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Cerevo Streaming review

Short version: Online streaming? Heard of Cerevo? Don’t bother. There are lots of problems with every piece of kit they make. Invest in other live streaming products.

At time of writing there are 4 different all-in-one streaming boxes from Cerevo;

I own all of these, and have used them to stream Live events all over the country. Each device has pros and cons. Sadly more cons, with every single one of these devices having usability problems. Two of them, as far as I can see, are actual design faults. Let me explain…

LiveShell – £179feature-top2.png

The LiveShell came out in 2011 It’s a handy mobile-phone sized all-in-one live video streaming box. It’s light, portable, and battery powered. It takes HDMI Video In, up to 576i. It has a separate Audio Line In source, and also the option for a break-out cable so you can also use Composite Video In if required.

It has an ethernet socket for wired network connections, and also a USB port for a WiFi dongle.

Personally, the main benefit of the LiveShell is that it runs off replaceable AA batteries. If you use Eneloop (Sanyo) rechargeable batteries, it can stream non-stop for over 3 hours. I can confirm this is true, as I streamed a car journey from London to Edinburgh non-stop and only had to change the batteries once. And when the batteries are getting low, the whole LCD screen flashes as a warning that you have less than a few minutes of power left. Handy.

The LiveShell settings are also available via a web interface they call SHELL. So you can easily use your phone and get access to bit rates, audio levels, etc. Also handy.

However, the video stream is h263. If you don’t know what h263 is, it just means the way the video is squished down and put together in order to be sent across the internet. As time goes on, a lot of providers are no longer supporting h263 (YouTube for example) because it’s no longer the most efficient way of doing so. As of 2015 it’s a defunct codec. Not so handy.

And unfortunately, this isn’t something they can fix with software or a firmware update. The physical microchips and electronics inside are hard-coded for h263. Bummer.

Therefore, it’s essentially now an expensive and dead piece of kit.

Key points:

  • Replaceable batteries
  • Up to 576i SD video
  • HDMI and Composite inputs
  • Separate Mic In
  • H263 Codec (pretty much no longer supported)

 

LiveShell Pro – £400

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I then bought a LiveShell Pro. The Pro version officially handles up to 720p, has an additional 3.5mm Line In on the front of the box, and also has stereo phono sockets on the back. Therefore, including embedded audio via HDMI, that gives THREE independent audio sources that can be mixed on this device.

If you have a composite monitor, you can plug in a break-out cable into the AV OUT socket on the front, and keep an eye on what you are streaming without looking at your website stream.

The LiveShell Pro has an internal rechargeable battery, which will also run for approximately 3 hours. Unfortunately they’ve taken away the AA battery option, and added their own non-standard type of rechargeable battery. And it’s only replaceable if you have a screwdriver to hand. This is in no way a quick fix. You can run it off mains power or recharge it using a Mini USB cable plugged into the back of the device, but it’s such a shame they didn’t go for the AA battery option.

You can also access all the settings via the SHELL web interface, the same way you can with the original LiveShell. Which is excellent if you use it remotely.

But. There’s also a major problem with interference and noise. If you use a microphone plugged into the front 3.5mm socket, there is a constant hiss and buzz on that audio source. You can fade up and down the other audio sources via the web interface and this won’t make a difference. It’s specifically the front Line In socket. And I use this all the time.

This is a big problem for me. Obviously this noise is unacceptable for a broadcasting device. How on earth can anyone take you seriously with buzzing and crackling audio over your video?

And oddly, the crackling buzz goes away when you disconnect the USB charging cable. Plug it back in, and it comes back. In my opinion, it’s therefore a build issue. Most probably, the internal circuits and electronic components are too close to the actual mic socket!

It’s internal electronics have been badly designed.

Overall the LiveShell Pro is usable. Just don’t use the front Mic In socket, and always be near a power outlet.

Key Points:

  • Rechargeable (though non-standard hard-access battery)
  • Up to 720p HD
  • Separate Mic In
  • Separate Stereo Phono In
  • Severe buzzing noise in Mic/Line In socket

 

LiveWedge – £999

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The LiveWedge was released in early 2015 and is another Cerevo streaming box. It’s a more complicated piece of kit. It’s also much more powerful. It can stream up to 1080p, and has FOUR HDMI inputs. You can cut, mix and wipe between the four sources, similar to a Vision Mixing desk in a live studio gallery.

One fantastic thing it also does is that it has built in up/down/cross converters. So any HDMI signal you put into it will be converted to whichever resolution you have set as the output. That means you can mix all sorts of different HDMI Input sources, but your output will always be, for example, 1080p.

It also has its own App, available on iOS. But you cannot access any of the LiveWedge features via a web interface like you can with all other LiveShell devices. Bummer (again).

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You can display stills from an SD Card, but at time of writing it won’t play video clips from SD. Out of the box it was only able to display JPG images, though a firmware update (Dec 2015) now also allows PNG files. You can also only load one image into the memory at any one time.

However, to access the card you need to physically remove it. It is NOT accessible via network. An SD Card is a good idea, but hasn’t quite been explored in the way that users would probably want use it.

I should also point out that the SD Card is also the 4th Input. So if you have 4 HDMI sources connected you can only use the first 3, as Input 4 becomes the SD Card output.

The LiveWedge also has a Chromakey function. So you can use one source against a green or blue-screen and key through it to one of the other input sources. You can also key through stills from the SD Card, so you can create lower thirds, though that’d be a bit clunky and not the best way to do that. Overall, a good addition to the product.

The fact you cannot access any of the settings externally means you cannot remotely turn the stream on or off, or do any cuts or mixes without being on the same network and using the App. Don’t get me wrong, it has physical buttons on the box you can press, but I want something I can control remotely.

For example, I have two sources that I control remotely; the LiveShell in a car and a LiveShell Pro in the radio shack. I can independently turn each stream on and off from my phone and the website RTSP video shows whichever stream I have started last. But I can’t include the LiveWedge in this system, as it isn’t available remotely. I also now can’t use YouTube as the website video provider as they no longer support h263 for the car streaming box…

But back to the LiveWedge… And. It Crashes. ALL THE TIME. The App crashes, and the box crashes. Over and over and over. Sometimes you have to physically pull out the power and reboot the whole thing before it’ll start talking to the App again. Sometimes you have to restart the App for it to talk to the box. VERY Frustrating.

And when it crashes, it loses the image it was holding from the SD Card. So you need to load it up again after every crash. It also doesn’t remember the current settings. So if you’re on HDMI Input 2 when it crashes, it starts back up broadcasting BLACK, rather than putting HDMI Input 2 back on-air. It also forgets your output resolution.

It also has a major downfall where it displays all your WiFi settings on the front LCD screen, proudly telling everyone your WiFi password in clear text!

Key Points:

  • Takes FOUR HDMI In sources
  • Has separate Stereo Phono Audio In
  • Chromakey function
  • Has Picture-In-Picture function
  • Stillstore function
  • Mains powered only
  • Doesn’t remember settings
  • Regularly crashes
  • Not accessible via web interface

 

LiveShell 2 – £250

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The LiveShell 2 is Cerevo’s latest device (as of Dec 2015). It’s essentially the same as the original LiveShell device, but updated to use h264 and officially accepts 720p. They also advertise it as using 5G as well as 2.4G wifi. But this is simply a different supplied USB dongle that plugs in the back. It’s nothing built in, and nothing really to shout about.

Again, they’ve removed the ability to use AA batteries, instead opting for a built-in micro-USB rechargeable battery. And there’s no way to get access to it. So if it dies when you’re out in the field, that’s it. Bummer…

Other than that, it doesn’t do anything more.

There is one major flaw. The USB socket is directly next to the HDMI socket. And this means, yet again, interference. And not just audio this time.

 

I’ve tried 5 different HDMI sources and 3 different HDMI cables. All have this crackling.

Forgive my bubbling anger in the below example:

“So you’re telling me that this isn’t a problem? This is not a problem to you?”

This is what happens when you put a WiFi dongle directly next to an HDMI socket.

I wrote to Cerevo and explained the problem I was having; Video and audio break-up, green flashes and clicks, jumping video. I sent them the link to a broadcast I’d done to test. They agreed there was a technical problem and asked me to return it to them. A month later, and an £11 postal expense to me, a replacement arrived…

… with exactly the same problem.

I have found that if you move the wifi dongle away from the HDMI socket using a USB extension cable, then the issue goes away. Yet another clear indication that it’s an internal electronics problem. Signals in close proximity causing issues.

So far Cerevo have yet to acknowledge a problem with either the LiveShell Pro or the LiveShell 2. But there’s plenty of examples I can give of these issues.

  • The LiveShell was the original and perfect streaming product, though could only stream SD using a codec that went out of date rather quickly.
  • The LiveShell Pro solved the codec problem, but then Cerevo took away the replaceable AA battery option and introduced a non-standard rechargeable battery. They also somehow introduced a Line In audio noise issue.
  • The LiveShell 2 stayed on-track with the codec, upped the streaming resolution to HD and lost the Line In noise issue, but somehow became worse with an HDMI interference issue, and also completely removed the possibility of an interchangeable rechargeable battery..!

My advice is to stay away from these products. It doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of thought, logic or testing going into any Cerevo designs.

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Recreating Double Switch

Part 1 of this blog: Deconstructing Double Switch.

Part 3 of this blog: Composing Double Switch.

Part 4 of this blog: Publishing Double Switch.

Related post: Project NEMO And the Unfortunate Demise of FMV Games

This entry is documenting my sudden re-addiction to the Digital Pictures game Double Switch, and an attempt to help port it to other platforms using only the data from my original Sega CD copy. NOTE: I’m in no way capable of coding anything myself!

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The easiest part of all this so far has been the video decoding. It’s time consuming, but easy enough. Since the converted AVI videos were created with out-of-sync audio, I went down the route of saving separate files. I’ve estimated that I’ve exported probably over 50’000 PNG frames which have then been re-sequenced and a separate WAV audio file applied before being re-saved with the same file name. This file still also includes the on-screen data as captured by the SCAT video software, so every newly created file is also being run though Handbrake video software to crop off the bottom and eliminate the unwanted data, and also shrinking down the video file from a 10mb AVI to 2mb MP4.

side-by-side

Analysing the file names has led me to the following conclusions; ALEX, BAND, BAS, BRU, GRADS, LOB and STOR are obviously the individual rooms of Alex‘s room, the band room, the basement, Brutus‘s room, the Graduates room, the lobby and basement storage.

File containing EST are establishing scenes, showing a character in their room not doing anything other than distracting you, and taking you away from other rooms that require traps to be set.

EF files are Eddie giving you a “screw up again…” warning, or a Fail and game over.

HF are the Handyman giving a fail before game over.

Files starting with 1, 2 or 3 indicate the storyline as Chapter 1, Chapter 2 or Chapter 3 of the game.

Files containing a 1, 2 or 3 elsewhere denote the order of clips.

The letter “T” indicates a clip containing a Thug who can be trapped.

The letter “I” indicates an Intruder dressed in green who can be trapped.

Therefore for example, ALEXT3_SGA is a trap scene in Alex’s room with the third bad guy in a black suit.

Easy!

Four other clips are self explanatory; Digital Pictures Logo, Easter Egg, Game Over and End Credits.

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There’s a handful of things I’ve discovered along the way that I’ve had to keep an eye on. The Digital Pictures logo is 15fps, whereas everything else appears to be 12fps. This caught me out when I was trying to rebuild Image Sequences and the audio didn’t fit.

But more interesting, I noticed that any file on the Sega CD depicting the “ALEX” room is actually flopped in the game. What I mean by that is that it was shot on-set in-camera one way (and encoded and written to every disc that way), but when you actually play the game, every “ALEX” video clip is flipped the other way round. See the image below for perhaps a better representation of what I mean:

DS_flop

On the left is the SCAT video decode. On the right is the in-game footage. Curious!

It’s only the “ALEX” room that is affected. I imagine this to be something unforeseen during the shoot but when they came to the game edit, it made sense to flip the image around and make it look like the doors and windows were on the left side of the room and therefore logically it makes sense for the layout of The Edward Arms to have a room on one side, mirrored by a different room on the other. If you look closely enough you may very well spot Corey Haim holding items in his right hand in one room, but holds them in his left hand in Alex’s room. The suited bad guys have their handkerchiefs in their right breast pocket in the Alex room, but their proper  left breast pocket everywhere else. Alex’s room number is 321, as seen on the door in only THREE clips. It’s flipped in the game, but due to the degradation of the video clip you’d unlikely notice anyway.

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FUN FACT: A similar “flopping” technique was done by James Cameron in the movie Terminator 2, when the canal truck chasing John Connor crashes through the bridge wall and plummets into the canal below. Actor Robert patrick wore a reversed police uniform and sat at a mock driving rig in the passenger seat, with the real driver hidden behind black tarp in the drivers seat. When the image was flipped it looked like Patrick was driving! Eddie Furlong also wore a reversed Public Enemy t-shirt so they could flip the image in the edit and have everything look correct.

I’ve written more about Terminator 2 in this blog post: Trailer Forensics: Terminator 2.

James Cameron took this a step further when filming Titanic by building one entire side of the ship, however every piece of text was written backwards and they flopped it in the edit. I even own a reversed prop piece; Jacks 3rd Class Boarding Passes as won in the card game! But I digress…

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Another puzzle was discovered when I was putting the video clips in order to play them all  at the same time like a real CCTV system (see video at the end of the blog). Not all of the clips go in sequence. For example, Thug files numbered 1-4 followed by intruders numbered 1-4 in Alex’s room (ALEXT1, ALEXT2, ALEXT3, ALEXT4, ALEXI1, ALEXI2, ALEXI3, ALEXI4). Going through the file names whilst watching back a recorded version of the whole gameplay showed that the file names mostly appeared to be going in sequence. But there are a couple that don’t go in that order. Occasionally it’s 2, 4, 3 1. This is because there is a degree of randomisation in the game. Each time you play it bad guys appear in the same rooms at roughly the same time. but the clips that are played are random.

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So I exported every single frame and every audio clip, and recompiled every clip to make a much more manageable MP4 version. I’ll keep the first batch edits with the original encoded data on, as I suspect in the future this data will correlate to the timeline in some way and will help in reconstructing the game. Another thing of note here is that not all the clips have a corresponding timecode on the data, so it’s not always going to be dead accurate on which clip goes where.

I’m certainly no games coder. I’m a Studio Director! So in the spirit of my line of work, here’s a sneak peek of what I envisage the final conversion could look like.

My idea would be fairly simple in principle; all the cameras play out in the sequence they normally would in real time, and by clicking on a CCTV screen at the right time you flag for the trap to be triggered. If you trigger the trap, the video plays up till the diversion point whereby the ‘trap’ version plays. If you don’t click the camera, the video clip continues to play out the non-trap sequence. Too many non-trap sequences and you fail. Likewise, perhaps a double-click on a camera showing the Code Numbers to allow Eddie to escape the basement indicates you’ve registered the number and therefore don’t fail either…

Who knows. At this stage, everything is speculation. I’m just editing a fancy video!

Now obviously in the game there are 7 areas, and I’ve only included 6 screens. Due to the fact Eddie is stuck in the basement for the majority of it and we don’t really see him, I’ve made the bottom-left screen both the basement and the storage area. So far I haven’t come across two clips that should play at the same time.

I’ve also scoured YouTube for “longplay” clips showing people playing the entire game in one sitting, so I can figure out which video clips are playing at which time. For the purpose of sound (which I didn’t really play with in the above video, but obviously needs work) it may be likely that some of the clips will move backwards or forwards along the timeline so as not to have spoken words clash on different cameras. Some sound may be dipped so it’s still audible, but it not being required for the purpose of the storyline.

For now, I’m marching on ahead with converting the videos. And when I get time I’ll put together a sequence spreadsheet with all the clips in the correct order and the aforementioned divergent points.

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Part 1 of this blog: Deconstructing Double Switch.

Part 3 of this blog: Composing Double Switch.

Related post: Project NEMO And the Unfortunate Demise of FMV Games

Deconstructing Double Switch

Part 2 of this blog: Recreating Double Switch.

Part 3 of this blog: Composing Double Switch.

Part 4 of this blog: Publishing Double Switch.

Related post: Project NEMO And the Unfortunate Demise of FMV Games

Very much in the spirit of Dave Voyles blog Deconstructing Night Trap, I’ve started a similar project for Double Switch. The trials and tribulations of such an endeavour are documented here.

Please note, at this stage I’m merely decoding video clips, and personally have no coding skill whatsoever. I’m certainly no Dave Voyles!

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Sega games were my childhood. The Sega CD was my teens. I can’t tell you how many hours I must have spent playing the game Night Trap. Not only playing it but writing down the times, documenting the storyline and creating sequences for the perfect run. I was eleven years old. Without connecting too many dots, it’s easy to see why I ended up working in TV as a Director. I even work on the reality show Big Brother UK, watching 46 cameras and following the action. The image below shows a one room covered by every angle, and that’s not including the camera crews behind the 60+ two-way mirrors…

Big Brother Reality Gallery Screens

Night Trap, Sewer Shark, Double Switch and Ground Zero Texas were all I ever played. Non stop. Day after day. 23 years later that Night Trap guitar rift still gives me goose bumps. And the scene is still interested in those games. Earlier this year an almost unknown Kickstarter project started, and sadly failed by reaching only 12% of their financial goal. The original team behind Night Trap were looking for funds to port all the original 35mm footage to file and re-release the game in “HD”; Night Trap ReVamped.

I, and many others, got to the project too late. And it feels like those involved took it as a kick in the teeth, despite the love still going for such a thing to happen.

(I should mention at this stage that I collect movie props and production paperwork. I managed to get my hands on an original Digital Pictures baseball cap. And knowing that a copy of the production script and behind the scenes stills for Night Trap existed as a Kickstarter Tier absolutely breaks my heart! They exist, and I can’t get them!!)

I began to dig deeper about the potential re-release and joined the Night Trap Facebook page. This community is very much still alive and kicking, and recently a post appeared to show how Night Trap could potentially be ported and played via a website. And this got me onto the path of Deconstructing Double Switch. IMG_0028 The first thing to be done was get all the footage that’s currently available in the best resolution possible. The game was released on Sega CD, Saturn, PC and allegedly Mac (though I can’t seem to find any evidence of this!). The best footage at this stage should be the Saturn version, 15fps v the Sega CDs 12fps, but there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to access the Saturn video files. Long story short, the only way I can think to get this footage would be to emulate the Saturn and play through the game. The downside to this is that any overlays to the game would be visible, and it wouldn’t be a true copy of the digital files, nor would it be complete clips beginning to end of shot. I’d also need to play the game dozens of times to capture every clip. I’m not going ahead with screen capturing at this stage, but it may happen in the future if necessary.

However, there is a tool which can read Sega CD “.SGA” files and convert them from disc to AVI movies. Annoyingly the Saturn discs contain a similar file structure with .SGA files, but sadly the SCAT tool doesn’t read them. This could be something to do with the increased frame rate, palette or resolution. I’m yet to find an answer.

An issue with using SCAT for the Sega CD files is that the video is ultra poor quality, coming in at a resolution approximately 192 x 138 with a colour palette of only 64. This isn’t the problem of the tool itself, merely the mangled and destroyed footage created by Sega in order for the hardware of the Sega CD to decode (some of the details of which I’ve written about in this blog post: “Project NEMO and the Demise of FMV games“). The other stumbling block I’ve come across is that the SCAT tool saves the AVI files with debug info on the video.

dsegg

The debug info isn’t too much of a problem as this can be cropped off during any future conversion from AVI to MP4. But then the audio seems to slip too. I think this may be to do with frame rates? And there currently isn’t a way to adjust the AVI frame rate when the file is saved via SCAT. The only other way, which is massively inconvenient, is to export every frame separately as a PNG Image Sequence, save the WAV separately, and then re-combine the sequence at 12fps in Quicktime 7.

This is hugely time consuming and not as straight forward as I had hoped. The folder structure for the 155 video clips and all the PNG files required is mind boggling to say the least. But at present, this is what is required. Till someone comes up with a better batch-convert answer…

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Updated:

23rd July 2015 18:00 100% video files converted- 155/155 files

Part 2 of this blog: Recreating Double Switch.

Part 3 of this blog: Composing Double Switch.

Part 4 of this blog: Publishing Double Switch.

Related post: Project NEMO And the Unfortunate Demise of FMV Games

Safety Scope: Dive! Dive!

It seems that overnight Periscope became a widely used Social Media platform. It’s everywhere. Via Web or App, anyone can watch another persons Live Stream of anything they want to show. It’s the instant status update that is Twitter, but in video and audio form.

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Periscope is a way of communicating instantly with anyone by live streaming your mobile phone camera and microphone across the internet. And yes, it can be fun. Today I was a car passenger accompanying a student driving home to Astoria, I watched a guy restore his bowling ball by baking it in his oven (yes, really), and toured countless News Studios from around the world. I’ve even watched astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield give a detailed explanation on how his fridge works, complete with detailed diagrams.

But how safe is it?

As an example, I can tell you a bunch of log-in passwords for a popular US News Broadcaster because it was written on their computer monitors. I can tell you how far it is in steps from another stations Live Gallery Control Room to the Studio Floor because I’ve toured the building with them. I can tell you which doors require a security pass and which ones they wedge open. I can tell you who sits at what desk, and their job title…

Security Services around the world must be rubbing their hands with glee! But is this information unknown people should really know? Do I really need to know any of this? Should they really know any of this?

Another example is knowing where someone keeps their car keys, that they don’t lock their front door, their vehicle number plate and the street they live on. They also have good taste in technology because inside their house is a huge 3D TV, an iPad and MacBook Pro. They have two kids, no pets and no security system…

Getting the picture yet?

The irony is that a periscope is used to keep a submarine completely submerged and hidden, yet still see out to the world above. Whereas the Periscope App is doing the reverse, allowing people to go inside the submarine and study all its inner workings, whilst staying completely hidden themselves.

Without taking precautions, people are giving strangers the tools and inviting them into their offices. And their homes.

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Don’t stop using Periscope just because of a little scaremongering. If you feel the need to be a ‘Scoper, just follow these sensible precautions:

Minimise the amount of personal data you are broadcasting. If your location isn’t important, turn off the Location setting.

If you’re in a working environment, don’t give away information which could help breach Security; cyber or physical.

Don’t use Periscope if you are the driver of a moving vehicle! A distracting video screen means you are not in proper control of your vehicle. You are also likely to be breaking the law, depending on your country. It’s also morally irresponsible.

Has your boss authorised the use of Periscope in the workplace? If not, don’t do it!

Don’t give out personal and private details just because someone asks. Especially about your family.

Reduce the possibility of random strangers by streaming only to known Followers.

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Periscope is a fun way to say hello to the world. It’s immediate, it’s live and it’s addictive. But it’s only as secure as those who use it. You wouldn’t invite a group of complete strangers into your home and give them a personal tour, would you? Think about the information you are freely giving out. And if anyone asks to see your fridge, block them immediately.