Frame Rate Is a Feature

When discussing real-time graphics (or as I like to put it, real-time imagery), we often associate the term with video games alone, which is, of course, a rather narrow view on the issue. Granted, video games are the most prominent vehicle for high-end real-time imagery, at least on the consumer side of things, but in recent years many everyday consumer objects have had their fair share of sophisticated real-time imagery as well.

Like mobile phones.

The real explosion in that space happened undeniably after the introduction of the original iPhone back in 2007 that established pretty much a new paradigm for how a user interface should look and feel. One major breakthrough from Apple was to implement simple physics simulation [1] into the scrolling that made it look like the list of text (or graphic elements) had mass and thus, inertia. The scrolling was actually the second feature that Steve Jobs demoed at the keynote and it blew everyone away. It’s hard to imagine the impact now as we take such features pretty much for granted, but I for one could barely contain myself when I saw it.

But what made the scrolling in iPhone really a huge deal, I would argue, was the high and steady frame rate it was presented at, especially on the 2007 standards.  As I have stated earlier, frame rate is the most significant singular feature of real-time graphics aesthetically speaking, since it is, I might add, the very measure [2] of real-timeness of given imagery.

This brings us to the importance of fluid imagery for the mainstream, non-technical people. There really are no excuses for jumpy experience when dealing with everyday consumer, since he/she is A: totally oblivious (as he/she is entitled to) to the technical circumstances behind the imagery, and B: compares the imagery to of movies and television which contain obviously smooth stream of images. In other words, fluid imagery is a default position for the consumer, not a luxury item, which is why – to come back to video games – arcade games have always run at exceptionally high and steady frame rates compared to home systems. Arcade games are (=were) aimed for anyone happened to walk by, whereas home systems chiefly for the enlightened hobbyists.

And finally we get to the point, which I was so eagerly preparing: The introduction of the Nokia N9.

First of all, as a Finn, it warmed my heart to see the positive buzz around a Nokia phone, there’s no way around it. The general consensus seems to be that since 2007 Nokia has produced nothing but disappointments, but now, finally Nokia appears to get it right.

Funnily enough, the ultimate reason for all the excitement wasn’t any particular technological innovation per se – not even the rather cool “swipe” function – but the fluidity of the user experience, i.e. the high and steady frame rate of it. It’s sad to notice that even Microsoft realized it before Nokia with their Windows Phone that if you can’t do something at 60 frames per second, don’t do it. Period. And presumably widgets and flash are absent from the N9 for that very reason.

All in all, I would argue that ultimately it’s the high and steady frame rate that renders the touch-based user interfaces, such as of the N9 and the like, not only efficient conduits for interaction, but something that is simply fun and engaging to mess around with. Put differently, if frame rate fails to deliver, everything else falls apart what comes to the user experience.

So, I would go so far as to say that frame rate is the first line of defense between the user and the machine carrying real-time imagery. Losing that battle might cost one losing the war.

I retract the header. Frame rate isn’t a feature: It’s a killer feature.

[1] see my thesis, Chapter 5.5 Simulation of Motion
[2] see my thesis, Chapter 3.5 Frame Rate