Monday, 30 January 2012

War or gaming fun? Spotting the difference

A week ago I wrote a piece about ITV's blunder in which video game footage taken from YouTube found it's way into a documentary about Gaddafi. Ofcom were less than pleased with the lack of due process and compliance breaches on display. A few days ago, a BBC picture editor (Phil Coomes) wrote a playful piece in which he stressed the blurring of real and virtual worlds given the popularity and success of increasingly photorealistic video games depicting war or conflicts.

I only came across this article after a colleague of mine forwarded me the URL devoid of context. I think he knew it would wind me up and the gist of my response to the article can be found below.

Photo/realism

I get pretty confused about these kinds of posts from journalists, in which they attempt to link the digital representations of (usually) fictional war-based games with real world combat. I get that still images can look similar but there's a world of difference between experiencing war first hand and picking up a controller or a mouse and playing in a virtual world with strangers on the Internet (as in Battlefield 3 or Modern Warfare 3). Granted, Coomes was responding to a point raised by the photographer John Cantile, who claimed that the level of realism was such that the "next sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may not even have left their bedrooms". The rest of the article seems to give way to Cantile's experiences rather than being the work of Coomes.

What irks me about these kinds of claims is the easy at which the impacts of one experience (war) are neatly overlaid  onto that of another (gaming) at the level of photorealism. You'd think that there's never been a thing called cinema in which actors depict realistic events a la vérite. When reading through the Ofcom report into the ITV blunder it's almost understandable how the game footage form ArmA 2 made it's way into a documentary - a failure of basic fact-checking before running with something grabbed from the internet, but it's another thing entirely to compare gaming to the real experience of warfare. This should be apparent to Cantile as he has photographed battalions in Sirte, Libya.

Fatigue

I'm sure Cantile felt "drained" after playing Battlefield 3 for many hours - I do too, but I also feel really drained after playing FIFA or Fat Princess online for large periods of time. However, I don't make the mistake of thinking that I am at the Bernabéu of that I've ever really played there, setting up goals for Lionel Messi and basking in the cheers or boos from fans and oppositional supporters alike.

The sound mix for Battlefield 3 is phenomenal - you can get incredibly disoriented with rockets and explosions erupting all around your character. This really can be a "hellish cacophony"as Cantile claims. It sounds even better with an expensive pair of headphones but that can break the verisimilitude - it's not often soldiers storm battlefields with big headphones, a games controller or a mouse and keyboard. I note he was a playing on PC - the only real injury the contemporary digital soldier will experience is Repetitive Strain Injury?

I know what happens when a player gets gets shot in Battlefield 3 as I've been killed several thousand times. You get a kill-cam of the player who shot you, overlaid with stats about your 'nemesis' (eg their weapon, their class, their personal kill/death ratio) before being dumped to a character load-out screen to do it all again. Very real. And let's not even go into how bad the texture 'pop-in' is on the PS3, further heightening the supposed reality effect! The texture mapping and frame-rate hardly contributes to the replication of reality (neither does having an on screen radar or ammo count). Just witness the realistic text effects below:


Anxiety

Cantile has spent some time attempting to match real world images to those taken in-game saying: "In some cases it is actually quite hard to tell the difference between my photographs and the computer version, which is deeply worrying. The level of detail is so precise that the virtual war zone is as convincing as the real thing". I'm not sure how worrying it is. As I've alluded to earlier, there are many other media forms that "look" real, but are not - they are representational or, in the case of games, simulational (see Gonzalo Frasca on this point). I think this is the underlying anxiety in the article - a point that is hinted at rather than explicitly addressed, and one which has connections with other moral panics about media forms and their supposed effects.

So the essence of the piece can be summarised thusly: still images taken from some war-based video games look like real combat environments. And rightly so given that vast swathes of research money has been vested in making these products look similar to the actions they depict in order to ramp up the dramatic experiences of gameplay. But it's somewhat disingenuous to claim that we should be worried about the similarities between static images of two completely different experiences 

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

MAC281 Cyberculture 2012 - module taster


I've been putting together the module guide for this semester's module guide for MAC281 - Cybercultures. I'm currently tweaking the document and finalising a special guest for Week 6 but this is how it's looking at the moment: 

Week 1: Introduction to the module & a short history of Cyberculture – An overview of the module content and assessment

Week 2: Copyright in the Digital Age – This session will establish some of the major arguments that inform the current copyright climate in the UK, and the West more generally.  In particular it will look at the ways in which recent legislative changes have developed to ‘support’ content creators in the face of filesharing by exploring the Digital Economy Act and its impacts. (Rob Jewitt)

Week 3: The Music Industry and the Net Part 1: Producers, Profits, Pirates & Peers - This session will consider the crisis facing the music industry posed by recent changes in the organisation and distribution of music in the age of the Internet.  The primary focus will be on the industry.  It will consider claims made by the industry about sales and will consider business models for the music industry. (Rob Jewitt)

Week 4: The Music Industry and the Net Part 2: The Suits vs The Scene – This session will consider the opportunities presented to music consumers provided by the Internet.  It will reassess some of the claims made by the music industry in context of actual audience members and analyse some of the reasons "pirates" give regarding “sharing” music via the Internet. (Rob Jewitt)

Week 5: Openness, Crowdsourcing & Participatory Culture
The knowledge and resources of millions of people can now be harnessed through self-organising groups via blogs, wikis, chat rooms, forums, peer-to-peer networks, and personal broadcasting platforms, etc.  This session will consider the impact of low-cost online collaborative production tools and the importance of open data and free culture to the participatory nature on the Web.  (Rob Jewitt)

Week 6: Weblogs and the Rise of Citizen Journalism - Today, thanks to weblogs and mobile phones that can send photographs, anyone can be a journalist. New media evangelists claim traditional structures are crumbling as digital technology breaks down barriers and heralds a new age of transparency and participatory democracy. Will citizen journalists change our view of the world? I'm expecting to have a guest speaker here to cover all things journalism and data. Will reprot back tomorrow

Week 7: Video Games, Narrative and ‘Play’ – The history of digital games stretches back over the best part of half a century yet academia has been slow to engage with this interactive form beyond offering moral objections. This session will consider the ways game scholars have attempted to situate and explain this ‘new’ medium by discussing narrative design and “play” mechanics. (Rob Jewitt)

Week 8: Game Music, Design and User Experience – This session will build upon contemporary discussion of game design and user experience by focussing on the frequently overlooked aural experience. It will consider the various ways in which music features within gaming experiences by touching upon the licencing of game soundtracks, incidental music through to a consideration of rhythm-based gaming experiences. (Rob Jewitt)

Week 9: The 'Actualities' of Virtual Realities - An exploration into the history, application and cultural and social impact and implications of virtual reality. The lecture will draw on key examples of VR from popular culture and industry as well as its use as an actual technology. (John-Paul Green)

Week 10: ‘Getting around’ in online environments - How do we come to know and explore our way around online places? This session will seek to define and explore more deeply our relationship with different online places and sites and ask how we come to habitually know and navigate around them. It will examine a variety of different places including virtual and gaming worlds as well as social networks, thinking about the ways that we know and interact with these different but very familiar environments.  Using the work of Ingold and Shinkle, the session will also look to uncover the different roles of the body and sensoriality when we browse around, interact with and inhabit various online places. (Eve Forrest)

Week 11: Digital Photographic Cultures Online – Are we all photographers now? With photographic technology becoming cheaper and more accessible we can capture, store, print, upload and distribute our images like never before. This session will examine the explosion of amateur photography, looking at the different impacts and varying aesthetics of the photograph online. (Eve Forrest)

Week 12:  ‘Net Neutrality’ and the Future of the Internet -
Network neutrality is a complex issue that has generated intense levels of political discussion in the United States in recent years, and attention has turned to regulation in the UK. This session will consider the whether network operators should be prevented from blocking or prioritising certain network traffic or traffic from particular sources – effectively creating a two-tiered Internet – and who stands to gain from this (Rob Jewitt)

Miro Video Converter dimension settings explained

Anyone who has used the great Miro Video Converter (ver 2.6) tool for transcoding video into a format that can be viewed in any browser you may care to use might find the encoder settings a little opaque. There's no intuitive way of finding out exactly what dimensions the video you want to process will come out at other than by being familiar with the encoder settings.

The encoder settings are handily listed under the following categories:

Android Devices
 Nexus One
 Dream / G1
 Magic / myTouch
 Droid
 Eris / Desire
 Hero
 Cliq / DEXT
 Behold II

Apple Devices
 iPhone
 iPod Touch
 iPod Nano
 iPod Classic
 iPhone 4 / iPod Touch 4
 iPad
 Apple Universal

Other Devices and Formats
 Playstation Portable (PSP)
 Theora
 WebM (vp8)
 MP4
 MP3 (Audio only)

For some people, these settings may be fairly self explanatory. However, it's still not exactly clear which of the settings will give the best quality output.  What I intend to do in this post is explain what these settings equate to when using a real world example. I'm going to take a piece of video freely available and run it through each of these presets and then post the details of the file size and the dimensions. The video I have chosen is to use is entitled Liquid Skies by Annis Naeem:



The reason I have chosen this video is mainly due to its relatively short length (1 minute 36 seconds)  - encoding video files can take a long time especially when the original file is long and necessarily large as a consequence.

Annis has enabled downloading of the video from his Vimeo page and it comes out as 29.1 MB Flash (.f4v) file. Using the Inspector tool within Quicktime we can see that the actual video dimensions of the file are 960 x 540 pixels, and it is encoded with the AVC Coding codec. We can also see other pieces of information such as the audio codec, frame rate and data rate. This file will be used as the starting point when trying all of the different presets.

Helpfully, when converting the files Miro appends the name of the preset to the new file name. However, there are times when this goes wrong - the Apple presets for the various iPod models all omit the specific device they are intended for so if you want to make multiple copies for different platforms it is advised that you add "nano" or "touch" to the file name to help distinguish between the conversions.

The Android Settings

Below is a list of the video conversion presets followed by the resulting file size of the newly converted video as well as the video dimensions


Android Devices
 Nexus One - 17.5 MB - 800 x 480 (853 x 480 actual)
 Dream / G1 - 8.9 MB - 480 x 320 (568 x 320 actual)
 Magic / myTouch - 8.9 MB - 480 x 320 (568 x 320 actual)
 Droid - 18.8 MB - 854 x 480 (853 x 480 actual)
 Eris / Desire - 8.9 MB - 480 x 320 (568 x 320 actual)
 Hero - 8.9 MB - 480 x 320 (568 x 320 actual)
 Cliq / DEXT - 8.9 MB - 480 x 320 (568 x 320 actual)
 Behold II - 8.9 MB - 480 x 320 (568 x 320 actual)

All of the Android presets came out as .mp4 files using the H.264 video codec, but the audio codec remained unchanged along with the frame rate (29.97). There appears to minimal (if any) difference between the settings for Dream / G1, Magic / myTouch, Eris / Desire, Hero, Cliq / DEXT, and Behold II.

The Apple Settings

Again, below is a list of the video conversion presets for Apple devices followed by the resulting file size of the newly converted video as well as the video dimensions

Apple Devices
 iPhone - 15 MB - 480 x 320 (568 x 320 actual)
 iPod Touch - 15 MB - 480 x 320 (568 x 320 actual)
 iPod Nano - 15 MB - 480 x 320 (568 x 320 actual)
 iPod Classic - 15 MB - 480 x 320 (568 x 320 actual)
 iPhone 4 / iPod Touch 4 - 15.1 MB - 640 x 480 (853 x 480 actual)
 iPad - 15.1 MB - 1024 x 768 (1365 x 768 actual)
 Apple Universal - 15.1 MB - 1280 x 720 (1280 x 720 actual)

As with the Android presets, all the Apple conversions came out as .mp4 files using the H.264 video codec, with the frame rate and audio codec remaining unchanged. The iPhone, iPod Touch, Nano and Classic all outputted the same video file. However the iPhone 4 and iPad outputs varied in video dimensions whilst the file size was slightly larger than the older Apple devices. It looks like the iPhone and iPad presets are optimised for those individual devices (the 'Retina Display'?) whilst the Apple Universal setting seems more geared towards an Apple TV device with its 720 output.

The Other Settings

As above, here's a list of the video conversion presets for the non-Apple/non-Android outputs. Not all the presets were able to convert the original file and the audio and video codecs were sometimes converted to fit the platforms they were expected to work on

Other Devices and Formats
 Playstation Portable (PSP) - file could not be converted
 Theora - 31.7 MB - 960 x 540 - video codec: Theora - audio codec: Vorbis
 WebM (vp8) - 4.4 MB - 960 x 540 - video codec: V_VP8 - audio codec: Vorbis
 MP4 - 17.3 MB - 960 x 540 - video codec: AVC - audio codec: AAC
 MP3 (Audio only) - 1.47 MB

Screengrab of WebM conversion
These presets produced a mixed bag of results. The Theora preset produced the biggest file out of all the presets available and the video footage looked sharp. The opposite can be said for the WebM conversion which produced a blocky and pixelated image, but it did compress the file down to 4.4 MB - the smallest size on test. It was truly awful when dealing with any onscreen motion. The Playstation Portable preset simply refused to work with any video I've thrown at it to date.

Conclusion


It certainly seems that Miro Video Converter contains a number of presets that do much the same thing as others. This is most likely due to the diversity of users with different platforms looking to make video specifically for their device (as in the case of the Android and Apple settings). Given that the generic Android and Apple presets put out video at 480 x 320 it's fair to say that the smaller file sizes reduce the amount of visible detail available, but then they are nearly half the size. This is an expected trade-off in quality.

Miro Video Convertor is a free tool with a tidy interface. If you are looking for a quick and simple  drag-and-drop tool then it will more than likely meet your needs. Just don't expect much in the way of control over the conversions you run through it. For that, you'll want to use something like Handbrake

Monday, 23 January 2012

Ofcom slaps ITV's wrists over game footage

Back in September of 2011 ITV dropped a bit of a clanger when they unwittingly included some footage from the video game ArmA 2 in a documentary about Colonel Gaddafi's links with the IRA. "Exposure: Gaddafi and the IRA" aired on ITV1 on Monday the 26th of September and purported to feature footage labelled as "IRA film 1988" (see video below).


This footage appeared within the opening minutes of the  programme and matches similar footage posted earlier in 2011 which claimed the video was footage of the Provisional IRA shooting down a British helicopter near Silverbridge in 1988. Clearly this was a case of ITV's fact-checking processes falling well short of something approaching acceptability especially given that the last time I checked, real life doesn't feature texture pop-ins.

Nevertheless ITV admitted that the mistake was a result of human error but that hasn't stopped them from having their wrists slapped by the British broadcast media regulator, Ofcom. Broadcast Bulletin, Issue 198 (23rd Jan 2012) found ITV to be in breach of standards following 26 viewer complaints about the game footage and other footage purporting to feature a riot in the Ardoyne area of Belfast in July 2011. Ofcom investigated the documentary under Rule 2.2 the Broadcasting Code which states:
“Factual programmes or items or portrayals of factual matters must not materially mislead the audience”.
ITV responded to the complaints by saying they had intended to portray two real events but that in each case the 'wrong footage' was used to illustrate them:
“mistakes were the result of human error and not an intention to mislead viewers. In both cases, steps were taken to verify the content of the footage used but unfortunately these did not reveal the errors”
In attempting to explain how ITV could have used the wrong footage (from the game) they said they were aiming to use material that had featured in an episode of The Cook Report entitled "Blood Money" that was broadcast on 12th June 1989. However, this footage was heavily edited and production staff sought to source "a fuller and better version" of The Cook Report material. Nearly two months later the programe director discovered the footage from the internet which “he mistakenly believed...to be a fuller version of the footage used in the Cook Report”. It was ITVs claim that:
“Although there were clear differences between the two pieces of footage, his memory over the ensuing period of time let him down and led him to believe it was the same footage”
The programme director included this footage in the mistaken belief that it was the full material taken from The Cook Report - without having viewed the internet footage themselves.

Compliance?

Now all of this would be bad enough if it wasn't for the fact that a member of the ITV Compliance team also had doubts about the authenticity of the material during the production process, even asking questions of the producer about the veracity of the sound effects and pictures. The assurances given by the production staff to the ITV Compliance team member were accepted in 'good faith' despite neither the producer nor the director checking the footage.

ITV has since made improvements to its compliance processes - a case of lesson learned in order nto to make similar mistakes again. These include keeping a list of archive sources used, extra guidance issued to news, factual and current affairs staff, as well as compliance training changes for production teams.

Nevertheless, given that factual content should not mislead the public and that Ofcom has a duty under the Communications Act 2003 to set standards, the regulator has criticised ITV for breaching the rules and for damaging the trust relationship between viewer and broadcaster saying:
"breaches of the Code that resulted in the audience being misled have always been considered by Ofcom to be amongst the most serious that can be committed by a broadcaster, because they go to the heart of the relationship of trust between a broadcaster and its audience."
This is a serious charge indeed. In fact, from the report Ofcom can scarcely believe that the programme makers could have been misled as there were "significant and easily identifiable differences" between the game footage and that material from the 1989 episode of The Cook Report pointing to "clear deficiencies"in the steps taken by both the production team and the compliance team to verify the content.

Oh dear. I guess ITV will have cancelled any plans to investigate the systematic slaying of dragons in Tamriel

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

CENSORED

Today's the day that a number of high profile websites are demonstrating their opposition to the SOPA and PIPA bills currently pending in Congress. The upshot of these bills passing into law is that they are tantamount to giving powerful content industry groups the power to cut-off from the internet or censor websites that are accused of hosting material that doesn't belong to them. Bear in mind that these bills have been sponsored and co-written by representatives of the entertainment industry (eg the MPAA) and it's plain to see whose interests are being served here.

Under the proposed legislation the US Attorney General would have the power to demand ISPS so block access to foreign websites suspected of dealing in pirated content, as well as making search engines delist such istes from the search indexes. Other powers include the blocking of payement services to accused sites too (and we all know what happened to Wikileaks when its funding services where blocked). If these standards were applied to several prominent US-based sites many of them would be in trouble (eg Tumblr, Wordpress, Blogger, Google, etc).



There have been some last minute amendments to the proposed bills but they haven't removed the threat to free speech entirely. That's why it's good to see several prominent sites doing their bit to raise public awareness of the threats involved.

Over at TorrentFreak you can find a compilation of websites that are participating in a self-imposed censorship/black-out campaign. I'm going to add links or images to those already covered by TorrentFreak as I come across them. Please feel free to contact me either in the comments, via Twitter or email with any more.

Those sites known to be taking part are in today's black-out are:

Wikipedia

Wikipedia, the student's friend, will be down for 24 hours (except for the pages about SOPA and PIPA)


Minecraft

Insanely addictive browser-based game Minecraft is down


Reddit

The community-powered news site, reddit, is down


Open Rights Group

The Open Rights Group are UK digital activists and they are making sure people know about these heinous bills

Wordpress

The creators of the blogging content management system of choice, Wordpress, are censored.
TorrentFreak

Even TorrentFreak themselves are making a stand. Lord knows, they've been inaccurately accused of being pirates enough times


Wired

Ever-popular tech site Wired are in self-imposed blackout mode


Craigslist

The classifieds service, Craigslist, is also making a stand


Rock, Paper, Shotgun

The video game review site Rock, Paper, Shotgun is down


The Oatmeal

Satirical comedy site The Oatmeal is down



Humble Bundle

Online independent games retailer HumbleBundle have gone dark


Wikia

The alternate pop-culture wiki-based encyclopaedia, Wikia, is protesting


XBMC

Makers of the free media centre resource, XBMC, have gone dark


Zeropaid

Piracy-based news site Zeropaid has blacked out


Demonoid

Long-running torrent site Demonoid is blacked out


Boing Boing

Cory Doctorow's Boing Boing site has gone offline


UKNova


UK-based TV catch-up torrent site UKNova had an interesting message for its users



Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg kinda supports the anti SOPA business but Facebook isn't quite going dark


Absolute Punk


The punks over at Absolute Punk are against SOPA


Liberal Conspiracy

Those good folks on the Left at Liberal Conspiracy are blacking out their homepage


Destructoid

The gaming site for gamers, by gamers, Destructoid is dark


Know Your Meme

Not to be outdone by a spreading meme, Know Your Meme actually became part of what they normally document



This Isn't Happiness

The photography/art-based propaganda site This Isn't Happiness embraced the darkness


imgur


As the easy way to share images, imgur was keen to protest



XKCD

Popular online comic site, XKCD, ran a blacked-out sketch



The Verge

The technology-focussed site, The Verge, voiced their opposition



TechCrunch

The AOL-owned technology blog TechCrunch had a colour make-over



Fark

Home to all things satirical, Fark went for a white out


4chan


The home of weirdness (and haters of censorship!) saw some weird things happen, but hey, that's 4chan for you


Funny or Die

Funny or Die's comedy site got serious about the censorship


GoDaddy

Sometime supporters of the bills, GoDaddy, demonstrated their (customer's !?!) commitment to the opposition



More to follow. Maybe...