“The manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances,” German cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote in 1935. We see the world, he was saying, as if on a screen constructed by everyone who came before us.
Speaking of screens: Tucked into the product announcements at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in June was a new piece of gear that set hearts aflame among photographers, film editors and designers. It's a new Apple-built LCD screen, the Pro Display XDR, intended as the companion to Apple's new high-end Mac Pro. (They're both expected to be available this fall.)
I got a close-up look, and everything about it is eye-popping: its resolution (6,016 by 3,384 pixels, or “6K”); brightness (peaking at about 30 times brighter than a movie screen and two to three times brighter than an average television); and contrast ratio (1,000,000:1—like a piece of white paper in sunlight as compared with the same paper in moonlight). And of course, its $4,999 price tag, which puts it squarely in the professional market.
But here's why you should care, even if your job doesn't depend on being able to see every last detail of the documentary you're shooting in 4K digital video. In a world of mass-produced images, technology sets our visual expectations, as Benjamin would have understood. Photography forced painters away from literal representations and toward impressionism and abstraction. Movies made photography look static. Color film made the black-and-white past look antique. High-definition TV made standard definition look grainy. And recent innovations, such as high dynamic range (HDR) photography and videography, can make older pictures seem flat and lifeless. Now along comes Apple, touting a screen so contrasty that the company decided the term “HDR” was insufficient—XDR stands for “extreme dynamic range.”
Despite the name, though, providing greater dynamic range isn't just about showing deep blacks or vivid whites. It's about revealing more of the subtle detail often lost in light and shadows. In short, HDR imaging tries to depict the world the way the human eye can see it. Up to now, professionals needed reference monitors priced in the tens of thousands of dollars to experience graphics and video in their full HDR glory. Apple, as it has done before with high-pixel-count “retina” screens, is nudging this technology into the realm where it might be affordable to independent filmmakers, small design studios, radiology practices or science laboratories—anyone for whom details and fidelity count.
Apple reached deep into its bag of tricks to make the Pro Display work. For one thing, the screen is illuminated by an array of 576 blue LEDs rather than the strips of white LEDs around the borders of traditional displays. Because blue light can be emitted by a single chip, it can be controlled more precisely than white light, according to Vincent Gu, the Apple display engineer who leads one of the teams behind the project. The blue light hits a color-correction sheet and “goes through a quantum physics transformation” that converts it into wide-spectrum light, he says.
And the display itself is a computer. A new timing controller modulates not just the LCD pixels but the light sources behind them—analyzing content and turning the LEDs all the way off in places where the image should be black, for example. “The algorithm inside of that timing controller is harmoniously orchestrating all this,” Gu says. “We're doing a lot of heavy computation. But we do not manipulate what the user intended.”
Colleen Novielli, part of the Mac marketing team, says Apple's goal is to help video editors, photographers, 3-D animators, and others understand precisely how their work will look once it reaches end users on a movie screen or a printed page. “Everyone will be able to truly do their best work because they can see what they're supposed to be seeing,” Novielli told me.
But given the pace of change in the electronics industry, it seems likely that similar technology will inevitably filter down to the consumer level, perhaps changing what we all expect. As Benjamin marveled, “The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject.” In the screen is our new reality.