State of Graphics and Social Technology on Display in the Past Week

April 21, 2013

The last week has had attacks on innocent people in Boston and a terrifying plant explosion in Texas. We also saw how much graphics technology has changed in the past few years and the impact of social media on disseminating information (both positive and negative). Both events caused extensive property damage and even worse damage to hundreds of people and their loved ones. Today I wanted to stop and take a look at the role of graphics technology and social media in both of these events.

Digital Photography

When did you first see a digital camera? I think the first one saw was in the mid-90s and the quality of the pictures it took were nothing short of awful. I’m thinking the pictures were something like 320×240 pixels and only in grayscale. By the end of the 90s, consumer cameras were in color and they shot 640×480 pixels (that’s .3 megapixel). Of course the camera would only hold a small number of pictures in the 8 MB of included data.

Even when you took a digital picture, most people would still print it out or possible e-mail it to a friend or two. Now it is much easier to share photos digitally via e-mail, text messages and social media. The ease of moving photos around means that more people can look at the pictures including law enforcement.

Now even crummy mobile phones can capture much better pictures than the cameras of ten years go. As the events of the last week unfolded, we saw numerous people coming forward with pictures they had taken using their phones or pocket cameras. Yes, there were also some pictures taken with more professional cameras. All of these pictures combined allowed law enforcement to put the together the puzzle and determine what has happened and in the case of the attack in Boston, who had done it.

If something like this had happened even 3-5 years ago, would a resolution had happened so quickly? Sure, it is possible, though probably very doubtful.

Digital Video

If we go back a few years and look at the technology for recording a video, it was quite large. Typically you also had to record on a videotape and play it back on a videotape player. Now most video cameras store data digitally and that includes mobile phones. Just like photos can more around quickly, so can videos.

Not only are people carrying video cameras everywhere, surveillance cameras are often recording what happens in highly trafficked areas. Law enforcement also got a big help from surveillance video shot of Boylston Street where the Boston bombing took place. We also got an amazing video of the explosion in Texas from someone’s mobile phone.

Even though both still and video cameras have improved greatly in the past few years, there are still limitations. When the FBI released still photos of the bombers, the quality was very poor. People outside of the graphics business seem to think we can just zoom in on a digital photo and the quality will magically be perfect. Why not? It works that way on television and in the movies!

I’m sure the FBI used the most powerful technology available to improve the photos they distributed and they were still of fairly low to poor quality. Just remember the phrase “garbage in, garbage out.” When you start with a lousy image, you might be able to improve it, but it will still be pretty lousy.

Social Media

Social media had a huge impact on images and videos being widely distributed at a speed we’ve never seen before. Just minutes after a picture was shot, it could be seen all over the world. Videos were uploaded to YouTube and only minutes afterwards were not only seen on computers, but also shown on television.

Back in the old days, you’d have to go to the local post office to see those who the FBI labeled as most wanted. It was nearly instantaneously that both still images and videos of the bombers could be seen by anyone on television and on their computers. There is no doubt this wide distribution aided in locating and stopping the bombers from causing any more problems.

Satellite and Street View

Near the end of the manhunt, one of the bombers had been located in a boat parked behind a home. Immediately we first saw satellite images showing the location of the boat in the yard via Google Earth. A few minutes later came a Bing image looking straight down the driveway at the boat. For some, the technology means a loss of privacy. That is certainly true. Yet in this instance, the images were able to show everyone a view of the scene.

After the fact, the police released thermal images of the boat showing a body inside of it. While this technology is not new, it was very helpful identifying the exact location of the bomber.

I’ve used the satellite view myself to measure the distance between locations on the other side of the world. Often you can get a good idea of the distance that is accurate to within a few feet. That is absolutely amazing to me.

Multimedia Slideshows

Most of the technology described to the point was bringing us bad news via pictures and videos. Graphics technology can also be used to paint a brighter picture and I want to end with that. On Saturday afternoon, the Boston Red Sox played their first home game since the bombings. Before the game, there was a very moving ceremony honoring runners, law enforcement, volunteers and government officials.

As part of the ceremony, there was a multimedia slideshow blending images from the past few days with the Gary Jules song “Mad World.” It was incredibly moving. Unfortunately I am unable to find the slideshow online to share with you.

Creating this type of slideshow is something each and every one of you can do. I absolutely love the software ProShow Producer from Photodex as it makes it relatively easy to creating amazing multimedia slideshows. For those who want to try it without spending a lot of money, check out the “Gold” version.

I’ve shared with you a number of the different graphic and social technologies I saw on display in the last week and I’d love to hear what technologies you saw. Post a comment and share with everyone.

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