Categories
Tech Takes

Lessons in smartphone videography: What I learnt from editing a video shot on a phone

I have been obsessed for a while now with the idea of making a short film shot entirely on a smartphone. The versatility that a phone would allow in sheer ease of organising filming schedules is what attracts me the most. There has been a significant amount of interest from amateur / professional filmmakers in the industry along similar lines.

What I did not want to do, however, is to plan a shoot, film it on a smartphone, and then end up with a substandard product. I needed a low-risk project to try out my idea on. Fortunately, the chance presented itself when I got the idea of recording my time at the university’s Graduation Ball: I would record videos of my friends talking about the first time they met me, and what they thought of me. The beauty of this plan was that due to filming times, I would get to put my smartphone camera through its paces in a multitude of lighting conditions and noise environments, and since the video was unscripted, the content of the videos need not be a “good” or a “bad” take. You can watch The First Time…At Grad Ball to see what my effort worked out as. (The second part of my The First Time project was a photo album on Facebook telling the story of the first time I met my friends and what I thought of them.)

I realise that the video itself is pretty much a vanity project. Yet, I felt genuinely happy to do this because for the first time in my life – because of psychological issues I’ve had – I actually feel connected to my friends; that I care about them as individual beings. I wanted to create something to capture the essence of those emotions that I felt. Graduation, even though I’m not graduating yet, is one time people are allowed to be sentimental.

But I digress. The point of this blog post is to document my experience of what I learnt through the process of filming and editing video on a smartphone.

The “Why Now” On Smartphone Filming

Mobile phones have been able to record videos for around six years now, so it’s interesting to note how in general there’s a lot more buzz now about using them in amateur / prosumer contexts. Part of this comes from the fact that while early “smart” mobile phones (think Symbian and their ilk) could record video, the de facto recording format was 3GP / 3G2. Typically recording at QVGA / VGA resolution, the 3GP format allowed compact filesizes necessary for storing video files in a time when phones didn’t have much on-board RAM (to process a video while recording / playback) or storage space (which was often not extensible on such early smartphones).

As you can see in this example Tom and Jerry video, at the amount of compression used on such phones, video quality was poor and often had block distortion artefacts. Furthermore, for storage saving reasons the paired audio format used with the 3GP container was AMR or low-bitrate AAC that results in distorted audio; typically recorded mono channel or doubled-stereo from mono recording.

(Never search “3GP” on YouTube. I did, to find an example, and I got pages after pages of softcore porn. Brrrr.)

Another drawback of early smartphones was that they could not record at 24 fps and above. Phones as recent as my erstwhile 2009-era Nokia 5630 XpressMusic could only record at 15 fps (as demonstrated by this sample video). Such low frame rates added to the jerky, low-quality effect of mobile videos making them unusable for anything beyond sharing and viewing on other mobile devices.

Things started to change around the launch of iPhone 3GS, which came with the capability to record video at 30 fps. Android and Symbian handsets launched around the same time could record at similar frame rates, with some able to do it at 720p and others at 480p. The seed for my desire to film a project on a phone was sowed by this attempt by Nokia in 2010, who commissioned a short film shot entirely on an N8 (starring Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire fame as well as Baywatch‘s Pamela Anderson).

Fast forward to 2013, when most smartphones can record 720p video at 30 fps, typically in MP4 format. Significant advances in sensor technology, video processing software, even optical image stabilisation in higher-end phones means that the resulting video shot on phones these days is of much more decent quality. Certainly workable for amateur video projects. I expect, given the rate of progress in the field these days, that such advancements will continue to trickle down to cheaper devices.

Another important aspect of any video production happens to be sound. It may not be the first thing on your mind, but good audio quality is crucial in video recording. Smartphones are getting better at this too, with multiple microphones, noise cancellation, and high-quality AAC audio recording. You can audibly hear the difference that high quality, distortion-free stereo recording can make to a video in this comparison.

The Gear

Now that I’ve covered my reasons for why I think present-generation video recording on smartphones is usable-enough to be used for video projects, I’ll move to my own experience. My video was shot using my Nokia Lumia 620, so your mileage may vary according to what phone you have.

Outdoor shot
Outdoor shot with natural lighting, good quality.

Outdoor shots with natural lighting turned out to be good, no problems there. My primary concern while I was filming was how the camera would perform in low light conditions. These turned out be quite good, surprisingly, for most cases even though they were lit using the LED flash. This is one instance where the video processing software used by your smartphone manufacturer will likely make a difference. I quite like how results on my Lumia didn’t appear to be harshly-lit, as is often the case with LED flashes. The photo gallery below has a sample of shots taken with LED flash that turned out fine.

Paradoxically, the video quality was poorer when there was ambient lighting in indoor night-time shots compared to ones where there was no ambient lighting. This, I’m guessing, is partly due to video processing done by the camera itself, and partly due to the lighting conditions. Keeping this factor in mind could be crucial for any indoor night-time shots you plan to shoot.

Video capture still night time shot, low quality.
Video capture still night-time shot, low quality.

Another important factor to keep in mind is that when recording night-time videos, the LED flash works in “lamp” mode that results in a significantly lower coverage area in terms of illumination when compared to “burst” mode used for taking stills.

Still shot showing larger illumination coverage area with burst mode flash
Still shot showing larger illumination coverage area with burst mode flash

What this means is that you may need to film closer to the subject when recording a video. Take a look at the photo gallery below for a comparison of illumination when the images used above are thresholded at the same value. (Ideally, I’d have run this comparison across the same scene with different lighting conditions, but this wasn’t a controlled experiment.)

During the filming, the video preview that I saw indicated that the quality of recording was good. Unfortunately, when I had time to play them back on my phone / laptop, a major issue was apparent: there was a lot of stutter in the video, often resulting in frozen video / audio which meant for many of the recordings, I had entire sections of speeches missing! This video sample should demonstrate the problem I’m talking about.

I discovered when investigating this issue is that this was likely caused by a bottleneck with my micro SD card. I had been using a micro SD card I bought four years ago, rated as a class 4 device. If you aren’t aware of this, micro SD cards are rated at different classes based on the read / write speeds they can maintain at a sustained rate. While a class 4 device should technically be able to handle HD video streams, in reality such cards can be much slower.

First, I checked the speed of the phone camera’s focussing / metering capabilities using Sofica’s CamSpeed benchmarking tool; no surprises to report, as it the benchmark showed it was fast enough even in scenes with object motion. I then tested the read / write speed of the micro SD card using AnTuTu benchmark, and found that the read / write speeds were abysmally low – in the range of 0.9 MB/s – rather than the rated 4 MB/s (even though it was from SanDisk, a brand-name manufacturer). Switching the photos / video storage location from my SD card to the phone’s internal memory, and then recording test videos proved that the video lag problem went away. To further test my theory, I swapped out my original SD card for a new class 10 device I bought, and again, the results proved the same thing: with the faster rated card, there were no video lag problems.

This brings up an important issue: don’t skimp on your SD card, get at least a class 10 device! Looking around on Amazon, 4-8 GB class 10 micro SD cards are not that expensive, and the performance premium from the higher class storage is totally warranted for this use case.

(It also brings up an interesting point on whether “Android is slow” can be attributed to apps running off slow SD cards, and Windows Phone’s insistence on not allowing apps to run from SD card. Could be a user experience issue. I’ll follow-up on this in a later blog post.)

The Editing

After I had logged all the videos and was ready for editing, I started with setting up a new project in my video editor of choice, Adobe Premiere Pro CS5.5. This is step where I ran into my first hitch: most mobile phones these days record video at variable bit rates (VBR), and VBR is not supported by Premiere Pro at all! The reasons why phones record in variable bit rates are clear: to save on storage space; and, more importantly, changing the frame rate of video capture to compensate for lighting conditions (higher frame rates in poorer lighting conditions, and vice versa). Premiere Pro supports only a single frame rate across one project, so importing videos shot in VBR results in audio drifting wildly out-of-sync with video.

I was quite shocked to find out this, to be honest. The iPhone is the most popular camera in the world – across all device types, including dedicated cameras – which also records videos in VBR, so to leave such a popular device unsupported makes little sense. With professional recording equipment it’s easy to lock down frame rates but it’s hard to understand why Adobe wasn’t able to devote engineering resources to sort this issue out by 2013. Their decision makes even less sense when you consider Adobe sells a stripped-down version of their professional video editing software under the Adobe Premiere Elements brand. Surely a large portion of consumers who use Elements would need to edit footage shot on phones?

Sony Vegas Pro was the only software that could process videos from my phone
Sony Vegas Pro was the only software that could process videos from my phone

Ultimately, I solved this problem by downloading a trial version of Sony Vegas Pro – which does support multiple frame rates. The settings UI is slightly clunky, but it does allow setting a frame rate you want to hit across the project, and accordingly imported videos in its timeline to ensure audio-video stays in sync. As a non-linear video editor, Sony Vegas Pro does have adequate technical capabilities (in terms of format and project-setting support), although the interface does leave a lot to be desired in comparison to Adobe Premiere Pro.

On a more stylistic note, I could have worked more on this current video that I made to filter the audio for the noisier recording backgrounds. It’s audible, but only if you have a good set of speakers. In the end, I left them without doing this – partly because I didn’t want to spend too much time on this project, and partly to impart what I felt was a more “authentic” touch to the video that fully captured the energy of situation the videos were recorded in.

Naturally, if you’re using a Mac then with iMovie / Final Cut Pro, variable bit rates are supported out of the box. But if you’re editing footage shot on a smartphone on a Windows system, bear in mind that you need to account for additional cost; in terms of acquiring new software, or training time in getting to grips with how to use a software other than you may be accustomed to. The state of affairs for Windows users in this situation is a tad disappointing.

TL;DR

  • Regardless of how capable your phone’s camera is, it won’t be able to record video “smoothly” unless you use at least a class 10 micro SD card. Invest in this.
  • Adobe Premiere Pro does not support variable bit rate video. The only solution that can handle this on Windows that I’m aware of is Sony Vegas Pro.
  • Once you have all the tools necessary in pre-and-post-production phases, smartphone video recording can afford a range of versatility that make them attractive for filming in uncontrolled settings.

Overall, I would say that I enjoyed the process of making a video on a smartphone. I taught me things to be careful about when using such gear, and hopefully, my lessons help out others thinking of similar projects.

Categories
Personal

So, I guess I’m not graduating with everyone else

I can’t believe this is happening.

My university released its results for this academic year and I’ve just found out that I’m not graduating this year. I need to resit two modules in August as part of the late summer resits the university offers, which means that the exam board will not be able to ratify my results in time for the graduation ceremony in July.

In June, I was called by the department to discuss “my case”. I was told in that meeting that I had the following options:

  • Take a leave of absence from university on medical grounds, take exams later, and defer my graduation until next year.
  • Sit for the June exams as normal, but in doing so acknowledge that I was going against the department’s advice.

I do accept my personal responsibility for why this is happening. I chose the latter option, and the gamble didn’t pay off.

***

It’s not hard to pinpoint where my academic career went off the rails. Earlier this year, I talked at length about the mental health issues that I have been facing for a considerable period. That was back in April, at the beginning of Easter break. I was still struggling to get back on my feet when I wrote that piece, as I was ramping up my dose of prescribed antidepressants at the time. By mid-May, I finally felt better, felt that the situation was under control.

The problem I faced was that I’d gone into a freefall for the period from February to May. I had a pile of work to chew through and not enough time.

I felt paralysed. I felt claustrophobic. My primary concern was my dissertation. I’d sunk a lot of effort into it at the start of the academic year, and it was a project that I was proud to be doing because it was innovative, it was an idea that I came up with myself, and something that I felt passionate about. I planned to use the Easter break to catch up on my project, and I emailed my dissertation supervisor for guidance at the time. I never heard back.

I looked up to my dissertation supervisor as role model in academic research, almost as a father-figure for how he guided me through the year. (And my counsellor was someone that I looked up to as a mother-figure too.) It wasn’t until that blog post I published on depression that I felt comfortable to talk to him about what I was going through. I was ashamed to admit it, and I was scared whether he’d consider me less capable for it. In fact, he was quite understanding and supportive. It reassured me the tiniest bit to know that he had my back.

So when I didn’t get an email response back during Easter break from him, paranoia kicked in. I thought my supervisor was mad or disappointed with me, for letting him down. I felt shame and guilt for not performing to what I thought was the best of my abilities. Faced with technical challenges, I just plain gave up on working on the project for weeks.

The truth was for more mundane: the email that I sent simply got buried in the flood of emails that academics usually get. I could have resolved the situation simply by pinging him again. When I finally felt stable, I tried to get on track with getting in touch with people in my department. I’d been regularly attending counselling sessions and having medical reviews of my case, and I went with this evidence to them.

The university does have procedures in place for considering extenuating circumstances. Unfortunately, the process of applying for one and the evidence being considered is a long-winded process, and decisions can take weeks – if not months – to be reached. By the time I applied I started getting decisions back on coursework and dissertation deadline extensions, it was already a week to go for my exams. It literally came down to the wire. I remember frantically panicking in the library because I’d supplied all the evidence, and yet only found out half an hour before the normal dissertation deadline whether my circumstances would be considered. I almost had a panic attack.

And then…I just got a week extra, when I was finally getting back on track but felt I needed more time to catch up during all those lost weeks. I didn’t realistically think I’d get an extra three months, but what I wanted was to have my dissertation deadline stretch into the summer before the exam board met so that I could focus on preparing for my exams. That, apparently, wasn’t possible because of logistical reasons.

I could have appealed the decision my department took directly with the university. However, due to the procedure laid down for this, it would have meant waiting for 3-4 months before I found out the outcome. And if I lost the appeal, well, I’d be up shit creek without a paddle for having failed my dissertation. So I decided not to, and rushed through with wrapping up my project.

I redirected all my efforts into getting the project, and did have a working demo in time. My project was to create a real-time gaze tracking system that worked with standard webcam video on mobile phones. (Kinda like what the Samsung Galaxy S4 has, but more advanced because they aren’t doing “true” gaze tracking.) Admittedly, partly due to the time schedule I was on I didn’t have time to sort out bugs in upstream open source projects that I was using, so I didn’t hit all of the targets that I set out to achieve…but it was at least the best of a worst case effort.

During the same time, I was asked to attend a review by the department. Based on the evidence that I had provided so far to them, all of the mental health concerns that were raised during my medical reviews, their recommendation was I take a leave of absence. It was quite a frank and friendly chat, actually. I remember sitting in that room and my overpowering urge was that I just wanted this whole episode of university to be done and over with. Taking deferred assessment would mean I would be paying tuition fees for another year where I would have jack to do except for kick tyres until (possibly) June 2014, as I would have to wait until then to take exams. And most of all, I just wanted to graduate with my friends. I decided to take the decision to plunge ahead with exams this year. Honestly, I didn’t even care what degree classification I would get. I just wanted to get this done with.

In retrospect, it’s easy to say that I should have taken the “out” when it was offered to me. It’s also easy to be bitter and start blaming external factors. Yes, I wish there was better communication between different arms of the university. Yes, I would have fucking loved it if they made an exception to the rules to suit my schedule. Yes, I wish some of the communication and the decision-making process was quicker, so that I could make informed decisions faster without needing to go through long spells of anxiety.

But the truth is that, at the end of the day, it was my decision to ignore the advice and go ahead. I may not have been in the best state of mind when I made the decision, but it is something that I need to live with. Similarly, I was the one who let go and effectively went AWOL from my course. I can’t “take responsibility” for my depression because I didn’t choose to be this way, but ultimately that’s what happened and affected my performance.

I’m actually quite impressed and glad with all the support that I have received from my university. Throughout the process, the people whom I have spoken to have been understanding; constrained by what they could do according to the rules, but understanding nonetheless – and to me, while I was going through a hard time, that meant a lot. I also have to thank the Students’ Union for excellent advice and support throughout the process. Every step of the way when I faltered, it was reassuring to know that it just wasn’t my friends but the university too which had my back.

As things stand now, I’m taking resits in August. Resits are capped at pass-mark cutoff under our university’s regulations, which means my overall degree classification will probably suffer in the process since it’s weighted heavily towards performance in the final year. I will have a transcript by September, when the final exam board meets to ratify results, but I won’t be awarded a degree scroll until next year’s graduation ceremony in June.

***

What next? Honestly, I have no idea. I guess I need to focus on the resits for now. I probably need to do a second degree to make up for what I know will be shit result on this one, whenever I find that out three months later. Which will be made harder by the fact that I have a shit result, so my options may be limited, unless my extenuating circumstances are taken into consideration. And the PhD offer that I could have had is definitely off the cards now.

A big confidence boost in the recent weeks has been that I have been making good progress with job applications. I have made it to the final round for every single application I have made, with only two of them giving a final decision so far; rejecting my application, but with valuable feedback nonetheless. And I’m currently awaiting outcomes from multiple companies, with more confirmed interviews lined up in the future. The first thing that I did after I finally felt I was in control of things was to get on with the job hunt, and finding approval from such external agencies feels good. I have my fingers crossed that through the interview process and/or in case I get offer, my extenuating circumstances would be something they are willing to consider – and that I can move on from higher education.

Failing which…I have no idea what degree to study next or where to study it. It kinda excites and scares me.

***

Academic stress has not been my only concern over the past few months. I’ve had my own problems to deal with, with getting better and more often than not it has felt like gasping for breath. Times when I feel better, times when I feel worse. Besides that, I’ve had friends going through personal problems too during the period which I was helping them deal with. I won’t go into details because it concerns the private lives of other people, but it was something that added to the stress and anxiety nevertheless. I absolutely don’t regret it though; I would be there for them if I had to do it again. What I have realised this year is that I’ve finally learnt not be a selfish little piece of shit and sometimes put others’ concerns before my own, because that’s just what friends do. And in return, I’ve had friends who’ve stuck with me through some pretty dark times. I’m glad for that.

Throughout the months when I battled worsening depression, I never wanted my friends to know the true extent of how shit I was feeling on a day-to-day basis. I’d tell them what was bothering me, but almost in a flippant, nonchalant way. I like to present an image of “yes, I’ve got my shit together” because the alternative of actually showing how bad I was a rabbit hole that I didn’t want to go down. Despite their best intentions and what people say, the truth is that nobody likes being around a depressive at their worst – especially if they have never been through anything like it. Like I said in my earlier blog post on depression, healing is a long-term process and if you don’t make efforts to achieve that goal, you’re well and truly fucked. I like to think “I’m not bothered by what’s happening, I’ll just focus on the moment” because if I do think it should bother me, then it does actually bother me and I feel worse. It’s a vicious feedback loop.

Looking back at the past few months, I’d say that the support that I’ve had from friends has massively helped me recover. Because I’ve seen other people dealing with similar issues, I’m glad I was able to push myself to remain socially active and not give up on daily life. It’s given me something to wake up to every day.

***

University of Surrey graduation ceremony

I recently acted as an extra in a film shot by the university’s alumni department about the university’s graduation ceremony. I got to wear a robe and a hat, and I made a mental note to amend my robe hire order because I found out through that shoot that I got my hat measurements wrong. I’d only just made my graduation ceremony bookings earlier this week. And now, I won’t have to bother with that at least until next year.

This is a video that is intended to be played at every graduation ceremony for the next two years.

Irony, thou art a cruel bitch.

***

“Life was so much simpler ten years ago when I knew everything.” – Paul Carr

Categories
Reviews Tech Takes

Netflix vs Lovefilm Instant: my impressions on streaming services in the UK

I am a cord cutter. I live in a house of other cord cutters. By that, I mean that we don’t own a television in our house, instead opting to watch all our video content on our computers or portable devices. The obvious advantage of this is that none of us need to pay for a TV license. While I haven’t been able to find any market research to back this up, anecdotal evidence that I know suggests to me that a sizeable number of students are like me in that they consume a majority of their video content streaming rather than on television.

The UK is different from the US television market in that a lot of the original TV content produced here is made available online quickly. There’s BBC iPlayer, Channel 4’s 4oD, and ITV Player – from the top three British broadcasters – that make their content available for free-of-cost (without a subscription or a TV license). The exception is Sky, which uses exclusivity of its content as a unique selling point for its own services.

What remains then, for the viewing needs of cord cutters in the UK is a) streaming movies b) on-demand playback of older content no longer active on the broadcasters’ own services. This is the gap that online streaming services such as Netflix or Lovefilm Instant fill in. Now, I could easily pirate the content but I these days I try to do the right thing. I buy all my books from the Kindle store rather than pirating PDFs. I subscribe to Spotify‘s premium service. I genuinely believe that content creators deserve to be compensated for their work. (Reading Paul Carr and Monday Note has convinced me that digital content needs to be paid for to create sustainable businesses which will continue to amuse and entertain us.)

So even with films and television, I want to get my content from legal sources rather than pirating them. There simply isn’t any excuse when the price for such services is so affordable: £5-6 a month is something that can comfortably fit into any student’s budget. Although I’ve been a subscriber to Spotify’s premium service for years, it’s only recently that streaming video services have launched in the UK have become mature enough to use.

I only make an exception when there’s no legal avenue at all to obtain something I’d happily pay for; that’s when I pirate. I totally understand why they don’t make it available because at the moment, they don’t want to cannibalize their existing business. Even making it available on a paid basis gives an incentive for people to cancel their satellite / cable subscription, and that revenue it far to worthy for them right now to risk it to online services which is a more price sensitive market and won’t accept higher prices. (Read this Fast Company piece on the struggle Hulu is facing in the US along these lines.)

What’s good for the customer is that most streaming service companies offer month-long or longer free trials that give you a fair amount of time to test how good their service is. This is exactly what I did. Here are my thoughts on the ones I tried out.

Lovefilm Instant

Lovefilm Instant (£4.99 / month) is Amazon’s play in streaming services in the UK. (In the US, this is branded as Amazon Instant Video.) I tried out a 45-day free trial of Lovefilm from a voucher I got along with an Amazon purchase.

My first impression of the service was that it’s a confusing mess. DVD / Blu-Ray titles are mixed in with streaming titles. The ‘Instant’ bit essentially lives on a section of the main Lovefilm site. Discovery is primarily done through ‘lists’ created within Lovefilm according to genre and lists created by users such as ‘Best of Lovefilm’ or ‘Staff picks’. This feels odd. I remember a time, many months ago, when Lovefilm also used to make films available for a payment and some included within the subscription package, so the whole ‘With Package’ section these days – when it no longer offers films on payment – feels like they tried to stuff the current titles into the old interface.

The search function does not have autocomplete. You’re flying blind as to what’s available and what’s not – or if you don’t know how to correctly spell a film title or actor / director name. The hangover of the legacy business of renting DVDs becomes quite apparent whenever you search for a title: results thrown up show a mix of DVDs as well as streaming titles. If I’m a streaming-only customer, why make things more complicated by showing me results that I cannot possibly access on my subscription plan? Perhaps this is a ploy at upselling you to their costlier plans, but for someone like me who doesn’t even have a DVD drive, this is completely pointless. While it’s possible to filter the search results according to ‘lists’ again to show only Lovefilm Instant titles, my point is a user shouldn’t have to do this extra step themselves.

Okay, so let’s say you don’t have a particular film in mind and just want to browse titles they have according to genre. So I clicked on a list, and to bring some sanity into sifting through the results, choose the option to order results according to ‘Member rating’. Here’s the problem with that: the ‘ordered’ results have no fucking relation whatsoever to the member ratings. Note how in the above screenshot the ratings go from 3 stars to 2 to 2.5 to 3 to 4. It simply doesn’t do what it does on the tin.

Search / content discovery UX is broken really badly for TV shows. Say that I search for ‘Lost’ (don’t judge me), the results are presented as individual episodes. Assuming that the show I wanted was ‘Lost On An Island’ (whatever, just roll with the example), that would mean instead of having a list of episodes on a single page for a TV show or season, I needed to click through dozens of pages of search results to find the one I want in case there are TV show titles with common words in their titles. To top this off, Lovefilm offers three criteria to sort results: ‘relevance’, member rating, date added. None of this is a particularly effective way of ordering results or a browsing interface for a TV show, where the best way is to provide a sequential list of episodes according to season. Instead (as you can see in the screenshot above), episodes according to ‘relevance’ are ordered completely randomly.

Once you find a film / TV show  you want to watch, you click through to its details page which lists a synopsis along with other related data pulled from IMDb. Clicking ‘watch now’ (sorry, the screenshot was taken after my subscription ended) starts playing the film…in that tiny embedded player window. It doesn’t look visually pleasing, and you’d most definitely need to switch to fullscreen viewing mode. The idea behind it probably is that most people would do that anyway. However, at first look, the player interface doesn’t look aesthetic.

I had trouble with the playback too. Despite having a 100 mbps broadband connection which never gives me issues, playback kept stalling and giving me ‘Content not available offline’ error messages randomly throughout my 45-day trial period. The only solution for this seemed to be to exit fullscreen mode, reload the page – at which point the player would prompt me to continue watching from where I had left – and then start playing back a couple of dozen seconds before the point playback stalled. I don’t know what the cause behind this could be.

What I found most disappointing was that Lovefilm Instant doesn’t make the process of figuring out ‘what to watch next’ easy. This really shouldn’t be that hard since Amazon already owns the best movies database on the planet – IMDb – and if it tried it could easily throw recommendations according to titles watched or rated previously by a user. Instead, it makes you browse through endless lists of various descriptions and even at that makes usage difficult by non-functional sorting. There’s no way of linking your Lovefilm account to your IMDb account (although there is an option to link Amazon and Lovefilm accounts). I cannot fathom how they can let this opportunity pass.

Legacy business hangover rears its head again when you try to browse titles according to ‘related’ content. Browsing to that tab shows titles available on DVD mixed with those available for streaming.

And here comes the subjective part: Lovefilm’s streaming library is utter shit. Its library seems to mostly consist of B-grade / C-grade films from the 90s with very few new film releases or TV shows. Perhaps it’s just a case of ‘watchable’ content being hard to discover due to the problems I mentioned above. Lovefilm is clearly trying because even within the 45-day window I tried the service, I saw new titles getting added. When it comes to TV shows, it hardly has anything that is not already available elsewhere such as YouTube or Channel 4’s 40D.

Anyway, when the time came to take a decision on whether I want to renew my subscription to become a paying customer, I simply didn’t feel the content library was rich enough or the discovery UX intuitive enough to be worth paying for. Obviously, issues with playback not working properly was a factor. Many of the videos were only available in standard-definition, which is baffling in this age when so much content is available in HD. Another factor was that Lovefilm does not (yet) offer any way to stream content to mobile devices; its Android app only allows you to add DVDs to your rental queue.

Lovefilm Instant feels almost like an afterthought to its core DVD rental business. It’s a shame that it cannot give good recommendations either, since with Amazon’s surprisingly accurate shopping recommendations and IMDb’s rating database, it should have enough data to go on which other players don’t have.

Netflix

Once my Lovefilm trial expired, I signed up for Netflix (£5.99 / month) – and so far I’m loving it. (I didn’t get a free trial because I’d previously signed up for a 30-day trial without using it.) Netflix starts you off with a quick questionnaire on preferred movie genres to personalise recommendations. The contrast with Lovefilm’s UI is stark as Netflix’s user interface is inherently more visual. Text is non-existent, making the user-interface more aesthetically pleasing than Lovefilm’s rigidly-structured pages. The whole user experience is centred around serendipity and discovery. Every time you visit Netflix, it presents a different set of thumbnails, making discovering newer titles or titles you may not have heard of incredibly simple.

More information on each title is presented using hovercards. What I like about this is that Netflix uses the initial questionnaire in addition to ratings you make on Netflix as you watch more titles to make a ‘best guess’ for a title’s rating in the eyes of each user. These personalised recommendations help you make snap decisions on whether you want to watch a title or not: if you’re in the mood to watch a film that you would definitely like, you’re likelier to choose titles with higher guessed ratings; or if you’re in the mood to experiment, then you might even consider titles with lower guessed ratings.

One of the things that Netflix’s has nailed really well is recommendations. In addition to a ‘browse’ feature that allow you to browse according to category, it also shows recommendations according to categories generated on-the-fly based on your ratings / preferences history. These fluid categories help you quickly discover films similar in tone to ones that you already like. Brilliant!

Netflix also nails ‘social’ recommendations. You can link your Facebook account to Netflix, and for your friends on the service who have done the same, it can show you films and TV shows that they have seen. The inherent idea behind this of course is that you’d be interested in watching films your friends watch, which is not a bad assumption to make because at any time for the ‘social’ recommendations you can rate a title as ‘Not interested’.

And the player UI is beautiful. Each title starts playing in a full browser-window sized player. It also starts playing content automatically and silently upgrades to HD quality once enough data has been buffered. What I particularly like about the player UX with respect to TV shows is that it automatically queues the next episode in the series after you’ve finished watching one. You can either sit back and let it continue, or use the countdown period to browse back to the main library interface. Netflix understands how episodes within a TV show are related by season, and automatic queueing makes for a great ‘leanback’, hands-free experience.

The reason why I singled out the lack of autocomplete as a UX deficiency in Lovefilm is that autocomplete – like Netflix does it – let’s you know right away whether a title you want is available or not. In case a title doesn’t show up while I’m typing, I know that right away without having to navigate away to search results page.

Netflix also offers streaming on tablets and mobile phones through its Android / iOS / Windows Phone apps. The UI is very similar to what’s offered on the desktop – so no need to figure out anything new. Hovercards are replaced using an ‘i’ information icon that pops up with the same information. Streaming content – both on desktop and mobile – just works, without any playback hiccups.

There is one thing that I felt Netflix got wrong though. I signed up for my Netflix account using Facebook Connect, and thus I never needed to set up a password when accessing it on my laptop. When I opened the mobile app though, I was frustrated to find that there’s no way to sign in without providing a password. I had to ask for a password reset on my account and then set up a password, just so that I could use my Netflix account from its mobile app. I don’t understand this omission, because there are other mobile apps which happily allow you to sign in using Facebook Connect.

Overall, I’m incredibly happy with Netflix and I think I will stay on as a customer. The content library is rich with a selection of foreign films, new releases, indie films, as well as top-notch American and British TV shows such as Dexter, Breaking Bad, Modern Family, The Inbetweeners, et al. There are sometimes cases where a title I’d find on Lovefilm Instant isn’t available but in general, Netflix UK seems to have a far broader selection of titles than any of its competition.

YouTube Rentals / Google Play

I mention YouTube Rentals / Google Play because Google markets this heavily on the Google Play Store. Unlike Lovefilm or Netflix, Google does not offer a fixed subscription that allows you access to a library. You need to buy each film separately, and then have 48 hours to watch it. Playback quality is good, as you’d expect from any standard HD video on YouTube. Content selection seems to be about the same as Netflix (sometimes better), minus the TV shows. It’s just not for me though, because buying access to each title at £2.49-3.49 a pop is way too expensive for me. Prices aren’t too out of line compared to Apple iTunes offerings though. I mention this only for the sake of completeness – I’d take an all-you-can-eat subscription any day over a piecemeal model.

Conclusion

Streaming services have been late to the party in the UK compared to the US, but if you are thinking of signing up for one now is a better time than ever with offerings being a lot more mature than they were when the services debuted. Subscription package costs are quite reasonable too for the content offered. I’d recommend that you sign up for trials on each service and see which one gives the best fit for your viewing tastes: you might find that either Lovefilm or Netflix is a better fit for what you like to watch.

I also haven’t tried NowTV – Sky’s new online streaming service. It’s significantly more expensive at £15 / month, but it also has a much larger library due to Sky’s weight in the general TV market. I may give it a go after a couple of months in case I find myself running out of stuff to watch on Netflix.

A cautionary note for Linux users: none of these services will work for you. Lovefilm and Netflix both require Silverlight player, to enforce DRM restrictions; and YouTube for some reason doesn’t allow playback for film rentals on Linux either (probably due to DRM reasons again) even though its standard player is Flash-based.

I think the big gap at the moment is in how broad and deep TV show libraries are on streaming services. Hulu still hasn’t launched in the UK, despite noises being made about it back since 2009. What I found for all the three streaming service here is that the content is either something already available for free from the channel on which they air, or, when available, restricted in the number of seasons that are available. That, however, is a broader industry issue – and I hope TV networks catch on to that fact that if they don’t make content available legally, people will simply get it when they want through illegal means. Movies also have the same ‘release window’ problem, but it’s much more acute with TV shows because streaming services usually catch up with many seasons later whereas with many films I’m happy to wait until the time they become available. (The films I really want to watch, I watch in the cinema.)

I think what I like best about streaming video – Netflix in particular – is that it makes finding new stuff to watch so effortless. I don’t need to go hunting for links on illegal streaming sites or worry about what quality the video will be. I like the simplicity and I want content creators to be compensated for their work. I hope that this march towards a future of on-demand content does not get bogged down with exclusive deals which effectively silo different content across multiple services.

N.B. I realise that it’s hard to objectively call Lovefilm’s UX bad without further data. Craigslist, for instance, stands out as an example of website design that doesn’t turn heads but clearly works for them. The only measure that can really speak definitively is data from split testing of design / functionality, or revenues. Here again, the problem is that Lovefilm may have higher revenue due to its volumes in the DVD retail business, so any comparison would need to be done on revenue purely for its streaming business versus Netflix’s. And that data is not easily available. Perhaps Lovefilm has found their design does work them, due to familiarity in the eyes of its users versus Netflix users who may be ‘savvier’ (again, a question that cannot be answered without knowing demographics). My intention in writing this blog post was to present what I felt about the design and service of the two contenders – in the hope that some people find it useful.

Categories
Personal

I Survived A Zombie Apocalypse


Watch the horror unfold among our group in this video on 2.8 Hours London 2012

You never think a zombie apocalypse will strike your city – until it does. Fortunately, my friends and I were prepared when one struck London on 10th November. Or at least we thought we were prepared.

Conceptualised by Slingshot Games, 2.8 Hours Later is a real-life zombie apocalypse game where players need to navigate their way across a city in “2.8” hour-long marathon while dodging actors dressed as zombie hordes. Essentially, it is an elaborate game of tag, as getting ‘infected’ by a zombie means they tap you and you must stop to let them mark you with UV pens. The catch is that some of the UV marker pens work and some don’t, so you don’t find whether you’re infected or not until the end when you’re ‘scanned’ at a quarantine camp. In case you’re infected, they make you up as a zombie, and then you’re off to party at a Zombie Disco.

My friends and I were told of our starting location near the Docklands in London mere days before the event. We made our way there on a cold Saturday evening, along with about two hundred other people taking part on the same day. Once we signed the customary waivers (“remember, if you get hit by a bus, you WILL die!”), we were briefed and given maps with grid coordinates and sent off on our way.

Changed priorities indeed. (C) James Koch

Our first checkpoint was through an underpass – which we were told was ‘clean’ – but, surprise surprise, there were zombies there. And while we ran, my map fell out of my pocket. I would probably be the most useless member of a group in a real zombie apocalypse if I lost my map within the first two minutes of trying to make an escape. That first encounter with zombies left us spooked, and we spent our time constantly checking our corners and walking in separate flanks.

Next stop was a shipping container yard. Bit ironic, because while on our way to the game we were discussing the best places to hide in a zombie apocalypse and a shipping container yard was one of our top choices because we figured they would be a storehouse of many different kinds of essential supplies and not many people would necessarily think about going there. We quickly realised why nobody in their right mind would ever go to one: shipping container yards are fucking scary places at night! Especially when you have a crazy actor with a hook torturing a bound woman inside a container (who gave us the next coordinates) and not knowing whether there would be a zombie around the corner. (And shipping container yards have lots of corners as we discovered!)

The game is as much about orienteering as it is about strategy. At each checkpoint on our way to the “helicopter extraction point”, actors played various eccentric characters who gave us grid coordinates for the next location – sometimes in exchange in for tasks which, not surprisingly, involved going into dangerously zombie-infested areas. And then we had to figure out the best way to reach that coordinate using the map we were given.

(C) Andrew Molyneux

We reached a multi-storey car park, where we found the “husband” of a woman (actor) we met earlier in the game. Apparently, he was a diabetic who had dropped his sweets on another floor of the car park, and needed us to get them. You would think that teamwork is the best way to tackle this, as there were three floors between us and the sweets we needed to get, and we did indeed start off that way but man, when a zombie starts chasing you, you really do forget whatever you planned! once one of us did pick up some sweets, we were hit by the that sinking realisation “Aw shit, now we need to make it back.” I was the first person to get ‘infected’, tagged by a zombie as I indeed up being a human shield against one of my friends.

The game organisers went out of their way to make it creepy. Along our route, we found makeshift memorials with pictures of “missing people” with nobody around. As usual, we were spooked and keeping out a watch. Were we supposed to do anything at the memorial? We didn’t know! This element of uncertainty throughout kept the game interesting.

By far the scariest bit was a park infested with zombies that we needed to make our way across. We walked in and saw the footpaths and the greens littered with shuffling actors (at 8pm at night, you can’t even clearly see them) when a couple asked us whether they could join our group. We said yes and started discussing how we’d approach this, when that guy started screaming. In that instant, it clicked for us that it was an actor and we ran for it. And boy did we run, with zombies chasing us from all directions! We were told that the helipad in the field had been overrun, and we needed to cut our way across the field to go a blinking transponder which would give us our next location. Many of us got tagged in the process.

There were chances to ‘cure’ ourselves too. At one point, when walking down a road we were told there would be pills lying on the footpath, which would get us “something groovy” if we gave it to “the professor” at a checkpoint. This checkpoint was the last one, where we had to play a game of British bulldogs to get cured: “the professor” would play a harmonica for a length in proportion the number of pills we gave him, and when the music stopped the zombies would chase us. Our task was to dash to pick up glowsticks lying on the ground and bring it back to the starting point, where each glowstick would earn a ‘cure’: the UV marker on your hands being wiped off using cleaning fluid.

Our group of survivors and infected: me, Will Johnson, Will Goulden, Charles Gray, Matthew Mitchell, Mike Frazer.

At the quarantine camp, we were then checked under UV lights. I got tagged twice and had one ‘cure’, but miraculously, I survived! Others in my group were not so lucky. In all, three of us – Charles, Mike, and I – survived while the other three – Will, (other) Will, and Matthew – were turned into zombies. And then, the Zombie Disco! That itself was such a laidback party, sharing a unique experience with zombies and survivors alike who had all clearly had a fun night.

I'm a motherfucking survivor!

You could be cynical and say that we paid a lot of money to have people chase us around. But what makes this experience a success – over 10,000 people have played 2.8 Hours Later to mostly sold-out crowds – is that you buy into the premise. You buy into the fact there’s an actual infection you need to survive. It’s a masterfully created game which always keeps you guessing about what could possibly happen next. Much of the publicity around the event is through word-of-mouth, which gives it a vaguely cultish underground charm. 2.8 Hours Later is physically-demanding too, as if you plan to escape unharmed you really need to sprint when zombies chase you.

So imagine yourself at night, adrenaline coursing through your body at regular intervals, trying to figure out where you’re heading, walking for roughly three hours, taking ragged and deep breaths of cold air, a heightened sense of awareness…and just when you think you are safe you hear scream filling the air and you have to run for your life. You know it’s a game of make-believe but it’s the eerie atmosphere that makes it exhilarating. That is what makes 2.8 Hours Later so epic.


2.8 Hours Later promo video

Categories
Food For Thought

You say ____, I say _____

(Request to my readers, especially my subscribers: There’s a question right at the end of this post which I’d appreciate if you could answer. Reading the post will help explain the context but perhaps not everyone among you has time, so I wanted to flag the question for your attention in the beginning.)

Travelling around and living in different places makes you notice certain things about a place fairly quickly. One of the first things you notice is – this is no surprise – is the way people speak. However, it takes a few months to get the idiosyncrasies down pat.

When I first went to the UK, many other Indian students hit the ground running with a ‘fake’ accent. (I, personally, have never been able to do that.) And you know what? The reason people do this, to an extent, is justified. What I have learnt through numerous interactions with British, American, Canadian – ‘Western’ friends, if you will – is that a fair number of them genuinely have a hard time understanding the Indian accent. Some tell me they may understand only three-quarters of what a person with an Indian accent, and then use context to fill in the rest.

Bet it’s the same with a majority of Indians when they watch American movies / television shows. You’ll notice how theatrical releases of films in India almost never have subtitles as is standard in practically every other country where English is not a native language, but cinemas in India cater to an upmarket or an aspirational crowd. On satellite TV movie channels, on the other hand, captioning has been so popular that all channels quickly adopted it and saw a rise in viewership. I have friends with an impeccable command over written English, yet are completely lost without subtitles when listening. An explanation offered for this is that “Westerners speak too fast” but on the other side of the pond, er, ocean, they think the  exact opposite! This is probably just a case of ‘feeling’ that someone is speaking fast because you cannot catch what they are saying. Try learning a new language and you’ll always feel that native speakers speak ‘too fast’.

It can get much worse than that. I encountered situations in the UK, try as hard as they might, people couldn’t understand what I was saying. This goes both ways. For a quick headcount, how many of you can understand what comedian Kevin Bridges is saying in this video from Live at the Apollo roadshow?

(The Welsh and the Scottish accents are notoriously hard to understand, even among native English speakers from England. Shed a silent tear for me – my two roommates last semester were both Scots.)

This reminds me of a funny anecdote from first year at university. We (my batchmates and I) used to work together in the computing labs on our software engineering assignments and ended up discussions possible solutions with each other. Now, the Indian way of pronouncing ‘arrays’ is ‘ah-rays’, while the British way of pronouncing it is ‘uh-rays’. By the end of the year, I was pronouncing it ‘uh-rays’ and my English friend – a legit scouse – was saying it the Indian way!

I had an interesting debate with my current roommate (who’s from Canada) this semester. We were trying to solve a physics question when I used the trigonometrical abbreviation ‘cos’. He laughed and said the correct pronunciation is like in ‘cosine’ with the ‘-ine’ ending chopped off; I disagreed and said it’s like in the ending of ‘because’. We made a bet; the hard part came when trying to prove ourselves right. No matter how much we searched on YouTube for lectures on trigonometry (video channels such as MIT OpenCourseWare etc), none of the speakers used ‘cos’ as an abbreviation! That’s another thing I learnt that day – how pervasive the use of the full form ‘cosine’, ‘tangent’, ‘cosecant’ et al is in American English.

I eventually posted the pronunciation of ‘cos’ question on English Language & Usage Stack Exchange. Responses from the forum posters confirmed my suspicion that mine was the British English pronunciation while my roommate’s was the American / Canadian English pronunciation. As an aside, our pronunciation of hyperbolic functions is miles apart too – he pronounces ‘sinh’ similar to ‘cinch’ while I pronounce it as ‘shine’, and so on for the other functions.

But enough of maths for now. No matter how well-read you are, and regardless of whether you are a native speaker of English language or not, there will always be words whose pronunciation trips you. One common scenario is when you read a word long before you learn the correct pronunciation through real-life usage – there’s an entirely fascinating thread on EL&U StackExchange (again) on words that are said entirely unlike how they are written. Go through those pages and I’m certain you’ll discover a clutch of words you have been speaking the wrong way all this while!

Word choice is also a curiosity you notice when you meet other people on travels. For instance, in the UK when someone uses the term ‘Asian’, they usually mean someone of Indian / Pakistani / Bangladeshi origin; any other ethnic groups are specifically referred to, such as Chinese. In Canada and US on the other hand, as I often notice when talking to my (current) roommate, ‘Asian’ usually means Chinese (and sometimes Korean or Japanese) – basically, anyone with ‘Oriental-looking’ features. Other Asian continent ethnicities such as Indians are referred to specifically. This makes for hilarious misunderstandings as we both have to make a mental pit-stop every time the word is used to check whether the intent has been communicated properly.

Accent, on the other hand, is something you will naturally pick up if you spend time long enough with a group of people, just like my scouse friend who started saying ‘ah-rays’. Accents are contagious. There is no such thing, however, as ‘an English accent’. England – and in the broader sense, the UK – has a wonderfully colourful range of accents from town-to-town. What most people think is an English accent, from Hollywood movies or from American TV shows, is a close variation of Received Pronunciation. Basically, the idea of an ‘English accent’ is just like thinking all people from Russia / former Soviet Union speak the same way. :p (The only commonality, really, is they all drink vodka.)

As an Indian, you would call something an ‘accent’ if it differed from your style of speaking, but for an American there is no such thing as an ‘American accent’ because it’s all the same to them. I’ve heard people say that the Indian ‘accent’ is a lack of an accent; the example quoted was Indians pronounce ‘pi’ as ‘pie’, most Western speakers pronounce it as ‘phye’. But there’s a reason why ‘p’ is accompanied by an expelling of air in many accents, and it is to distinguish the sound from ‘b’. (Similarly, ‘t’ and ‘d’ are distinguished by aspiration when pronouncing the former.) Even when learning Mandarin, the ‘p’ / ‘b’ and ‘t’ / ‘d’ sounds are distinguished by making one aspirated. Conversing with British and American speakers you’ll quickly realise that the Indian quirk of not doing so will confuse them between, with ‘peer’ and ‘beer’, if context is missing. With the most of Western accents and the Chinese ganging up, Indians better fucking toe the line, so to speak. ;)

This is why over time people tend to unconsciously start mimicking the speech tones and styles of the country they live in. What sounds like a trivial issue is actually a major concern when due to those little quirks, someone at a sandwich shop or (especially) people on the telephone (customer service? Often based out of Ireland, Wales, or Scotland for UK companies. Fricking nightmare talking to them!) cannot follow a simple conversation.

Everyone has their own accent quirks, so how rapidly you pick up an accent, my experience suggests, is how comfortable people around you are in being able to understand what you say. That’s the strongest catalyst in bringing about accent shifts; anything else is incidental. Although for people who use ‘fake’ accents (call centre employees) the reason is not just to make oneself understood, but also to shed the stereotypes associated with an accent. L ike someone with an Indian accent is probably called Rajeev, eats curry for lunch, lives in Bangalore,  et al. (This tactic doesn’t work as companies shift call centre operations in droves to Philippines instead of staying in India.)

My accent has been whacked all over the place. People you converse with regularly influence this, and when I was in the UK this meant I unconsciously picked up bits and bobs from a range of accents – thus resulting in something that approaches close to a ‘generic’ English accent. Then, I come to Singapore and I’ve to live with two Scots for months – probably picked up a bit of a Scottish accent then. (And lost it, by now. But when you’re around a Scot, it’s hard not to speak like them – it’s so contagious!) Current roommate is Canadian, who works often in New York – so a bit of that. And then come all the Singaporeans, Indians in Singapore, other exchange students say from Germany / France / Finland / Australia, Chinese-origin students who have went to Cambridge board schools…well, let’s just say my accent is a clusterfuck right now. On the bright side, I must be close to approaching a generic global accent (albeit with an underlying hint of an Indian one).

I’m fascinated by this now as performance of speech recognition engines against various accents is one of the aspects I will be researching over the summer. Here’s my question, guys: when you talk to someone with a different accent, truthfully, how much of it do you get straight away and how much do you have to fill in through context? Do you find it ‘Western’ TV shows / films hard to follow? Specifically talking about the Kevin Bridges video embedded earlier in the post – could you understand it, and to what extent? Leave your response as a comment below. It’ll be a big help getting preliminary feedback on key problems on my research topic field.