Persistence of vision

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This article is about the optical illusion. For other uses, see Persistence of vision (disambiguation).
File:WearableComputing Persistence of Vision in 1985.svg
Persistence of Vision as a visual art form, using an array of lights, waved back and forth in space, with the lights controlled by wearable computer

Persistence of vision refers to the optical illusion whereby multiple discrete images blend into a single image in the human mind and believed to be the explanation for motion perception in cinema and animated films. Like other illusions of visual perception, it is produced by certain characteristics of the visual system.


Narrowly defined, the theory of persistence of vision is the belief that human perception of motion (brain centered) is the result of persistence of vision (eye centered). That version of the theory was disproved in 1912 by Wertheimer[1] but persists in many citations in many classic and modern film-theory texts.[2][3][4] A more plausible theory to explain motion perception (at least on a descriptive level) are two distinct perceptual illusions: phi phenomenon and beta movement.

A visual form of memory known as iconic memory has been described as the cause of this phenomenon.[5] Although psychologists and physiologists have rejected the relevance of this theory to film viewership, film academics and theorists generally have not. Some scientists nowadays consider the entire theory a myth.[6]

In contrasting persistence of vision theory with phi phenomena, a critical part of understanding that emerges with these visual perception phenomena is that the eye is not a camera and does not see in frames per second. In other words, vision is not as simple as light registering on a medium, since the brain has to make sense of the visual data the eye provides and construct a coherent picture of reality. Joseph Anderson and Barbara Fisher argue that the phi phenomena privileges a more constructionist approach to the cinema (David Bordwell, Noël Carroll, Kirsten Thompson), whereas the persistence of vision privileges a realist approach (André Bazin, Christian Metz, Jean-Louis Baudry).[6]

The discovery of persistence of vision is attributed to the Roman poet Lucretius, although he only mentions it in connection with images seen in a dream.[7] In the modern era, some stroboscopic experiments performed by Peter Mark Roget in 1824 were also cited as the basis for the theory.[8]

Film systems

Persistence of vision is still the accepted term for this phenomenon in the realm of cinema history and theory. Early practitioners tried different frame rates, and chose a rate of 16 frames per second (frame/s) as high enough to cause the mind to stop seeing flashing images. Audiences still interpret motion at rates as low as ten frames per second or slower (as in a flipbook), but the flicker caused by the shutter of a film projector is distracting below the 16-frame threshold.[citation needed]

Modern theatrical film runs at 24 frames a second. This is the case for both physical film and digital cinema systems.

It is important to distinguish between the frame rate and the flicker rate, which are not necessarily the same. In physical film systems, it is necessary to pull down the film frame, and this pulling-down needs to be obscured by a shutter to avoid the appearance of blurring; therefore, there needs to be at least one flicker per frame in film. To reduce the appearance of flicker, virtually all modern projector shutters are designed to add additional flicker periods, typically doubling the flicker rate to 48 Hz (single-bladed shutters make two rotations per frame – double-bladed shutters make one rotation per frame), which is less visible. (Some three-bladed projector shutters even triple it to 72 Hz.)

In digital film systems, the scan rate may be decoupled from the image update rate. In some systems, such as the Digital Light Processing (DLP) system, there is no flying spot or raster scan at all, so there is no flicker other than that generated by the temporal aliasing of the film image capture.

The new film system MaxiVision 48 films at 48 frames per second, which, according to film critic Roger Ebert, offers even a strobeless tracking shot past picket fences. The lack of strobe (as opposed to flicker) is due to the higher sampling rate of the camera relative to the speed of movement of the image across the film plane. This ultra-smooth imaging is called high motion.

Computer monitors

Aside from some configurations used until the early 1990s[citation needed], computer monitors do not use interlacing. They may sometimes be seen to flicker, often in a brightly lit room, and at close viewing distances. The greater flickering in close-up viewing is due to more of the screen being in the viewer's peripheral vision, which has more sensitivity to flickering. Generally, a refresh rate of 85 Hz or above (as found in most modern CRT monitors) is sufficient to minimize flicker in close viewing, and all recent computer monitors are capable of at least that rate.

Flat-panel liquid crystal display (LCD) monitors do not suffer from flicker even if their refresh rate is 60 Hz or lower. This is because an LCD pixel generates a continuous stream of light as long as that part of the image is supposed to be lit (see also ghosting). With each scan, the monitor determines whether a pixel should be light or dark and changes the state of the pixel accordingly. In a CRT, by comparison, each pixel generates a temporary burst of light, then darkening, in each periodic scan. The monitor activates a phosphor on the screen during each scan if the pixel is supposed to be light, but the phosphor fades before the next scan.[9]

Cartoon animation

See also: Key frame
This animated cartoon of a galloping horse is displayed at 12 drawings per second, and the fast motion is on the edge of being objectionably jerky.

In drawn animation, moving characters are often shot "on twos", that is to say, one drawing is shown for every two frames of film (which usually runs at 24 frames per second), meaning there are only 12 drawings per second. Even though the image update rate is low, the fluidity is satisfactory for most subjects. However, when a character is required to perform a quick movement, it is usually necessary to revert to animating "on ones", as "twos" are too slow to convey the motion adequately. A blend of the two techniques keeps the eye fooled without unnecessary production cost.

Animation for most "Saturday morning cartoons" is produced as cheaply as possible, and is most often shot on "threes", or even "fours", i.e. three or four frames per drawing. This translates to only 8 or 6 drawings per second, respectively.[citation needed]

Printed media

Flip books use this principle[citation needed]. If the book is flipped at a fast enough speed, the illusion of smooth motion is created.

Sparkler's trail effect

The sparkler's trail effect occurs when one waves around a lit sparkler, creating a trail of light. Although it appears that this trail is created by the light left from the sparkler as it is waved through the air, there is, in fact, no light along this trail. The lighted trail is a creation of the mind, which retains a perception of the sparkler's light for a fraction of a second in sensory memory.[10]

Persistence of vision displays

A class of display device described as "POV" is one that composes an image by displaying one spatial portion at a time in rapid succession (for example, one column of pixels every few milliseconds). A two-dimensional POV display is often accomplished by means of rapidly moving a single row of LEDs along a linear or circular path. The effect is that the image is perceived as a whole by the viewer as long as the entire path is completed during the visual persistence time of the human eye. A further effect is often to give the illusion of the image floating in mid-air. A three-dimensional POV display is often constructed using a 2D grid of LEDs which is swept or rotated through a volume. POV display devices can be used in combination with long camera exposures to produce light writing.

A common example of this can be seen in the use of bicycle wheel lights that produce patterns.

See also

Notes and references

  1. Wertheimer, 1912. Experimentelle Studien über das Sehen von Bewegung. Zeitschrift für Psychologie 61, pp. 161–265
  2. Bazin, André (1967) What is Cinema?, Vol. I, Trans. Hugh Gray, Berkeley: University of California Press
  3. Cook, David A. (2004) A History of Narrative Film. New York, W. W. Norton & Company.
  4. Metz, Christian (1991) Film Language: A Semiotics of The Cinema, trans. Michael Taylor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  5. Coltheart M. "The persistences of vision." Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 1980 Jul 8;290(1038):57–69. PMID 6106242.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Anderson, Joseph; Anderson, Barbara (1993). "The Myth of Persistence of Vision Revisited". Journal of Film and Video. 45 (1): 3–12. Archived from the original on 2008-05-26. 
  7. Herbert, S. (2000). A history of pre-cinema. London. Routledge. p 121
  8. Maltby, R. (2004). Hollywood cinema. [Oxford]: Blackwell Publishing. p 420
  9. Contemporary LCD Monitor Parameters: Objective and Subjective Analysis (page 3)
  10. Goldstein, B. (2011). Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience--with coglab manual. (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth: 120.

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