HDTV and the video look

I spent some time last night playing with my parents’ shiny new HDTV, which puts my 2005-vintage 26″ set to shame.

Pretty nice set; 40-something inch, 1080p, 120 Hz whatchamahooie, and you can plug in a USB stick full of JPEGs and force your family to watch your vacation photos. Nice!

It seems to be all the rage on new sets to have motion interpolation which can take 24-frame-sourced content (feature films and most US drama and sitcom TV shows) and smooth out the frame-to-frame motion, making it look more like 60-field video. Lots of higher-end sets advertise 120 Hz or even 240 Hz, which honestly seems excessive to me — the human eye can’t distinguish much more than 60 frames per second. :)

I’m a bit torn; on the one hand, the faster frame rate makes motion look much more vivid and realistic from any objective point of view. On the other hand, audiences have been trained over the last few decades to associate the video look with “cheesier” programming — soaps, reality shows, etc — while “serious” programs are shot on film at 24fps, making them feel more like a big-budget feature film… even to the point that lots of money was spent developing HD video cameras that could shoot at the slower, less realistic 24fps instead of HD’s native 60!

We stumbled into Harold and Kumar escape from Guantanamo of all things on HBO, and ran it for a while just to get a feel for the set. At first it drove me nuts seeing a movie I’d already seen on film looking distinctly like HD video, but after a half hour I got quite used to it and rather grew to like it. Of course as a former cinema-television student I’m extra-sensitized to this stuff — my wife immediately took to the more vivid display and commented on how much better it looked than when we’d seen it in the theater!

Looks like the mass audiences are happy to embrace high-motion video… I wonder if the long-standing holdover of the “film look” over the last decade was driven more by the oversensitized film geeks in the industry than any actual audience comparison…

Let’s learn a lesson here with our software development as well — those of us who’ve been nose-deep in web sites and software UI for years aren’t necessarily the most qualified to tell what our actual users are going to be most comfortable with.