Death To The Pixels

Pixels are disappearing at an amazingly fast rate. Extinction could make a lot of money for a lot of people.

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Mommy and Daddy: What was a pixel?

You may want to prepare an answer now because the pixel is going the way of the Dodo (and the iPod, for that matter?). In addition to being a milestone in digital tech, this could be a very lucrative moment for some of the electronic industry's most active companies.

LG just revealed the world's first full-HD smartphone-sized LCD screen--with 1920 by 1080 pixels at 440 pixels per inch, it blows away Apple's "retina" display on its iPhones. Remember the iPhone 4's screen: It had LCD IPS tech and crazily high density pixels and taught us about the "retina" display--one so good that Apple said in normal use the human eye wasn't good enough to spot a pixel. LG's new system uses Advanced High Performance IPS tech, giving it what LG claims is clearer color reproduction, wider view angles, and other benefits. It's clearly the next-gen of the tech Apple uses, and also means that anyone using a smartphone with the display will probably never see its pixels in action.

Meanwhile, Apple's new iPad uses so many pixels that even on its large 9.7-inch screen you usually can't see them, and it's said that in a coming upgrade of its Mac lineup Apple will be bringing retina resolution to more traditional computers too. You can bet that next year's Ultrabooks and tablets will have retina screens too.

And a new decision by the international telecom standards group ITU means next-gen TVs will fit the newly designated Ultra High Definition Television standard. These are 4K TV at 3840 by 2160 pixels (twice the resolution of current full HD TVs) and 8K TVs with 7680 by 4320 pixels. Remember that for most casual TV watching it's already hard to spot the difference between a 720p TV and a 1080p full-HD TV. This means your next TV is effectively going to have retina resolution.

It also means that most of the screens in your life will look vastly superior to how they have historically. Due to technological constraints, LCDs, plasma screens, and even the beloved old cathode ray tube monitors--still trotted out as a cliché when showing coding on TV--have been noticeably pixelated. There's charm here, as Minecraft and 8-bit pixel art demonstrate, but it means the displays were visibly worse in quality than the glossy print in magazines, in hardback books, and on the miracle sheen of the cinema screen.

But retina displays on consumer devices mean that your tablet PC, phone, laptop, and TV can match or surpass the quality of the printed page and the movie screen. And that could help fuel change in a number of industries. Apple's iPad screen, for example, helps it beat its peers, and even gives e-ink e-readers a run for their money--plus it's a definite incentive for the magazine industry to embrace the new paradigm.

Retina resolution also means that people who create software for tablets and phones and PCs will have to increase the definition of images in their apps. It's a minor bother, in most cases, and means graphics look stunning on-screen--with no jagged edges. But it also means the problem of different screen sizes goes away, which is one issue with so-called Android fragmentation. Because apps have to have high-resolution "retina" images in them, and if they're shown on a screen that has slightly fewer pixels it's easy to "downsample" them in the device itself, and images will still look good. This may be a good thing for Android.

Retina-resolution displays also mean you need bigger apps, and bigger photo and video files to make the most of them. These bigger files will need more storage, which may be a boon for companies that sell hard drives to home users for backing up their files, and for cloud-storage enterprises that offer storage of large files remotely. More data streaming over video feeds or into high-resolution apps means that more bandwidth will be used by mobile devices and home broadband--a gift for phone networks that are trying to sell us 4G data services and fiber Internet.

Then there's Apple TV. It's hotly rumored, of course, and this weekend it was even said that Chinese firms are making the first test batches. There's chatter about how Apple will distinguish it in a cluttered TV marketplace, perhaps even incorporating Siri voice recognition. But who's to say Apple won't leapfrog the whole HDTV debate and sell a 4K retina screen? It could be a relatively premium device, it's a small technological step for Apple, would marry with ideas of streaming video from the more-than-HD iPad 3, and it would instantly stand at the top of the home HDTV market. This could make Apple a lot of money. Well, a lot more money, anyway.

[Image: Flickr user Ben Brown]

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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