Posts tagged: Movies

3D Vision Impressions

After waiting for months for my new 3D Vision-ready monitor, it finally arrived the other week. The monitor is an Alienware OptX AW2310 23″ wide screen with a resolution of 1920×1080 (Full HD). The colors are absolutely beautiful on it.

So what about the 3D? Well, to sum it up, my impression is that it is as immature as many new technologies tend to be, but an extremely cool technology nonetheless.

For those of you who haven’t heard of it, the nVidia 3D Vision system uses a fast display (120 Hz) and active shutter glasses that alternate what eye sees the image in sync with the display updates. This means that the 3D mode is only available in full-screen mode.

The Installation

I had a fair bit of trouble getting the whole kit to work. The driver on the CD simply complained that my graphics card driver was too new, and left me hanging. nVidia’s product page wasn’t all that friendly either, and it took a while to figure out how to download the new drivers (while there’s a direct download link to the movie player, you’ll have to select 3d Vision as the product type for drivers).

Once in the installation and setup procedure for the driver, there was a very friendly and helpful guide that told you most things you needed to know, which was a big plus.

Getting some movies running in the movie player required installation of a codec pack, which is was completely unhelpful in not suggesting, causing a fair bit of time wasted scouring the Internet for a solution. K-Lite Codec Pack eventually came to the rescue.

Setting up 3D for games was reasonably simple for most games — simply set the refresh rate for half of the maximum (60 Hz rather than 120 Hz). Borderlands was an exception as it started completely blacked out, forcing me to find the config file and manually edit the resolution in there. I imagine this isn’t a problem if you haven’t played the game before, on a different display.

All in all, the installation process could be made a lot smoother.

The Glitches

My first experience with 3D came just after the installation had ended. The last screen in the setup guide had a check box titled “Show 3D image slide show after setup”. I checked it, and then proceeded to be shown a few images side-by-side in a complete failure to do anything even remotely 3D-related. In fact, the glasses never even activated.

This was, mildly said, a bit of a let-down.

The movie viewer worked a lot better, providing a very smooth experience. Sadly, you have to specify what format videos are in quite often, which would be incredibly much easier if the viewer could have shown the first frame. This leads to a guessing game, which is a fairly minor problem in the end though.

Another problem with the movie player is that it becomes unhappy if I run certain applications. In general, anything running on my second monitor or in specific anything attaching itself to the edge of the screen like an application toolbar will cause it to simply flicker and refuse to work. This problem is even worse for the 3D Photo Viewer, which simply refuses to work at all if I have the second monitor active.

Considering that most games start without a problem, writing a working photo viewer really shouldn’t be that much of a problem.

So games then…? Almost any game can be run in 3D vision mode, but nVidia has classified games into different categories depending on how well they work. Some games have a problem where certain items aren’t rendered correctly for both eyes, which can be a bit of a strain on the eyes.

The worst problem tends to be “ghosting”. Ghosting is, simply described, a shadow of the image for one eye that “leaks” into the second eye. This is said to be due to an imperfect shutter synchronization between the glasses and the monitor and due to the monitor pixels not switching colors quickly enough. I don’t believe that explanation fully — ghosting seems to be restricted to only games (movies don’t have much ghosting problems).

In addition, some games are much better than others (more on that later). My impression is that much of the ghosting effects come from a mismatch between the rendering world size and the real world, making depth effects extaggered. This means that for many games, left-eye and right-eye images differ much more than they will for a properly tweaked game or for a movie. I also wonder if V-sync has anything to do with it.

The Content

So I’ve got this amazing 3D vision rig… what do I do with it? You can watch some example photos or download a few more from nVidia’s site. The same goes for movie clips. There are a few trailers out there, but far fewer than there should be. Youtube supports 3D content, but there is no easy way to view the youtube 3D videos using a stereoscopic viewer like 3D vision.

The best 3D movie clips I’ve seen this far are trailers, like the trailer for How to train a dragon, which is absolutely spot-on. I look forwards to watching 3D movies on this setup. The problem right now is that it’s virtually impossible to get your hands on some true stereoscopic 3D  movie content. The folks behind Avatar have said it will not be released in 3D “before November”… which could mean just about anything.

Which means that if you buy a 3D vision kit right now, it really has to be for the games. When it comes to games, the support really differs between games. There is some ghosting in some games, and it really depends on the game if it bothers me or not. In Dragon Age: Origins, it really did, so I will be playing through the rest of that game in 2D. I guess that style of game really means you spend a fair bit of time watching the environment, and that’s where you’ll see the most ghosting.

In Trackmania United, one of my favorite racing games, there was a fair amount of ghosting of distant things, but it really didn’t matter a single bit. The experience of mad racing in 3D totally made up for the ghosting, and when you’re driving at high speed you don’t even notice it.

Other games hardly manifest any ghosting at all. Borderlands was absolutely awesome in 3D, as the combination of the comic-book art style and 3D creates a really cool effect. Battlefield: Bad Company 2 has been certified with nVidia and received their top grade for 3D vision ready games and works just as well as that implies.

One more game to mention is Left 4 Dead 2. There is hardly any ghosting going on there either, and 3D in that game added a layer of immersion to an already immersive game. The full list of game support is available on nVidia’s site. I personally look forwards to playing Metro 2033 with it.

The Experience

There are some things to note with active shutter glasses. One thing is that when they activate, things go a slight bit darker than usual, since basically your eyes will be staring at a blackened glass half of the time. You also effectively half the refresh rate of your monitor. The result is something hard to describe, almost a flicker, but not quite. This takes a bit of getting used to, but is not really any worse than watching a 3D Movie at the cinema.

The shutter glasses themselves are fairly bulky but fit nicely over normal glasses which is a plus. I’ve wore them for fairly extensive periods of time without feeling tired of wearing them. The insides of the glass reflects some light though, so if possible I recommend using them with the lights off.

Summary

It is very clear that this technology is in its infancy. I’m sure we’ll see a great development of this going forwards as it picks up momentum. The most crippling hindrance right now is the lack of movie content and the glitches in some games.

That said, playing games in 3D adds a lot of immersion for me, especially for fast-paced games like racing games or shooters. If you are looking at buying a new monitor, I definitely think you should consider buying a 3D vision capable one. The Alienware model I got was fairly expensive, but has an absolutely incredible picture when used normally as well.

If you want more info on 3D vision specifics, I suggest checking out the 3D Vision blog and their new forum.

Building an Awesome Sound System

One of the reasons I’ve not been writing here much lately has been us buying and moving to a new house (that and the crunch time to get BFBC2 shipped, in which I’ve ended up in a crucial role).

As we are finally getting a bit settled in (at least the living room is free of boxes now), I’ve started thinking about a new audio and video setup for the entire house.

One thing I’m missing about the apartment we moved out of is my sound system that covered the entire place — living room, bed room, kitchen, even bathroom. The whole thing was a DIY thing involving two amps, a partially broken speaker selector, lots of wiring and speakers everywhere. I could select what rooms I wanted music in, which was awesome, but it had its issues. One thing was that there was only one input, so if one of us watched a movie there was no way to listen to music in another room, another that… well, there was lots of wiring.

I love my music!The house is a much larger space, and with it far longer wires to put up all over the place. I’m going to install a wired network that covers the place, but I’d rather not install any more wiring. Still, I’m going to want to send video signals from the digital TV box to the new TV in the bed room, which I might solve with a Slingbox PRO-HD and SlingCatcher, which seems like a cool combo with a bonus of access to my TV anywhere — if I can only figure out if it’ll work to remote control my box or not (my cable TV provider is probably Sweden’s most hated company not involved in public transport – com hem).

The audio setup is a different problem — I want a system which can play music from my media server in any room I’m in, can sync music in several rooms at once and which can also play audio from a separate input (like have the audio from a live music DVD on the PS3 on in several rooms at once). That last one seems to be tricky to pull off…

I’ve looked at several network media players, but most seem content at simply streaming media from a computer to a home entertainment system. Sonos S5 ZonePlayer seems like a popular geek choice, but sadly doesn’t do an external input (like my PS3).

The Logitech Squeezebox series seems to do (almost) what I want, but the component I’d need for the living room, a Squeezebox Transporter has some drawbacks. First of all, I can’t seem to figure out if it can stream its digital input out to other squeezeboxes — a make or break feature for me, but hardly mentioned out there on the ‘net. Second, the price tag! Holy crap, $1999? I’ll be upgrading my audio equipment, but I’m not really an audiophile of a class that needs that kind of equipment. It’d easily be the most expensive piece of equipment in the set.

I could even consider building my own system from scratch. It’d be kind of cool with a compact computer hidden away in each room, and a touch screen display system to interface with the thing. It’d probably end up cheaper than the Squeezebox option, but with a lot more work involved. Fun work, but frustrating at the moment as I don’t really have the time needed. If there’s a cheaper product out there which satisfies my three demands above, I’m a sale waiting to happen.

Do you know of any good network media player systems that fit the bill? Or do you have any experience with systems like that, good or bad? Please share any knowledge you have in the comments. I would also be happy to hear from anyone with experience of the Slingbox products.

Standing in the Way of Culture

The reasoning behind the introduction of copyright was the establishment of a law which would make sure there were incentives for creating culture. There was a fear that if there wasn’t some form of exclusivity, middlemen with a large capacity for distribution would easily be able to grab all works of art, produce and distribute them more effectively than the creators themselves and thus getting the lion’s share of the profits. This was a time when the printing press was the hot new thing, and writers feared publishers would easily steal all their hard work.

The fear was that if this kept happening, the people creating works of art would tire of creating culture and seeing others profit while getting nothing for themselves (a reasonable assumption), so copyright was introduced, giving authors an unlimited right to association with their works and a limited economical exclusivity with regards to production and distribution. This would make sure middlemen would not be a problem in the production of culture.

Sadly, in this exclusivity now appears an effect that goes in the direct opposite direction related to the original intent. To explain what I mean, let’s discuss something of high cultural value — commercials. Leading up to the fifth season of The Deadliest Catch, Discovery Channel created a trailer. A music and sound design studio called Musikvergnuegen were hired to create a soundtrack for the trailer.

The trailer aired, and something somewhat unusual happened: People heard the music and rushed to the TV in order to see what it was about. On Musikvergnuegen’s blog, under a fairly short and simple post about the trailer, people started gathering in the comment fields with fantastic stories about how they reacted to the music.

Let me tell you my story of this song. I wasnt even in my house but i heard this music come through the surround sound so i darted inside to find out it was a commercial for my favorite show. But wut really mattered was this music. The celtic sailor feel and sorrow filled sound makes this one of the best pieces of music ive ever heard.

The blog post has more than 40 comments, with people asking that the song be released somewhere so they can buy it and listen to it. Several other blogs have called attention to the music and linked to the post on Musikvergnuegen’s blog.

The studio appreciate all the attention, but answer that sadly Discovery owns the rights to the soundtrack, and that  because of that they can’t sell it. Instead, they’ve mailed Discovery, and urge others to do the same. The only problem is that Discovery doesn’t reply.

So, here’s a middleman blocking the flow of culture between the author and the consumers, stopping the people from getting the culture they desire. Recognize this problem? This saga ends on a slightly upwards note, as Musikvergnuegen takes matters into their own hands and add the music to their demo reel, which means it’s now possible to stream it from their web site.

Another example of the same kind of cultural blockage is how music giant Universal let its lawyers loose a few weeks ago to prevent the performance of a theater play at the City Theater in Stockholm. Not, as you may have thought, because they hadn’t paid for it, but because Universal wanted even more money for it, claiming the music was a central theme in the play. However, it turns out the author of the songs in question, Paul Simon, doesn’t agree with the middleman that the play should not be performed.

Abandoned Goods

A similar development has been in effect when it comes to computer games for a long time (and here it’s even more clear). The whole concept “Abandonware” exists to denote older games which are no longer on the market. There are websites that specialize in catering to people feeling nostalgic about games. As with many other kinds of culture, there are a whole lot of people who long for the good old days — the older games have a higher level of quality, they claim. Others still just want the ability to play “the classics” — just like there are classic books and movies there are classic games… the difference is that you can’t get the classic games anymore.

The fact that games can’t be bought doesn’t mean the copyright on them has expired, however. The rights to various games and game intellectual properties are bought and sold between different companies and often you’ll find the rights to games far away from the people who originally created the games after a studio closed its doors.

The fact that they’re no longer selling the games doesn’t prevent companies from having a go at web sites providing Abandonware. Sometimes, whole web sites are the targets of attempted shutdowns by lawyer, at other times, only certain games are targeted and removed. But the games themselves are not sold, so the people who wanted to play them are left empty-handed.

Sometimes, people get so desperate for their old, lost games that they even gather up the people needed to form a team and go through the enormous effort of creating a remake of their classic game of choice, only to be shut down by the rights holder.

There has been a long debate about this in gaming circles, sometimes with thunderous accusations from big games companies. People who download abandonware are called pirates, and blamed for some form of loss of income, even more absurd than the normal kind of calculations.

The Upper Hand of the Middle Man

In addition to all the problems outlined above, the cost for both creation and distribution has brought back something a situation which is very similar to the world before the introduction of copyright: middlemen dictate the conditions they like and grab large parts of the pie, since the authors are so completely dependent on the chain of distribution. In these negotiations, one side has sharp lawyers with years of experience of writing contracts, fine print and cost vs revenue calculations. On the other side are inexperienced, often young talented authors with no experience of writing or even reading contracts.

The imbalance becomes extremely obvious in the average record contract. In normal venture capital business, investors come in with capital, taking a risk with that money in exchange for a slice of profit if the gamble plays out (highly simplified). This state of affairs is a quite reasonable starting point. Looking at the music industry, their standard contract is very different from this — it is more like a loan than an investment… but a loan that turns into an investment once repaid.

Let me explain. The musician or band gets money for recording an album, creating a video and other needed things. The album is released, and all the profits go directly into the record label’s pockets until the entire loan has been repaid. Only then does the artist get a first dollar for his or her hard work. At a glance, this seems incredibly skewed, and it’s just as skewed as it seems. If things had ended there, it would have been outrageous but somewhat real, but that’s not where it ends. In addition to these expenses, there needs to be marketing for the artist. Reasonable proposition if you want to sell the album, but the marketing money also comes out of the “loan” to the artist. Only it’s the label that controls the marketing spend.

So the standard contract is a shared partnership where all the risk is held by one part. In a normal start-up business, this situation would be interpreted as the artist talent and work having no value  at all (and thus should have no part of the income). Add to that the fact that the labels have binding contracts for the artists, but are free to pick and choose how they want to act themselves, and we’ve ended up incredibly far from the original intention of copyright. Let me explain further with two examples:

The New York-based band October Project created some beautiful (but hard to classify) songs during the 90s. They released two albums that were quite successful. Then, without a warning or official explanation, the record label terminated the contract, which killed the band. Two of the band’s founding members went on to start the “November Project”, a band which collected all the money they needed for their recordings themselves, directly from the fans on the Internet. On the homepage for the band, founder Emil Adler urged the fans not to buy the October Project records — “Not a single penny goes to the band”, he wrote. Not a penny, even though one of the albums had hit top-50 in the US.

Another band, Splashdown from Massachusetts, looked to have a bright future. They signed a contract with a child label for Capitol records and released an EP, which quickly sold out. The band made a song on the soundtrack for the movie Titan AE, and expectations were high. They recorded a new album, “Blueshift”. Once done, the label decides not to release the album. After a long fight with the label and because of the fear that Capitol would own any future songs, the band chose to call it quits.

Authors giving up on creating new culture because of middleman behavior was exactly what copyright laws was supposed to prevent in the first place! Something is wrong here. Instead of acting as a guarantee for the flow of culture into society, the effect is a draining of culture.

It’s Broken, Fix It!

There are already political forces in parts of the world that are growing stronger campaigning for a reformed copyright. In Europe, the Swedish Pirate Party has won a seat in the European Parliament. The German counterpart looks to be going strong in the coming elections for the national parliament. Support for both parties is extremely high among young voters.

Taken to its edge, you really could wonder about why the rights to works of art should be something that can be bought and sold at all. There seem to be plenty of problems that would go away if an author could never sell the actual right to their works.

There seems to be some very simple things to do though. Digital distribution has brought down costs of distribution by several orders of magnitude. This somewhat breaks the hold the middlemen have over the market, but there is still something of a monopolized market. Things are starting to change, but what is needed is a much more direct approach, fans meeting artists, players meeting developers directly. This has already started happening more and more in the computer games industry, and I believe we’ll see much more of it from musicians in the future.

Another thing with the Internet is that there is never any really good reason to stop selling something. Put all vintage titles you own the rights to online for a small fee. Even a fee of $5 or even $1 per game means a horde of people would buy them, and it would make you a whole lot of more money than any amount of lawyers sent hunting abandonware sites. Oh, and while you’re at it, skip the DRM. The new market is on the consumers’ terms, and with a direct connection to fans comes the responsibility of treating them like customers, rather than potential thieves.

Scarcity of Content in Games

There’s an interesting difference, if you compare games to other art forms like movies, in how they get consumed across different groups of people. With movies, there’s pretty much two categories of viewers: the big screen people and the DVD people. With minor differences within those groups, everyone has pretty much the same potential experience. Very few people turn the movie off before its end.

That is very different with games. A sizable portion of everyone who plays a game, especially multiplayer-enabled games, will put a huge amount of time into that game. That’s awesome, but those people are not in a majority. The majority of people who buy a game wont even finish the singleplayer campaign. For these people, the game was too long. This is something like the dark secret of game design, and its a reason that makes constructing games a bit sad — no matter how much love you put into your story, it’s unlikely that most people will see its conclusion.

You would never guess that this was the case, looking at game reviews. Reviews regularly complain about games being too short. This has happened to a range of great games lately — from Portal to Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune and Mirror’s Edge — all games that I enjoyed a lot. What conclusions can we draw from this?

Well, first of all, if you are the kind of person who rarely completes games (like the average gamer out there apparently), game reviews aren’t taking your interests into account. I’m assuming here that being able to finish a game is more enjoyable than abandoning it along the way.

Second, we’re creating ever-longer games that cater to a portion of the gamer community who will not buy games that are too short, which means that at the same time we’re making sure that a majority of players will play even smaller part of the game. That’s quite a problem from where I see it — a small part of players are allowed to dictate how games are made, which actually lowers quality for the majority.

In addition to this problem, more time in games tends to mean more repetition. Content creation for modern games is incredibly expensive, which means that longer play means more play time made from the same content. Maybe that means more of the same kind of objectives (ever play Assassin’s Creed?). My own experience is that I’d much rather play through Uncharted on its Hard difficulty setting than play through a longer, but more repetitive game.

The result of this is a kind of scarcity of actual content in games. The longer we make any given game, the more diluted the experience becomes. We get more of the same enemies in the same locations, and more locations made up out of the same building blocks.

You can see this quite easily if you compare the soundtracks of different media. Movie music is a movie-length musical score which has changing music to the events in the movie, usually with common themes for parts of movies but with the music still shifting to each individual moment.

How much variation is there in game music? Sometimes, game music is a movie-length (yes) musical score, played straight or randomly to a game (usually 4 times longer than a movie). Sometimes it’s a song-length musical score played to each level. Sometimes it’s “dynamic music” which usually means tying musical start/fade triggers to action. I commented on game music before in Give Me Some Emotion, Maestro, where I suggested a more involved form of dynamic music for games with composers as first-class game developers, but that doesn’t go all the way — we also simply need an appropriate amount of music to cover the length of a game.

More enemies to kill in the same way, more of the same concrete blocks to make up new parts of levels, more of the same music and sounds, more of the same experience. These things all lead to the current playing experience you get from games, which tends to be a repetitive flat-emotion slaughter even if you look at non-shooter games. Yet making more content for the games would make them more expensive.

I think games as a medium need to focus better. Yes, shorter games would probably be good in the long run. There are some people who would wish that movies be 10 hours long as well — but those aren’t the main segment of customers for movies. In the end, bringing quality of games up needs more variation — in environments, in challenges, and in emotions. Then maybe the average consumer would actually have the pleasure of finishing the games they buy.

I don’t mean there can’t be long games here either. People obviously liked the The Lord of the Rings movies, despite their long run time. But those movies are still beautifully crafted all the way through, and do not lack the focus you would get from doing the same thing to other movies. It also has something to do with an insanely large budget.

For singleplayer games, the question then becomes how to satisfy the people who want longer play times? I sure don’t have that answer, and any comments are definitely appreciated.

The Economics of Making Your Customers Hate You

The spectacular trial and marketing disaster against the Pirate Bay continued today, with the verdict of the first court (no doubt this will be appealed a few times around).

The three guys from the pirate bay, and their internet co-location and bandwidth provider were sentenced to one year in prison and a total of 30 million SEK of damages today. Whatever you think about the pirate bay, the sentencing of their internet provider is nothing short of incompetency from the Swedish court.

But let’s put that aside for a moment.

Let’s just look at the costs and benefits. These guys now have to pay 30M SEK for their sins of building a search engine. Let’s put that into perspective, shall we? 30M SEK is (with today’s exchange rate) €2,680,246. Contrast this with the spendings of the industry: 75M Pounds is what the record industry spends each year hunting pirates, apparently (only the record industry… who knows what the international movie associations’ and games associations’ and writers’ associations are spending…). With today’s exchange rate, that’s €81,466,099.

That means it’d require 30 such spectacularly unpopular court cases against major file sharing sites won just to win back the costs spent on hunting pirates. Really, who is it that thinks this is a good idea?

In other news, if you’re going to pirate a game, please do it off the ‘net and where it wont hurt the companies that tries to support it for the people who buy games. If you pirate a game and then try to get support for it, you’re a real asshole.

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