We are surrounded by displays with “millions” of colors and hundreds of pixels per inch. With super “high fidelity” sound producing what we perceive to be realistic replicas of the real world.
Of course this is not the case, we rarely stop and think how our electronic systems have been crafted around the limitations of human perception. So to explore this issue, in this article we ask the question: “What might an alien think of human technology?”. We will assume a lifeform which senses the world around it much as we do. But has massively improved sensing abilities. In light of these abilities we will dub it the Oculako.
Let’s begin with the now mostly defunct CRT display and see what our hypothetical alien thinks of it. The video below shows a TV screen shot at 10,000 frames per second.
Our limited visual system detects changes slowly (PDF). Human persistence of vision takes effect at around 15 frames a second. This merges the lines together, creating a single image. The Oculako processes images far faster. And so sees what looks like a line racing down the screen. Such an organism might not even recognize this as a display.
Even if the Oculako can work its way around this slow update rate it still has odd clusters of Red Green and Blue dots to contend with. Humans experience the world through these three overlapping regions across the 400 to 700nm range of the electromagnetic spectrum.
In the electronics world, have only developed sources which produce light at distinct wavelengths. And so we mimic the operation of the human eye, mixing light at these three wavelengths to fool our eyes into believing it is seeing a single color.
This is far from common to all animals. Dogs can only see Green and Blue. Some butterflies see from ultra-violet through to Red, but with a host of additional receptors (5 across the spectrum) giving them an improved ability to distinguish colors.
All these pale in comparison to the Mantis shrimp. The Mantis shrimp has better definition in ultra-violet than we have across the entire spectrum. With a total of 12 receptor types, it has the best vision of any known animal (though it may not use that information well).
But lets suppose the Oculako is far better than this, its receptors are spectrographic. Sensing wavelengths across the spectrum with sub-nanometer accuracy. Its high resolution eyes easily able to pick out the individual pixels in our displays all it sees is a curious ever changing mosaic of color with no discernible meaning.
LCD, LED, and DLP Display Tech
LCD and LED displays are a little better, at least the Oculako sees a complete image but the mosaic structure persists, while screen refreshes race down the screen, merging into one another.
If the Oculako were to come across a modern DLP projector it might get quite a shock. Unlike LCDs which mix Red, Green and Blue spatially, DLPs mix colors temporally. There are some great videos explaining the operation of the micro mirrors at the heart of DLP projectors. But put simply a DLP projector is composed of an array of thousands of micro mirrors which reflect light onto or away from a surface to produce an image.
As the micro mirrors are either “on” or “off” other techniques are required to produce color and intensity variation. In order to produce brighter or darker pixels the mirrors use pulse width modulation (PDF). By flicking the mirrors on and off rapidly our eyes are fooled into thinking we’ve seen a brighter or darker image. In order to generate different colors the projector filters the light through a rapidly spinning color wheel. This produces a quick succession of Red, Green and Blue images which our slow responding eye temporally mixes to produce a seemly continuous color image.
To produce a realistic image using this process the micro mirrors flick back and forth thousands of times a second. The Oculako advanced eyes picks out each flick with ease.
But more than all this, the Oculako sees no in reason in the flatness of these ever changing mosaics. Like the so called Lytro, “light field” camera the Oculakos eyes capture both the intensity and direction of the light entering its eyes. This allows it to reconstruct a 3D representation of the world around it, far more accurately than our stereoscopic vision, much better than images produced by our fledgling 3D TVs and VR headsets.
What’s That Noise?
While our displays might be incomprehensible, you might think our sound reproduction is surely better? Unfortunately this is not the case. The best human ears are limited to sounds of 20KHz and below. This is blown away by what other animals can hear. Some species are able to perceive sound ranging into the 100s of Kilohertz. The sounds produced by our speakers therefore sound low and dull to the Oculako. Natural sounds like babbling water, would also be unrecognizable, clipped as they are by our audio systems. With its advanced hearing, perhaps the Oculako even transmits complex data by sound.
Our world is likely to be a confusing place for the Oculako. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that other organisms, terrestrial or extra, could view our user interfaces even if they didn’t understand them. But this little survey of the visual and audio technologies we’ve developed (and the great work done by hackers to elucidate their construction) show they are very narrowly confined to our particular set of senses.
Talking to Aliens
But what of our actual attempts to communicate with alien life? The most famous of which is perhaps the Voyager Golden Record.
A fascinating artifact in itself the voyager record is similar to a normal long player record fabricated out of gold. On one side it is etched with a graphic designed to provide instruction on the operation of the record and how pits and grooves are used to store information on the disc.
As well as audio recordings which might teach aliens to speak, the record also encodes color image data. Inevitably it likely suffers from the issues described here. An enhanced sensory system (like the Mantis Shrimp), does not imply higher intelligence or the ability to easily interpret complex messages, and so the data may remain incomprehensible.
Nonetheless, it’s a very difficult problem to come up with an interspecies communication mechanism. Especially considering that we don’t know of any other sentient life-forms, what their senses might be, and we were heavily constrained on how the communication was delivered. Given the technological advances since the 1970s how would you design this era’s golden record?