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Volatile Formats

Note: This is a continuation of the thoughts I started thinking about in my Volatile Mediums blog post.

The next level up from physical mediums for data storage is the way that the data is stored. In the digital age, we have a plethora of formats for storing information. For me, one of the most interesting areas of information storage is the analog-digital space.

The fundamental problem of storing audio, video, and other replications of the physical world is that there is so much information that we can collect with sensors (think microphones, video cameras, etc.). It would be great if we could go get the best camera and microphone out there, record whatever people record these days, and have that exact physical experience “played back” for us on a screen and speaker/headphones.

Unfortunately, there are several problems with this. Among those is the actual design of the sensor. It takes a lot of careful thought, engineering, and the like to create a truly good microphone or camera. And after all of that, this sensor will cost something. Hopefully, that cost will correspond to the actual technical ability of that sensor! In any case, not everyone can have the best camera or microphone due to any number of constraints, not just those listed above.

The second problem is the sampling issue. The sensor will create some sort of output that can then be measured, or sampled, by an ADC (analog-to-digital converter). The very word “sample” belies what this nearly magical box is doing: it is only looking at certain portions or timestamps of the analog signal. Granted, the time between samples can be very small (e.g. 44.1 kHz is a fairly common sample rate for audio), but there is still some loss of signal. Once the ADC creates these samples, it converts them into a digital format (something that can be stored on a CD, hard drive, thumb drive, etc.).

The third problem is the encoding issue. The ADC creates all of these samples, but we need to start thinking about storage limitations. Storing the raw output of a sensor can take a lot of space: an average album length (40 minutes) could easily take 400MB of space! Now, again, the physical storage space is moving in the upward direction to combat this, but storing isn’t the only problem. One prime issue is internet bandwidth.

The solution to this is compression, like a ZIP file. It makes big files smaller by doing some fancy math tricks that can be reversed by a computer to reconstruct the original file. However, for audio/video files, another level of compression exists which actually gets rid of some of the information in the original file to save more space. This is called “lossy” compression, as opposed to “lossless” compression.

Great! We’ve found a way to save more space. The problem with lossy compression is that we have to decide which information to throw away. Usually, this is frequencies that the average human ear/eye can’t perceive. But, let’s just say that some compression is a bit too “greedy” when it comes to saving space and starts to cut into the band of frequencies that can be perceived. Also note that the design of these compression algorithms is an artform and takes lots of careful consideration.

The final problem I want to mention is the codec problem. There are many different codecs available today, and for each and every one of them to be useful, you need to have a way to decode each and every one of them. Unfortunately, this is sometimes very difficult.

It could be a licensing issue, where you don’t have the correct software installed or purchased to actually decode that file on your computer.

Or it could be a physical constraints issue, where your computer isn’t powerful enough to decode the file at a fast enough rate for you to view it without stuttering, buffering, etc.

Third, it could be a personal preference. Some people have much more sensitive eyes/ears and need to have formats that are more transparent, meaning that the lossy file is perceptually identical to the source it was encoded from.

With all of these issues at play, I think there are several key points to make:

1. Codecs need to be freely available for widespread use with no strings attached.

Can’t stress this one enough: we need to make sure we are doing everything possible to not let our information die when a corporation or individual makes a decision that impacts the “who, what, where, when, and how” of their codec usage.

2. Lossless compression is good, but it is not the only thing we need.

We need to remember that not everyone has the ability to use lossless codecs, whether that be because of internet bandwidth limitations, storage limitation, or the like. Instead, we need to continue to innovate in the lossy compression space to narrow the perceptual gap between lossy and lossless more and more.

3. A codec should never become obsolete.

This one may sound weird, but the fact is, if we’re talking about long-term storage of information, we can’t let codecs die, since there may come a day where we need a codec to decode great-grandpa’s album that never made it big.