Computers & Mobile Craft & Design
Fifty years of squares

Sci-fi and horror author extraordinaire, John Shirley (whom William Gibson dubbed “Cyberpunk Patient Zero”), sent me a link to this fascinating article about the birth of the square pixel in digital imaging. The piece starts out:

Russell Kirsch says he’s sorry.

More than 50 years ago, Kirsch took a picture of his infant son and scanned it into a computer. It was the first digital image: a grainy, black-and-white baby picture that literally changed the way we view the world. With it, the smoothness of images captured on film was shattered to bits.

The square pixel became the norm, thanks in part to Kirsch, and the world got a little bit rougher around the edges.

Now, at the tender age of 81, Russell Kirsch is determined to fix his “mistake” rather than just feeling bad about it:

Kirsch’s method assesses a square-pixel picture with masks that are 6 by 6 pixels each and looks for the best way to divide this larger pixel cleanly into two areas of the greatest contrast. The program tries two different masks over each area — in one, a seam divides the mask into two rough triangles, and in the other a seam creates two rough rectangles. Each mask is then rotated until the program finds the configuration that splits the 6-by-6 area into sections that contrast the most. Then, similar pixels on either side of the seam are fused.

Here’s a picture of his son today (now 53), using Kirsch’s new variably-shaped pixel method (seen on the right).


[Thanks, John!]

Circling the square

20 thoughts on “Fifty years of squares

  1. Unless I’m misunderstanding it, Mr. Kirsch has kinda missed the point. The pixel is square because that’s the geometry that monitors are created with. Until we can come up with pixel density so small that an organic monitor layout is inconsequential, we still need to deal with the square foundation.

    He describes turning a photo into 6×6 pixel squares and turning those into programmatically divided pixel pairs, but the comparison picture is one where those same six-pixel squares were reduced to a single color. If the original image was 600px wide, the square one would be effectively 100px wide and the nicer looking non-square pixel photo would still be 600px but the reduction technique would have imparted a significant amount of loss compared to the original photo, effectively giving it a resolution of 200px wide.

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. And he has a new best-of writing collection and “lazy man’s memoir,” called Borg Like Me.

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