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A Biography of the Pixel

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The pixel as the organizing principle of all pictures, from cave paintings to Toy Story. The Great Digital Convergence of all media types into one universal digital medium occurred, with little fanfare, at the recent turn of the millennium. The bit became the universal medium, and the pixel--a particular packaging of bits--conquered the world. Henceforward, nearly every pic The pixel as the organizing principle of all pictures, from cave paintings to Toy Story. The Great Digital Convergence of all media types into one universal digital medium occurred, with little fanfare, at the recent turn of the millennium. The bit became the universal medium, and the pixel--a particular packaging of bits--conquered the world. Henceforward, nearly every picture in the world would be composed of pixels--cell phone pictures, app interfaces, Mars Rover transmissions, book illustrations, videogames. In A Biography of the Pixel, Pixar cofounder Alvy Ray Smith argues that the pixel is the organizing principle of most modern media, and he presents a few simple but profound ideas that unify the dazzling varieties of digital image making. Smith's story of the pixel's development begins with Fourier waves, proceeds through Turing machines, and ends with the first digital movies from Pixar, DreamWorks, and Blue Sky. Today, almost all the pictures we encounter are digital--mediated by the pixel and irretrievably separated from their media; museums and kindergartens are two of the last outposts of the analog. Smith explains, engagingly and accessibly, how pictures composed of invisible stuff become visible--that is, how digital pixels convert to analog display elements. Taking the special case of digital movies to represent all of Digital Light (his term for pictures constructed of pixels), and drawing on his decades of work in the field, Smith approaches his subject from multiple angles--art, technology, entertainment, business, and history. A Biography of the Pixel is essential reading for anyone who has watched a video on a cell phone, played a videogame, or seen a movie. 400 pages of annotations, prepared by the author and available online, provide an invaluable resource for readers.


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The pixel as the organizing principle of all pictures, from cave paintings to Toy Story. The Great Digital Convergence of all media types into one universal digital medium occurred, with little fanfare, at the recent turn of the millennium. The bit became the universal medium, and the pixel--a particular packaging of bits--conquered the world. Henceforward, nearly every pic The pixel as the organizing principle of all pictures, from cave paintings to Toy Story. The Great Digital Convergence of all media types into one universal digital medium occurred, with little fanfare, at the recent turn of the millennium. The bit became the universal medium, and the pixel--a particular packaging of bits--conquered the world. Henceforward, nearly every picture in the world would be composed of pixels--cell phone pictures, app interfaces, Mars Rover transmissions, book illustrations, videogames. In A Biography of the Pixel, Pixar cofounder Alvy Ray Smith argues that the pixel is the organizing principle of most modern media, and he presents a few simple but profound ideas that unify the dazzling varieties of digital image making. Smith's story of the pixel's development begins with Fourier waves, proceeds through Turing machines, and ends with the first digital movies from Pixar, DreamWorks, and Blue Sky. Today, almost all the pictures we encounter are digital--mediated by the pixel and irretrievably separated from their media; museums and kindergartens are two of the last outposts of the analog. Smith explains, engagingly and accessibly, how pictures composed of invisible stuff become visible--that is, how digital pixels convert to analog display elements. Taking the special case of digital movies to represent all of Digital Light (his term for pictures constructed of pixels), and drawing on his decades of work in the field, Smith approaches his subject from multiple angles--art, technology, entertainment, business, and history. A Biography of the Pixel is essential reading for anyone who has watched a video on a cell phone, played a videogame, or seen a movie. 400 pages of annotations, prepared by the author and available online, provide an invaluable resource for readers.

30 review for A Biography of the Pixel

  1. 5 out of 5

    Kam Yung Soh

    An interesting and fascinating look at the element used to hold a digital sample of an image: the pixel. Often misunderstood to mean the picture elements you see on your screen, a pixel is actually an element that is a digital representation (sample) of an analogue image. The book goes through how an analogue signal (sound, images, moving images) is transformed into a digital sample and then used to recreate an analogue output, followed by the history of films and animated films, the creation of An interesting and fascinating look at the element used to hold a digital sample of an image: the pixel. Often misunderstood to mean the picture elements you see on your screen, a pixel is actually an element that is a digital representation (sample) of an analogue image. The book goes through how an analogue signal (sound, images, moving images) is transformed into a digital sample and then used to recreate an analogue output, followed by the history of films and animated films, the creation of computers and the creation of digital images and finally the dream of the author and the others, to create The Movie, a fully computer generated film that would finally appear in the form of Pixar's "Toy Story". Here's a chapter by chapter look at the book - Fourier’s Frequencies: The Music of the World: An introduction to Fourier waves is given, along with a history of its creator, Joseph Fourier, including his interactions with Napoleon and other French scientists at the time. The author uses Fourier waves to show how to determine the frequencies that make up sound waves. Then Fourier waves are show to use to describe complex images. - Kotelnikov’s Samples: Something from Nothing: a history of Vladimir Kotelnikov is given, asserted by the author to have invented the Sampling Theorem, along with interactions with various Soviet people like Stalin. The author shows that when the Sampling Theorem is used with Fourier waves, it can convert analogue values into discrete value samples. Then by using an appropriate 'shaping wave' the digital samples can be used to accurately recreate the analogue values. The author also gives the distinction between a pixel (samples of analogue values) and a picture element (used to display a pixel on a display). He also shows how the misuse of Sampling Theory leads to artefacts in audio and images. - Turing’s Computations: Eleventy-Eleven Skydillion: this chapter is on Alan Turing and his idea of computing using a device that follows simple rules. This simple device is Turing's Universal computer. Based on Turing's idea, von Neumann would find a way for the universal computer to be created (a computer architecture). The author describes how to program a computer and shows that a computer does it work via the manipulation of symbols, not numbers. - Dawn of Digital Light: The Quickening: a history of the early British and American computer efforts is covered here. As it turns out, an early use of CRTs (cathode ray tubes) is as a form of computer memory. This would lead to the CRT being used as a way to display images based on data in memory (for example, displaying a graph based on values in memory, rather than showing the values directly). Early forms of computer animation and possibly visual computer games are also shown in this chapter. - Movies and Animation: Sampling Time: here, the author shows how the Fourier transform and sampling theorem should work for movies: this is based on the speed of movement, details of film projection and on our persistence of vision and perception of motion. A History of film projectors is given, along with the beginnings of film animation. The difference between live and animated film is given and show to be time: live films are shown in real time, while animations can compress or stretch time in films. The art of making animated characters come to live via exaggerations is also shown. Coming back to the Sampling Theorem, the author shows how current films speeds were developed before sampling theorem known, and that current films depend more on the perception of motion by us than accurate sampling to represent movement. This is a reason why sampling artefacts (like wheels spinning backwards) exists in films. - Shapes of Things to Come: this chapter shows the beginnings of computer graphics, which are representation of lines and surfaces of pictures in computers. The 'spline' line and triangle are shown as the basic elements used to create lines and surfaces that connect discrete points. The difference between CAD and picture based graphics is shown. Next, a history of the first 'epoch' in computer graphics is given, with ideas generated to render smooth lines and surfaces between shapes, to display computer models in 2D and 3D (in perspective) and the ability of computers to interactively modify the computer model in real time. These would set the stage for computer animation. - Shades of Meaning: Moore's law makes an appearance, leading to an explosion of the ability of computers to display better computer graphics and to animate graphics. 3D shapes are now being rendered, as lots of triangles. Ideas in how to hide 3D surfaces, adding a light source and brightness, doing texture mapping and shading appear. Ironically, the first applications of computer graphics to aid in the production of 2D animation would run into problems. Unlike 3D, 2D computer graphics had no concept of objects, making animation of items that hiding and reappear (like an arm moving back and forth and being hidden by a body) difficult for a computer to handle. At this time, initial work on rendering short 3D animations would also be done. - The Millennium and The Movie: this chapter would become more personal as it involves the author's personal experience. The ambitions to make The Movie by him and others would being here. Moore's Law was creating computers capable of more sophisticated and better ways of creating images and animating them. Besides generating scenery images, the desire to create animated characters that look alive take root: this is Character animation. Interestingly, the ability of computers to add blurring to images would lead to the ability of computers to represent realistic movement in computer animation. But the wait now is for good enough computation, as determined by Moore's Law. In the meantime, there was the creation of various animation and graphics departments that would lead to various groups like Pixar and others. Eventually, this would lead to the production of The Movie: "Toy Story". - Finale: The Great Digital Convergence - this closing chapter summarizes the earlier chapters of the book. It also looks to the future of computer graphics in Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality. Other aspects include the manipulation of feature of actors. A section also looks at the ability of AI to modify images in ways not known then.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Pooja

    DNF. Life's too short for another book about all the men in computing. DNF. Life's too short for another book about all the men in computing.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Zach

    Not enough of a story structure for a good narrative and not enough technical details for a useful textbook.

  4. 4 out of 5

    jazz weisman

    I was very conflicted about my feelings for this book, oscillating back and forth between finding it really annoying / frustrating and really enjoying it. Overall though, the good parts far outweighed the frustrating ones, and I'm quite glad I read it. With any popular book covering a technical subject, things have to be simplified to appeal to a general audience and be more approachable, and I totally get that, but in this case this process went way too far. Many of the technical sections and ex I was very conflicted about my feelings for this book, oscillating back and forth between finding it really annoying / frustrating and really enjoying it. Overall though, the good parts far outweighed the frustrating ones, and I'm quite glad I read it. With any popular book covering a technical subject, things have to be simplified to appeal to a general audience and be more approachable, and I totally get that, but in this case this process went way too far. Many of the technical sections and explanations, which constitute a significant portion of the book, generally felt simplified to the point of losing a lot of content, and occasionally being just wrong. Technical terms that would have been used throughout the book and become familiar were instead switched for easier to understand terms, despite the fact that this makes it harder to integrate these concepts into larger knowledge and understanding. This is always a tough balance to strike, but here it really felt like they were expecting way to little from the reader, and it was disappointing. Also, the Audiobook has no accompanying PDF of figures, which is a huge oversight for a book so heavily reliant on them. Also, for audiobook listeners, I'd particularly recommend trying it at 1.3x speed or more. All of that said, this book tells an amazing story about the history of computer graphics from someone who was deeply involved from the very beginning all the way up through founding pixar, and this story is deeply interesting and well written. Despite the oversimplification of many of the technical areas, I still learned a lot about how certain kinds of computer graphics are done, and there was a lot of interesting content about correctly sampling and reconstructing the visual world in space and time. Just being able to see all of this history of the field that underlies so much of our modern lives from someone who was so deeply a part of it for so long made the book well worth it on its own.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Craig Good

    If you're over 25 or so years of age you've lived through a major historical event and probably not noticed. Alvy Ray Smith identifies and explains the Great Digital Convergence that happened around the turn of the century, and explains both the nature and importance of the pixel. I was fortunate to have worked with Alvy and many of the pioneers he covers in this book, and went on to work for decades at Pixar -- and yet I didn't know what a pixel actually was until reading this book. I'm not name If you're over 25 or so years of age you've lived through a major historical event and probably not noticed. Alvy Ray Smith identifies and explains the Great Digital Convergence that happened around the turn of the century, and explains both the nature and importance of the pixel. I was fortunate to have worked with Alvy and many of the pioneers he covers in this book, and went on to work for decades at Pixar -- and yet I didn't know what a pixel actually was until reading this book. I'm not named in the book, nor did I expect to be, but it was strange reading about a part of my life in a history book. Alvy does a terrific job of untangling the history of early computers and computer graphics, and explains things really clearly. If you have even a passing interest you'll want to dive into this book.

  6. 4 out of 5

    to'c

    First, a caveat. At least one of those stars is due to pure nostalgia. I was on the edges of this community from the mid-70s to the early 90s. Some schooling with Csuri's OSU group, master's degree in the field, worked with Don Greenburg (who does indeed have the warmest grin in computer graphics) and his Cornell group for a while , even met the author a time or two. So this was a wonderful trip down memory lane, reminding me of all that and of some of friends who have slipped thru time's sieve. First, a caveat. At least one of those stars is due to pure nostalgia. I was on the edges of this community from the mid-70s to the early 90s. Some schooling with Csuri's OSU group, master's degree in the field, worked with Don Greenburg (who does indeed have the warmest grin in computer graphics) and his Cornell group for a while , even met the author a time or two. So this was a wonderful trip down memory lane, reminding me of all that and of some of friends who have slipped thru time's sieve. So thanks for that, Alvy. And thanks for reminding me how to compute perspective! (how could I have ever forgotten?) That said, this is a book chock full of information for those interested in how computer generated movies are made. The history of techniques is extensive, sometimes a little deep, often not deep enough, but a good general overview. You won't be able to compute your own movies from this info but you might just find yourself eager to try. Or to do any of the marvelous things Digital Light can do. (besides, we live the Age of Lookin' Stuff Up so you can find technical details online) It is not, as I was led to believe from a single review, a philosophical view into "Digital Light" and all it can do. The author touches on that here or there, gives some thoughts, but it's not the Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden BraidGödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid of Digital Light. Sigh. It also follows a very narrow path thru the history of Computer Graphics. Alvy's own personal journey, populated mostly with the people he worked closely with and ultimately with those who formed Pixar in its early days. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. It's an exciting journey. What it actually emphasizes, to me, is just how broad and vast the history and field of Computer Graphics really is. You won't find much of computer art here. Some women but not many. Radiosity isn't even mentioned. So many researchers and developers and practitioners don't get a single nod. But they probably don't belong in this book. I mention it just so you won't be disappointed reading it if you don't find exactly what you're looking for. Or don't find yourself! (another caveat: I didn't take much of a look at the online annotations which appear to be quite extensive) But it's well worth the read. Besides the nostalgia I found much here that captured my interest. Especially, of course, the chapters covering what I did not know. I found it to be thoughtful, well written, generous with acknowledging who did what, and an exciting read. No doubt you will too. Btw, Alvy Ray Smith does not like Steve Jobs.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Chris Basoglu

    This very long book would appeal to a very narrow set of specialists (DSP, AI, Imaging, Audio, and Video engineers and scientists). I happen to be one of them. I learned alot I did not know the life of Joseph Fourier and discovered that it was Vladimir Kotelnikov who created the sampling theorem and not Nyquist. I really liked the concept of tying together the evolution from Fourier Transforms to the Kotelnikov sampling theorem, and Turing machines with a side of Moore's law had led to pixels an This very long book would appeal to a very narrow set of specialists (DSP, AI, Imaging, Audio, and Video engineers and scientists). I happen to be one of them. I learned alot I did not know the life of Joseph Fourier and discovered that it was Vladimir Kotelnikov who created the sampling theorem and not Nyquist. I really liked the concept of tying together the evolution from Fourier Transforms to the Kotelnikov sampling theorem, and Turing machines with a side of Moore's law had led to pixels and digital imagining/processing. Some of the history and job shuffling of the more recent graphics pioneers and programmers may have gone a bit detailed/long however and those later chapters had me wishing to get to point more quickly.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Sylvie Rueff

    For me, this is two books bound under one cover. Book one is a history and survey of the pixel in what I call computing for visual output - computer graphics and signal/image processing. Having had a foot in both camps, I enjoy Alvy’ approach in telling that story. As such, this is an excellent book for those interested in the background of those phenomena which have become pervasive. The second book is a memoir from someone who witnessed many of the places where computer graphics germinated. He For me, this is two books bound under one cover. Book one is a history and survey of the pixel in what I call computing for visual output - computer graphics and signal/image processing. Having had a foot in both camps, I enjoy Alvy’ approach in telling that story. As such, this is an excellent book for those interested in the background of those phenomena which have become pervasive. The second book is a memoir from someone who witnessed many of the places where computer graphics germinated. Here he visits old friends - and some frenemies - in a familiar and chatty manner. For me, this book could only be improved by it being offered as an audio book read by Alvy, as I can hear his voice on every page.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Christian

    This is a wonderfully thorough account of how pixels and, more specifically, digital movies came to be. Ray Smith does an admirable job intertwining the biographies of technological pioneers with the “genesis stories” of the technological innovations themselves. The book is quite long but even so, he keeps it focused on computer displays for movies rather than splintering off into dozens of other related fields. This should become part of the syllabus for computer graphics and digital media progr This is a wonderfully thorough account of how pixels and, more specifically, digital movies came to be. Ray Smith does an admirable job intertwining the biographies of technological pioneers with the “genesis stories” of the technological innovations themselves. The book is quite long but even so, he keeps it focused on computer displays for movies rather than splintering off into dozens of other related fields. This should become part of the syllabus for computer graphics and digital media programs. It is a much more engaging read than the average textbook, while also providing just enough background to warrant supplemental learning. I, for one, wish I’d had this book as an undergrad in the early 2000s.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Rachel

    Excellent history of the pixel I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this was much better than whatever I thought it was. I loved the detailed history of computers and computer graphics — I studied cg with Jim Blinn and Jim Kajiya (both featured in the book) at Caltech, and was planning to go into it as a career until practical necessities intervened. Still, there was a lot I didn’t know, and it was wonderfully nostalgic to read about the things I did know. I’m encouraged by Smith’s comments at Excellent history of the pixel I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this was much better than whatever I thought it was. I loved the detailed history of computers and computer graphics — I studied cg with Jim Blinn and Jim Kajiya (both featured in the book) at Caltech, and was planning to go into it as a career until practical necessities intervened. Still, there was a lot I didn’t know, and it was wonderfully nostalgic to read about the things I did know. I’m encouraged by Smith’s comments at the end about AI, since that’s what I’m doing now, and I can only hope it lives up to its promise.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Prasanna

    I was expecting a more narrative style book when I picked it up and found that it went through a whole history of computation and the build up of the movies. The last two chapters get into the more saucy details of Pixar, Steve Jobs, etc. Otherwise it reads more like a technical history book. It helped fill a lot of details in the history of computation and computer graphics for me.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Jaak

    Inspiring book that took me way too long to read because every other sentence made me wonder.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Marty

    Of interest to anyone curious about visualization

  14. 4 out of 5

    Curt

    Some interesting background on how 'digital light's actually works, along with a lot of history on various computer guys who made it happen step by step. Some interesting background on how 'digital light's actually works, along with a lot of history on various computer guys who made it happen step by step.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Dean Tambling

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jhludwig

  17. 4 out of 5

    Bobby Pourkazemi

  18. 4 out of 5

    Douglas Greenshields

  19. 5 out of 5

    Darryl Jennings

  20. 4 out of 5

    Adrian

  21. 5 out of 5

    Carl Nelson

  22. 4 out of 5

    Vlad

  23. 5 out of 5

    Johnny F.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Don

  25. 5 out of 5

    Mark

  26. 4 out of 5

    Elias

  27. 4 out of 5

    Dieter Bohn

  28. 5 out of 5

    Jad

  29. 5 out of 5

    Thorsten

  30. 4 out of 5

    Anand

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