The humble pixel — the 2D picture element that has formed the foundation of just about every kind of digital media for the last 50 years — may soon meet its maker. Believe it or not, if a team of British researchers have their way, the pixel, within five short years, will be replaced with… vectors.
If you know about computer graphics, or if you’ve ever edited or drawn an image on your computer, you know that there are two primary ways of storing image data: As a bitmap, or as vectors. A bitmap is quite simply a giant grid of pixels, with the arrangement and color of the pixels dictating what the image looks like. Vectors are an entirely different beast: In vector graphics, the image is described as a series of mathematical equations. To draw a bitmap shape you just color in a block of pixels; with vector graphics, you would describe the shape in terms of height, width, radius, and so on.
These two methods are very different, and they fulfill very different needs. Vector graphics, because they’re made out of geometric primitives, are infinitely scalable, making them the ideal image format for illustrations, clipart, maps, typography, Flash animations, and so on. For everything else, we use pixel bitmaps. Streaming videos, digital cameras, movie editing, video game textures — all bitmaps. There might be different file formats involved (PNG, MOV, JPG), but they’re all ultimately converted into pixel bitmaps when it comes to displaying them on your monitor, TV, or cinema screen …
… Which finally leads us back to the innovation at hand: Philip Willis and John Patterson of the University of Bath in England have devised a video codec that replaces pixel bitmaps with vectors. In a conventional digital camera, images (or videos) are captured as pixel bitmaps and compressed using a codec such as JPEG or H.264. Willis and Patterson have devised a codec called Vectorized Streaming Video (VSV) that converts the bitmap image into vectors. This builds on their previous work with VPI — vectorized photographic images [PDF] — which deals with converting bitmap images into perfect, vectorized copies.