I know that frame-rates above 60fps all look the same to the human eye. Is that true? Why? If so, why do graphics cards boast anything higher than that?
Eyes? No. Humans? Yes.
You'd be hard pressed to get 60fps out of the human eye.
However, this little factoid is not the frame rate specification for human vision.
That would suck.
Fortunately, the human eye is more than a camera* with fat pipe connection to the brain.
Human vision does not have properties like frame rate, latency, resolution, et al.
Time is relative...
The Bottom Line...
Human vision is not bound by frame rate.
*Actually comparing the human eye to a camera is like comparing a thermonuclear weapon to a pen-knife.
Yes, the eye can distinguish frame rates above 60 Hz. So can the brain. We are just not normally aware of it.
Conscious perception of flicker is measured in laboratories using the critical flicker frequency (CFF) threshold, which is the lowest frequency of flickering light (Hz) that produces the appearance of steady light in an individual. It's a probabilistic statistic that is estimated by testing an individual -- it depends on the individual and the testing methods. And the same person will have a different CFF depending on factors including fatigue.
Here is a pretty typical CFF plot (from Hartmann, E., B. Lachenmayr, and H. Brettel. "The peripheral critical flicker frequency." Vision research 19.9 (1979): 1019-1023.) showing how one person's CFF (the y-axis) varies at different visual eccentricities (the x-axis, greater eccentricities meaning looking at it less and less directly) and lighting levels (the different points and lines.)
As you can see, this person is around 60 Hz CFF in bright illumination when the flicker is around 15 visual degrees away from the center of their vision. This suggests that many people should be able to see the flicker of CRT monitors with 60 Hz refresh rates. They can. (As others have noted here, this is not possible with LCD monitors because LCD monitors do not flicker.)
Why isn't CFF even higher at these peak conditions? Good question. The bottleneck in consciously seeing flicker is not necessarily the human eye or even the thalamus or the cortex. The eye can transmit flicker well above 60 Hz to the thalamus and cortex. Lots of neurons can fire well above 100 Hz. And we can even measure neural response to high frequency flicker. Here are a few papers doing this:
Herrmann, Christoph S. "Human EEG responses to 1–100 Hz flicker: resonance phenomena in visual cortex and their potential correlation to cognitive phenomena." Experimental brain research 137.3 (2001): 346-353.:
Macaque monkeys: Of 92 cells in the primary visual cortex exposed to a 100 Hz refresh, 21 (23%) significantly phase locked to high-contrast stimuli.
Humans: Responses measured using scalp EEG were seen at 72 Hz in some, but not all, observers.
So if the information is in the brain, why can't we perceive it? We don't really know. The simplest theory might be that these signals are just too weak. But it seems unlikely that we could record something with electrodes on the scalp that isn't strong in the brain.
It is also worth noting that our ability to perceive flicker is a side effect of our ability to perceive motion. Most motion perception takes place in situations where we have other information about the moving objects. Flicker perception as measured with CFF threshold or as noticed with monitor refresh rates is a strange edge case. It likely made little evolutionary sense to optimize this ability when we could already, for example, see most fast moving natural objects well enough to catch them. So you might invert the argument and ask why should we humans have bothered to see fast flicker?
Perhaps the most interesting possibility is that this may be a limitation of consciousness itself. An initial intuition is that conscious perception will likely be slower than the low-level processes it relies on. Because different types of perceptual processes have different computational demands, they take different durations to compute. Thus, combining perceptual processing in consciousness may be slowed by rate limiting steps. Alex Holcombe wrote a nice paper a few years ago summarizing the literature on temporal limits on visual perception of different kinds of stimuli. Moreover, Ruﬁn VanRullen and Christof Koch have argued that conscious perception occurs in discrete batches. They don't think it is perfectly regular, but rather quasi-periodic and determined by the task at hand. Still, they are essentially arguing that consciousness itself has a refresh rate.
The human eye is not able to distinguish between 60 Hz and 100 Hz when only watching (even less could suffice provided the image is prepared correctly, as evidenced by movies projected at 24 Hz in the theather), but there is a distinction when interacting - you can notice the response is faster even beyond 60 Hz. This is augmented by the fact response time (latency between the input and the displayed image) is often several frames because of pipelined nature of the rendering technology, therefore the latency of 60 Hz game is typically over 60 ms, as evidenced by Gamasutra Measuring Responsiveness in Video Games.
The Wikipedia article on Frame Rate suggests, IMO, that 60 Hz is not really the far end of the spectrum.
However the link to the cited article is broken.
Also, from same article, and more relevant:
A higher FPS will also yield a natural motion blur, something that is usually computationally expensive to render, even at a lower FPS.
I once pressed a gamer about why he tried to boost his framerates into hundreds (severely sacrificing picture quality, of course). In the end it turned out it was because some games couldn't properly handle extreme framerates and exploits started appearing (such as enemies not hearing your footsteps and the like).
Of course, this does not apply to all games or all people, but it is one reason for trying to squeeze as much as possible out of your VGA.
To make this less anecdotal I did some Googling. Here's an analysis of Quake 3's 125fps jumping bug. Apparently similar bugs are carried over to other games which use an engine derived from Quake's. Here's another analysis both for Quake3 and Call of Duty, which focuses on jumping and running sounds. The magical 333fps count stands out.
While googling I came upon many forum threads, and I gather from those that official tournaments have FPS limits to prevent players from using these exploits. However many threads mentioned that "everybody is doing this" which suggests that for simple game servers this is a widespread practice. This is quite understandable, because if one person does this, then others get an unfair disadvantage.
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