass produced, the narrow bandwith provided by broadcast/cable, the simple fact that is a locked-down standard.

Already, we are seeing real time image compression techniques that allow a good quality picture on narrow bandwidth. Anyone who's taken a look at the transmissions from RCA little dishes sees that MPEG-1 can provide a decent image. If you've looked at the MPEG-2 samples, you'll see that they are much, much better. And the special processors for handling image compression on the fly have become so cheap that one can buy them for little more than pocket change.

By the time that we get hardware on the pad, there's no doubt that image compression technology will be much greater than it is today. But even if it's not, we can still manage IMAX quality images.

One of the reasons that you don't get IMAX over the air is the incredible information density of displaying these image in real time. After all, most computers these days can display large true color images. It's displaying them 30-60 times a second that's the trick.

If we can't afford the bandwidth to beam back our images real time, we'll store them on site until there is available transmission spectrum. Of course, the lower resolution HDTV signals will be running all the time, and the high quality stuff will be edited and spliced before anyone sees it on the big screen. There's no need to transmit it in real time. If we have to haul the "can" back home with us, so be it. But I see no reason we can leave the system in place and broadcast the high-res back -- even if it takes a month.

Here's the bottom line: Assuming no increases in image compression, no increases in data storage density, and assuming we have to store everything in place, we can still get 3 hours of IMAX quality images onto less than 40Kg of optical storage medium.

Will we need a special camera and storage system? Sure. But heck, when it's steamboat time you build steamboats. When it's steadicam time, you build steadicam.

When it's digital IMAX time, we can do it.

Making the CCD array, or buying a CCD which could do the necessary resolution would be a trivial engineering problem, if possibly expensive.

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