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Why did last night’s ‘Game of Thrones’ look so bad? Here comes the science! – TechCrunch

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Last night’s episode of “Game of Thrones” was a wild ride and inarguably one of an epic show’s more epic moments — if you could see it through the dark and the blotchy video. It turns out even one of the most expensive and meticulously produced shows in history can fall prey to the scourge of low quality streaming and bad TV settings.

The good news is this episode is going to look amazing on Blu-ray or potentially in future, better streams and downloads. The bad news is that millions of people already had to see it in a way its creators surely lament. You deserve to know why this was the case. I’ll be simplifying a bit here because this topic is immensely complex, but here’s what you should know.

(By the way, I can’t entirely avoid spoilers, but I’ll try to stay away from anything significant in words or images.)

It was clear from the opening shots in last night’s episode, “The Longest Night,” that this was going to be a dark one. The army of the dead faces off against the allied living forces in the darkness, made darker by a bespoke storm brought in by, shall we say, a Mr. N.K., to further demoralize the good guys.

If you squint you can just make out the largest army ever assembled

Thematically and cinematographically, setting this chaotic, sprawling battle at night is a powerful creative choice and a valid one, and I don’t question the showrunners, director, and so on for it. But technically speaking, setting this battle at night, and in fog, is just about the absolute worst case scenario for the medium this show is native to: streaming home video. Here’s why.

Compression factor

Video has to be compressed in order to be sent efficiently over the internet, and although we’ve made enormous strides in video compression and the bandwidth available to most homes, there are still fundamental limits.

The master video that HBO put together from the actual footage, FX, and color work that goes into making a piece of modern media would be huge: hundreds of gigabytes if not terabytes. That’s because the master has to include all the information on every pixel in every frame, no exceptions.

Imagine if you tried to “stream” a terabyte-sized TV episode. You’d have to be able to download upwards of 200 megabytes per second for the full 80 minutes of this one. Few people in the world have that kind of connection — it would basically never stop buffering. Even 20 megabytes per second is asking too much by a long shot. 2 is doable — slightly under the 25 megabit speed (that’s bits… divide by 8 to get bytes) we use to define broadband download speeds.

So how do you turn a large file into a small one? Compression — we’ve been doing it for a long time, and video, though different from other types of data in some ways, is still just a bunch of zeroes and ones. In fact it’s especially susceptible to strong compression because of how one video frame is usually very similar to the last and the next one. There are all kinds of shortcuts you can take that reduce the file size immensely without noticeably impacting the quality of the video. These compression and decompression techniques fit into a system called a “codec.”

But there are exceptions to that, and one of them has to do with how compression handles color and brightness. Basically, when the image is very dark, it can’t display color very well.

The color of winter

Think about it like this: There are only so many ways to describe colors in a few words. If you have one word you can say red, or maybe ochre or vermilion depending on your interlocutor’s vocabulary. But if you have two words you can say dark red, darker red, reddish black, and so on. The codec has a limited vocabulary as well, though its “words” are the numbers of bits it can use to describe a pixel.

This lets it succinctly describe a huge array of colors with very little data by saying, this pixel has this bit value of color, this much brightness, and so on. (I didn’t originally want to get into this, but this is what people are talking about when they say bit depth, or even “highest quality pixels.”)

But this also means that there are only so many gradations of color and brightness it can show. Going from a very dark grey to a slightly lighter grey, it might be able to pick 5 intermediate shades. That’s perfectly fine if it’s just on the hem of a dress in the corner of the image. But what if the whole image is limited to that small selection of shades?

Then you get what we see last night. See how Jon (I think) is made up almost entirely of only a handful of different colors (brightnesses of a similar color, really) in with big obvious borders between them?

This issue is called “banding,” and it’s hard not to notice once you see how it works. Images on video can be incredibly detailed, but places where there are subtle changes in color — often a clear sky or some other large but mild gradient — will render in large stripes as the codec goes from “darkest dark blue” to “darker dark blue” to “dark blue,” with no “medium darker dark blue” in between.

Check out this image.

Above is a smooth gradient encoded with high color depth. Below that is the same gradient encoded with lossy JPEG encoding — different from what HBO used, obviously, but you get the idea.

Banding has plagued streaming video forever, and it’s hard to avoid even in major productions — it’s just a side effect of representing color digitally. It’s especially distracting because obviously our eyes don’t have that limitation. A high-definition screen may actually show more detail than your eyes can discern from couch distance, but color issues? Our visual systems flag them like crazy. You can minimize it in various ways, but it’s always going to be there, until the point when we have as many shades of grey as we have pixels on the screen.

So back to last night’s episode. Practically the entire show took place at night, which removes about 3/4 of the codec’s brightness-color combos right there. It also wasn’t a particularly colorful episode, a directorial or photographic choice that highlighted things like flames and blood, but further limited the ability to digitally represent what was on screen.

It wouldn’t be too bad if the background was black and people were lit well so they popped out, though. The last straw was the introduction of the cloud, fog, or blizzard, whatever you want to call it. This kept the brightness of the background just high enough that the codec had to represent it with one of its handful of dark greys, and the subtle movements of fog and smoke came out as blotchy messes (often called “compression artifacts” as well) as the compression desperately tried to pick what shade was best for a group of pixels.

Just brightening it doesn’t fix things, either — because the detail is already crushed into a narrow range of values, you just get a bandy image that never gets completely black, making it look washed out, as you see here:

(Anyway, the darkness is a stylistic choice. You may not agree with it, but that’s how it’s supposed to look and messing with it beyond making the darkest details visible could be counterproductive.)

Now, it should be said that compression doesn’t have to be this bad. For one thing, the more data it is allowed to use, the more gradations it can describe, and the less severe the banding. It’s also possible (though I’m not sure where it’s actually done) to repurpose the rest of the codec’s “vocabulary” to describe a scene where its other color options are limited. That way the full bandwidth can be used to describe a nearly monochromatic scene even though strictly speaking it should be only using a fraction of it.

But neither of these are likely an option for HBO: Increasing the bandwidth of the stream is costly, since this is being sent out to tens of millions of people — a bitrate increase big enough to change the quality would also massively swell their data costs. When you’re distributing to that many people, that also introduces the risk of hated buffering or errors in playback, which are obviously a big no-no. It’s even possible that HBO lowered the bitrate because of network limitations — “Game of Thrones” really is stretching the limits of digital distribution in some ways.

And using an exotic codec might not be possible because only commonly used commercial ones are really capable of being applied at scale. Kind of like how we try to use standard parts for cars and computers.

This episode almost certainly looked fantastic in the mastering room and FX studios, where they not only had carefully calibrated monitors with which to view it but also were working with brighter footage (it would be darkened to taste by the colorist later) and less or no compression. They might not even have seen the “final” version that fans “enjoyed.”

We’ll see the better copy eventually, but in the meantime the choice of darkness, fog, and furious action meant the episode was going to be a muddy, glitchy mess on home TVs.

And while we’re on the topic…

You mean my TV isn’t the problem?

Couple watching TV on their couch.

Well… to be honest, it might be that too. What I can tell you is that simply having a “better” TV by specs, such as 4K or a higher refresh rate or whatever, would make almost no difference in this case. Even built-in de-noising and de-banding algorithms would be hard pressed to make sense of “The Long Night.” And one of the best new display technologies, OLED, might even make it look worse! Its “true blacks” are much darker than an LCD’s backlit blacks, so the jump to the darkest grey could appear more jarring.

That said, it’s certainly possible that your TV is also set up poorly. Those of us sensitive to this kind of thing spend forever fiddling with settings and getting everything just right for exactly this kind of situation. There are dozens of us! And this is our hour.

Usually “calibration” is actually a pretty simple process of making sure your TV isn’t on the absolute worst settings, which unfortunately many are out of the box. Here’s a very basic three-point guide to “calibrating” your TV:

  1. Turn off anything with a special name in the “picture” or “video” menu, like “TrueMotion,” “Dynamic motion,” “Cinema mode,” any stuff like that. Most of these make things look worse, and so-called “smart” features are often anything but. Especially anything that “smooths” motion — turn those off first and never ever turn them on again. Note: Don’t mess with brightness, gamma, color space, pretty much anything with a number you can change.
  2. Figure out light and color by putting on a good, well-shot movie the way you normally do. While it’s playing, click through any color presets your TV has. These are often things like “natural,” “game,” “cinema,” “calibrated,” and so on, and take effect right away. Some may make the image look too green, or too dark, or whatever. Play around with it and whichever makes it look best, just use that one. You can always change it again later – I myself switch between a lighter and darker scheme depending on time of day and content.
  3. Don’t worry about HDR, dynamic lighting, and all that stuff for now. There’s a lot of hype about these technologies and they are still in their infancy. Few will work out of the box and the gains may or may not be worth it. The truth is a well shot movie from the ’60s or ’70s can look just as good today as a “high dynamic range” show shot on the latest 8K digital cinema rig. Just focus on making sure the image isn’t being actively interfered with by your TV and you’ll be fine.

Unfortunately none of these things will make “The Long Night” look any better until HBO releases a new version of it. Those ugly bands and artifacts are baked right in. But if you have to blame anyone, blame the streaming infrastructure that wasn’t prepared for a show taking risks in its presentation, risks I would characterize as bold and well executed, unlike the writing in the show lately. Oops, sorry, couldn’t help myself.

If you really want to experience this show the way it was intended, the fanciest TV in the world wouldn’t have helped last night, though when the Blu-ray comes out you’ll be in for a treat. But here’s hoping the next big battle takes place in broad daylight.



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Apple details new iPhone features like door detection, live captions

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Global Accessibility Awareness Day is Thursday, so Apple took to its newsroom blog this week to announce several major new accessibility features headed to the iPhone, Apple Watch, iPad, and Mac.

One of the most widely used will likely be Live Captions, which is coming to iPhone, Mac, and iPad. The feature shows AI-driven, live-updating subtitles for speech coming from any audio source on the phone, whether the user is “on a phone or FaceTime call, using a video conferencing or social media app, streaming media content, or having a conversation with someone next to them.”

The text (which users can resize at will) appears at the top of the screen and ticks along as the subject speaks. Additionally, Mac users will be able to type responses and have them read aloud to others on the call. Live Captions will enter public beta on supported devices (“iPhone 11 and later, iPad models with A12 Bionic and later, and Macs with Apple silicon”) later this year.

There’s also door detection. It unfortunately will only work on iPhones and iPads with a lidar sensor (so the iPhone 12 Pro, iPhone 13 Pro, or recent iPad Pro models), but it sounds useful for those who are blind or have low vision. It uses the iPhone’s camera and AR sensors, in tandem with machine learning, to identify doors and audibly tell users where the door is located, whether it’s open or closed, how it can be opened, and what writing or labeling it might have.

Door detection will join people detection and image descriptions in a new “detection mode” intended for blind or low-vision users in iOS and iPadOS. Apple’s blog post didn’t say when that feature would launch, however.

Other accessibility additions that Apple says are just around the corner include 20 new Voice Over languages, new hand gestures on Apple Watch, and a feature that allows game players to receive help from a “buddy” with another game controller without disconnecting their own. Additionally, there are new Siri and Apple Books customizations meant to expand accessibility for people with disabilities, sound recognition customizations, and Apple Watch screen mirroring on the iPhone—which gives Watch users access to many accessibility features available on the iPhone but not the Watch.

Tech enthusiasts often lament that smartphones (and personal tech in general) have become stagnant, without many exciting new developments. But that couldn’t be further from the truth for many people with disabilities. Google, Apple, and numerous researchers and startups have been making significant advancements, bringing powerful new accessibility features to mobile devices.

Listing image by Apple

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Google Russia forced to declare bankruptcy after bank account seizure

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Enlarge / The Google doodle for Russia National Day 2016.

Google’s going… out of business?! That’s apparently the case in Russia. As Reuters reports, Google’s Russia subsidiary plans to file for bankruptcy after “the authorities seized its bank account, making it impossible to carry on operations.” Reuters has a statement from Google:

The Russian authorities’ seizure of Google Russia’s bank account has made it untenable for our Russia office to function, including employing and paying Russia-based employees, paying suppliers and vendors, and meeting other financial obligations. Google Russia has published a notice of its intention to file for bankruptcy.

A regulatory filing showed Google Russia has been expecting to file for bankruptcy since March 22. The division did $2 billion in revenue last year, but that doesn’t matter much when authorities take your entire bank account.

Unlike many tech companies that have abandoned Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, Google has tried to keep doing business in the country. Heavy hitters like Google Search, YouTube, Maps, Gmail, and Google Play are all still running in Russia. Google’s most important product, the ad platform, was shut down on March 3 in Russia after the Russian government started demanding it censor ads about the war. Over the next few days in March, the big four credit card companies all pulled out of Russia, making normal business transactions very difficult. Google cited this “payment system disruption” as the reason for shutting down Google Play paid apps.

It’s not clear how much of a presence Google will have in Russia going forward. Google has been accused of having a cozy relationship with Russia, and its behavior is an outlier over competitors like Microsoft and Apple, which both voluntarily stopped paid services in the country before the credit card companies pulled out. While Google enjoys a ~90 percent search market share in many countries, Russia is one of the few places it faces a viable search competitor; Google splits the search market nearly 50/50 with local tech company Yandex. That market share might explain why Google doesn’t take a tough stance against Russia—if it gets blocked even temporarily, there might not be a market to come back to.

The Russian government still wants to rely on Google for some services, though. The government said Tuesday it wants to keep YouTube running in the country, saying that a shutdown would harm Russian citizens. Like the rest of the world, there are no video sites on the same scale as YouTube in Russia.

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Microsoft previews a new, totally redesigned Outlook for Windows app

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Enlarge / The new Outlook client for Windows will unify the web and offline clients—when it’s done, anyway.

Microsoft

For years now, Microsoft has been planning behind the scenes to unify its disparate Outlook clients across the web, Windows, and macOS. Today, that goal moved one step closer to completion with the introduction of a new Outlook client for Windows users that closely mirrors the interface and functionality of the Outlook web client.

The new app is available to Office Insiders in the Beta channel who have work or school Microsoft 365 accounts. Regular Microsoft accounts aren’t currently supported. This appears to be the same version of the Outlook client that leaked to the public a couple of weeks ago.

A unified Outlook client, also known as “One Outlook” or “Project Monarch,” will be an especially welcome change for Mac users. The Mac version of Outlook has always looked different from and been less fully featured than the Windows client, though the current situation is much better than the bad old days of Microsoft Entourage.

The new Outlook app will reportedly replace not just the current Outlook app but also Windows’ built-in Mail and Calendar apps. Those apps received minor updates for Windows 11 to bring them in line with its redesigned user interface but otherwise haven’t seen many functional improvements in recent years. The new Outlook app will run on Windows 10 and 11, but we don’t know whether it will replace the Mail and Calendar apps in both OSes.

The new Outlook app is still in early development, and as such, there is a long list of common mail client features that it doesn’t support. In-development and planned features that aren’t yet supported include support for IMAP mail accounts, @outlook.com accounts, offline use, use with multiple accounts, and support for working with .pst Outlook data files.

We may get more information on the One Outlook project at Microsoft’s Build developer conference, which runs next week from May 24–26.

Listing image by Microsoft

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