Progress Ratchets

Let’s just get this out of the way:

  • Ratchet (device), a mechanical device that allows movement in only one direction

When going back to play an old video game with blocky polygons and low framerates, or watch an old movie with badly lit CG, or when looking at an older monitor with a lower resolution, the advances we’ve made for these technologies are obvious.

But when we first saw higher framerates, fewer polygons, better lighting or higher resolutions, it typically wouldn’t stand out as “exceptionally good”. When watching my first 720p HD video, I didn’t think “wow, this is so high res!” Similarly, not much later when watching 1080p for the first time, I just enjoyed the content.

These types of changes are only noticeable in one direction — improvement in framerate, resolution, etc. are nearly imperceptible, but degradation in the same is obvious. We experience discomfort now trying to play Smash Bros 64 with its slow, laggy gameplay, but when we first saw Smash Bros Melee, no one said “whoa this is too smooth!”

Did 480i->1080p change our lives? No, but we’d be unhappy to go back. Did 2004-era cellphones change our lives? They seemed important, but it wasn’t a huge deal when they were off — people just missed calls or texts. Compare that to 2014-era cellphones: many people express feeling alone or lost if their phone drops its network connection, let alone turns off.

A caveat to this could be something like 48 or 60fps video. It looks noticeably different, and (to my eyes) noticeably bad. There’s something about the way objects track and light looks at that rate that doesn’t sit right. Perhaps it’s an uncanny valley effect where film is now so realistic it starts to convince us it’s really real, but fails to finish that job and leaves us unsettled.

My personal bet is that a century of making films at lower speeds has led to techniques in lighting, editing, framing and motion that applied well to 24 frames per second and helped to craft the cinematic feel. Those tools and techniques just haven’t had time to be adequately adapted to higher frame rate filming, but they will be eventually. What I think we’re experiencing discomfort over isn’t the frame rate change itself (or an uncanny valley because it’s all too real), but more likely the failure of our tooling and techniques to keep up with this change, which has produced a noticeably, objectively inferior product.

Any change could be bucketed:

  1. noticeable going forward or backward
  2. noticeable only forward
  3. noticeable only backward
  4. totally beneath notice

Innovations that are only noticeable going forward may be things that sound like a big deal, but if you regress you probably wouldn’t notice a qualitative difference. One could further differentiate changes that depend on other advances to be useful, as with 24->48fps film relying on new techniques, or old vs. new cell phones relying on big screens and small, high capacity, fast-charging batteries.

There are implications here for innovators. When working on something, innovators aim to create value — if that value is not noticeable at a glance, it will require much more convincing to get it into the hands of users. If that value is not noticeably lost when slipping back, it’s unlikely to be an innovation with staying power. If it’s obviously better at a glance, and you notice it missing right away, it’s likely a pretty big deal. And if there’s some other thing missing which an innovation requires, now may be an opportunity to get ahead of the game by working on that missing thing, or setting the stage for when it becomes available.

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