Monday, December 29, 2008

Aliasing on the PS3

I talked about the various video resolutions the Sony PlayStation 3 is capable of generating in PlayStation 3 Video Resolutions. I got several comments from posters who complained that certain PS3 games give them problems, video-wise. One of the problems appears to be that of "aliasing." The game Resistance 2 in particular was singled out, though my research indicates that many other PS3 games are affected.

In general, aliasing in digital video causes areas of the moving picture to shimmer or flicker. The affected areas are those with the most fine-grained video detail.

If you stop the motion and look at a still frame of the video, the shimmering will stop, but you will see a spurious pattern overlaying the fine detail in the image. This often called a moiré pattern. As you step from one still frame to the next, the moiré pattern will writhe. Played at normal speed, the writhing becomes a shimmering.

You can think of any still or moving image as being made up of various visual frequencies. The frequencies, which can be represented as sine waves, are overlaid or superimposed atop one another so as to make up a recognizable image. The finer the detail in any portion of the image, the more prevalent the higher frequencies are in that portion of the image.

But digital video doesn't understand continuous sine waves. It chops the image up into pixels. The pixel grid is 1920 x 1080 pixels for 1080i/p, 1280 x 720 for 720p, and 720 x 480 for 480i/p.

The crux of the aliasing problem has to do with the fact that the pixel grid, however coarse or fine, imposes a limit on the highest visual frequency that can be accurately rendered by that grid. Since a pair of adjacent pixels can be thought of as being able to (crudely) represent the positive and negative swings of one complete cycle of a sine wave, the highest frequency that can be represented without aliasing is one that is just less than one-half the pixel-grid frequency (which is a square-wave frequency, rather than a sine-wave frequency).

If the square-wave frequency puts 1920 pixels across the screen, then fewer than 1920 ÷ 2 = 960 sine wave cycles can be accurately represented in the horizontal direction. A similar logic applies to the vertical dimension, or to visual information that uses both dimensions at once.

This is all a fancy way of saying that for any given video resolution there is a maximum visual frequency that can be represented, if aliasing is to be avoided.

Think of using a digital camcorder to make a video of a picket fence as you ride by it in your car. If you are zoomed in on the fence, the visual frequency of the pickets as they move by is relatively low, and you will get no aliasing. But if you gradually zoom out, at some point you will start to see aliasing. This is the point at which the visual frequency of the moving pickets climbs to half that of the pixel grid of the camcorder. Any frequency above that threshold will produce aliasing.

The aliasing potential in digital video is compounded whenever digital video is re-rendered or scaled.

If the video's native resolution is, say, 720p, and it is scaled to 1080p, aliasing can creep in. After all, each 720p frame is itself an image with various frequencies of visual information in it. Among those frequencies are those representing the square-wave 720p pixel grid itself. The square-wave frequency of the 1080p pixel grid is less than twice that of the 720p grid. So, unless some sort of anti-aliasing technique is used, simply scaling up from 720p to 1080p may introduce aliasing.

By similar logic, scaling up from 480i/p to 780p can introduce aliasing.

Video scalers accordingly use sophisticated digital filters to offset the potential for aliasing. Video scaling takes place in the PS3 when a game that is nominally in 720p is output at 1080p. Grid is such a game.

If the PS3 is set up to output Grid at its native 720p into a native-1080p TV, the TV itself will scale the video up to 1080p. (This is what I do.) In this example, the user has the option to let the PS3 or the TV do the upscaling. Possibly, one of the two choices as to which device does the upscaling will introduce less aliasing than the other.

Another possibility is that aliasing can be reduced or eliminated by telling the 1080p TV to use a one-for-one pixel mapping for 1080p input. My New Samsung LN52A650 TV has a picture-size setting called "Just Scan" that does this. Ordinarily, the 16:9 setting for HDMI input on this TV enlarges the picture slightly so that its edges lie outside the frame of the screen; this is called "overscan." It is done because some TV broadcasts have visual "garbage" at the edges of the picture, particularly at the top edge. Overscan hides the garbage.

Hiding the picture's edges requires re-scaling the picture slightly, which can in theory introduce aliasing. If your TV has a way to defeat overscan and your PS3 games evidence aliasing, you might try defeating the overscan ("just scanning") as a way to reduce or eliminate aliasing.

But I gather that most PS3 game aliasing problems lie deeper than this. For example, a post in this GameSpot forum thread reads:

All sony exlcusives offer AA the problem comes with ports. Since ports are done from 360 to ps3 the developers do whatever they can to have similar looking games with decent performance meaning they put all their "hard" work ito the 360 versions and port it over and take out certain details such as AA in order to maintain decent performance. But yes ps3 does offer AA look at Racvthet and clank Uncharted Resistance Heavenly Sword Ninja Gaiden. The only game with aliasing problems that i know of thats sony exclusive is GT5.

My interpretation is that AA ("anti-aliasing") is being done for some PS3 games and not for others. Most or all of the games written (usually by Sony) for the PS3 are "anti-aliased" such that the PS3 can scale them to any of its supported output resolutions without aliasing creeping in. On the other hand, games that are written for other game consoles such as the Xbox 360 and then ported to the PS3 are not necessarily "anti-aliased."

I gather that the Xbox does not internally scale game video. (I don't really know this; anyone who knows more should feel free to correct me.) If the game is 720p, it is output at 720p.

The PS3's games can scale to higher resolutions than they were written for. I think, but don't really know, that this is something the game itself chooses to take advantage of, or not. For instance, I believe Grid does not scale itself from its native 720p to 1080p.

I believe — but again, I don't really know — that this game-internal upscaling capability may be separate from the PS3's usual method of upscaling video.

Whether or not the upscaling is game-internal or done externally to the game by the PS3, it seems that some PS3 ports from Xbox 360 and other platforms introduce aliasing during upscaling. The forum poster I quoted seems to think that there could have been "anti-aliasing" included in the game ports, but, due to the negative effects of anti-aliasing on game performance, there wasn't.

I am going to investigate this subject further and post about what I learn. For now, those who are irritated by aliasing in their PS3 games should be aware that it may be the unavoidable result of how the games were ported to the PS3. There may be nothing "wrong" that they can fix by using different settings on the PS3 or the TV.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

PlayStation 3 Video Resolutions

As I've been reporting recently in this PlayStation 3 series of posts, I have a new PS3 80GB that I am getting a lot of enjoyment out of. In My New Sony PlayStation 3, Part II (Installation and Setup) I talked about how I went about installing and setting up the PS3 to work with my new TV. But I glossed over the complex topic of how the PS3, in combination with the TV, chooses its video resolutions.

The PS3's list of video output resolutions includes, in ascending order of quality:
  • Standard (NTSC) — i.e., 480i
  • 480p
  • 720p
  • 1080i
  • 1080p

The first,
"Standard (NTSC)," is 480i. It's not available with an HDMI connection, which is the connection type I am using between my PS3 and My New Samsung LN52A650 TV, a brand new 52-inch 1080p flat-panel LCD HDTV. All five resolutions are available if you use a component video connection that carries three separate video signals (Y, Pb, Pr). If you are stuck with using either an S-video connection or an ordinary composite video connection, only 480i is available.

What These Resolutions Mean

The numbers 480, 720, and 1080 give the number of scan lines or pixel rows in each video frame — the more the better.

The "i" or "p" gives the type of scanning. The "i" suffix is for "interlaced scanning," while "p" is for "progressive scanning." In interlaced scanning, each video frame is divided into two fields, with just the odd-numbered pixel rows (rows 1, 3, 5, 7 etc.) in the first field that is sent across the connecting cable, and then just the even-numbered rows (rows 2, 4, 6, 8 etc.) in the second field. In progressive scanning, all pixel rows are sent at once, in their normal order. Progressive scanning is preferable. Interlaced scanning can cause picture flicker.

Each resolution offers a maximum number of pixels in each row. For 480i and 480p, which are standard-definition formats, it's often 720 pixels per row, but it can be 704, 640, or lower. Only when the number of pixels per 480i/480p row is 640 are the pixels square — assuming, that is, that they're destined for a screen with a 4:3 aspect ratio. The other 480i/480p pixels-per-line counts involve pixels that are not square on a 4:3 screen. (480i and 480p expect a 4:3 screen; stretched to fit a 16:9 screen, the pixels are never square. There would have to be fully 853 pixels per line to make them square.)

720p, 1080i, and 1080p are high-definition formats. For 720p, the pixels-per-line figure is 1,280. For 1080i and 1080p, it's 1,920. In all HD cases, the pixels are square. All HD resolutions are intended for a screen with a 16:9 aspect ratio.

1080p video, accordingly, might be fully specified as "1920 x 1080p" video. 1920 x 1080p video is sometimes called "Full HD." A Full HD television yields the best possible high-definition picture. I am using the expanded designation "1920 x 1080p" here in this post to show what "1080p" actually implies, but on the PS3's setup and menu screens you'll just see "1080p."

What we are talking about here are "content pixels," not "screen pixels": the number of pixels the PS3 will put in the content it sends to the TV. Actual TV screens may have a different number of pixels per row than the content from the PS3 that is being displayed on them. Some 1080p HDTVs have fewer than 1,920 pixels per row. They are not "Full HD." If they receive 1920 x 1080p content from the PS3, they will sacrifice resolution in the horizontal direction.

Frame and Field Rates

In addition to the various video resolutions, there are several possible frame rates (or, for interlaced scanning, field rates). 480i video usually has a field rate of 60 fields per second (though the rate is typically adjusted to 59.94 fields per second for broadcast purposes). 1080i also typically has 60 fields per second. (Notice that 60 fields per second is equivalent to 30 frames per second, as long as it is understood that the frames are being scanned using interlaced scanning. Again, progressive scanning does not use fields.)

720p video typically has 60 frames, not fields, per second.

1080p video is not used for broadcast purposes; only 1080i and 720p are true HDTV broadcast standards. On Blu-ray discs, 1080p video can be recorded, often with a frame rate of 24 fps — the same as motion-picture film.

Actually, I have found that on the limited number of Blu-ray discs I have had a chance to play so far, all of them being movie titles, the main movie is always recorded in 1080p/24, meaning that it uses
1920 x 1080 video, scanned progressively, at 24 frames per second. Bonus materials such as making-of documentaries and deleted footage typically use a lower resolution and/or a different frame/field rate.

What Resolution Is Actually Used by the PS3?

The answer to this question depends in part on whether the PS3 is playing a Blu-ray disc (BD), playing a DVD, or generating video in real time from a video game. Game video is the simplest to discuss. BD/DVD video adds extra wrinkles.

For video being generated in real time by a PS3 game, the PS3 will try to match the resolution and frame/field rate of the video-as-generated with a resolution and rate which it believes the TV can actually use.

The first step in this matching process comes during the initial setup of the PS3 — see My New Sony PlayStation 3, Part II (Installation and Setup). This part of the initial setup can be redone at any time by navigating to Settings —> Display Settings —> Video Output Settings from the home menu of the PS3 (see this discussion in the online PS3 User Guide).

You begin the process by designating which type of video connection you are using: HDMI (my type), component, S-Video, or composite. If you choose S-Video or composite video, you are restricted to using 480i output, period. If you choose component video, you can allow any or all of the five output resolutions listed above; you have to manually choose which ones to allow. If you choose HDMI, you can allow any and all output format(s) except 480i, and you can automatically or manually choose which ones to allow.

If you are configuring an HDMI connection automatically, the PS3 in effect asks the TV which formats it can use. It will internally put checkmarks by those the TV can use. If you are configuring HDMI video manually instead (or if you are configuring a component-video connection), then you will put check marks by the video resolutions you want the PS3 to allow as output. Your best bet is to check all those which you know your TV can use.

How do the Checkmarks Work?

Take, for example, the auto racing game Grid. It generates 720p output. My TV accepts 720p input, so my initial PS3 setup put a checkmark by 720p. When I play Grid, the Info button on my TV's remote brings up an overlay on the screen showing "1280 x 720 @ 60Hz." That means that the PS3 is using 720p video output, with 1,280 pixels per line, at 60 frames per second.

What Happens When the Program Source Doesn't Match a Checkmarked Output Format?

If I manually disable 720p video output from the PS3, Grid video has to be downconverted to the next lower resolution that is checkmarked. This is 480p, so the Info overlay on my TV screen shows "720 x 480 @ 60Hz." The PS3 output is 480p (otherwise I would see "720 x 480i @ 60Hz"). It has 720 pixels per line, and its frame rate is 60 fps.

Because of option settings I'm using on the PS3 and the TV, the picture actually looks about the same. It is not squeezed into a 4:3 box, but remains at the original widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio.

For HDMI connections, the 480p resolution cannot have its checkmark removed; the PS3 won't allow it. Otherwise, if you unchecked 720p, there would be no lower resolution to downconvert to.

What About Blu-ray Discs and DVDs?

Here's where we get into some confusing wrinkles.

First, DVDs. They contain 720 x 480i video at 60 interlaced fields per second. If you don't turn on BD/DVD "upscaling" (I'll discuss that in a minute) the PS3 will, or so I assume, output that 480i video as-is over any video connection but HDMI.

HDMI doesn't permit 480i output, so the PS3 "deinterlaces" 480i for HDMI to turn it into 480p. My TV's Info overlay shows "720 x 480 @ 60Hz."

If you have either HDMI or a composite video connection, you can turn on "BD/DVD upscaling." You do this by navigating to Settings —> Video Settings —> BD/DVD Upscaler and setting it to Normal. (Or, if it's already on, you can eliminate upscaling by turning it Off. You can also experiment with the Double Scale and Full Screen settings.)

The Normal setting causes the PS3 to upscale the 720 x 480i/60 video on the DVD to your highest checkmarked resolution (in my case, progressively scanned 1920 x 1080 @ 60Hz).

As for Blu-ray discs (BDs), the PS3 will likewise upscale all BD content to your highest checkmarked resolution, if necessary — as long as BD/DVD Upscaler is set to Normal. The output will use a 60 Hz frame (or field) rate.

If BD/DVD Upscaler is set to Off, no upscaling from BDs will occur.

But there is a third consideration, and it overrides all the others. If you navigate to Settings —> Video Settings —> BD 1080p 24 Hz Output (HDMI) and turn it On, the PS3 will detect 1080p BD video that was recorded at 24 Hz and output it directly at a resolution of 1080p 24 Hz (i.e., it will not be converted to a frame rate of 60 Hz).

This is so only for an HDMI connection; it does not work for the other types of connection. You should do it only when you know your TV can accept 1080p 24 Hz input. (If you are not sure whether your TV can handle 24 Hz 1080p input, set this option to Automatic; the PS3 will use 24 Hz output only if it determines the TV can handle it.)

If BD 1080p 24 Hz Output (HDMI) is On, it takes effect even if BD/DVD Upscaler is set to Off, and even if you do not have 1080p checkmarked in your list of available resolutions! If your TV cannot actually use 1080p 24 Hz input over HDMI, you should set this option to Automatic or Off.

But you want to use 1920 x 1080 24 Hz input whenever you can. This is because 24 fps is the frame rate of film, and whenever a movie is transferred to BD, it will be recorded at 1080p 24 Hz. If the PS3 has to convert it to 60 Hz, video quality can suffer, since 60 is not a multiple of 24. You may see unpleasant artifacts or extra judder in the picture that would never show up with direct 1080p 24 Hz output.

Good Deal on Sony PlayStation 3 (Update)

I talked about the $150 rebate you can get on a Sony PlayStation 3 in Good Deal on Sony PlayStation 3 and again in Getting My PlayStation 3 $150 Rebate. Now I'd like to try to clear up some of the confusion the rebate offer (and my coverage of it) has generated.

You qualify for the $150 rebate on either a PS3 80GB or a PS3 160GB if you:

  • apply for a new Sony PlayStation Card (which is a VISA card from Chase Bank) before 12/31/08
  • using the card, buy a PS3 from an authorized Sony retailer by 03/07/2009

Some of the confusion came from the fact that more than one entry point to the rebate offer exists. I have concentrated on two particular entry points in my posts; there may be others. One of these entry points (click here) is for the Sony Rewards website. I'll refer to that website as SR. The other (click here) is for the SonyStyle website. I'll refer to that one as SS. I'll talk more about the SS entry point later on.

The SR entry point is unique in that from it you can "apply now" for the PlayStation Card, and, if you get instant credit approval, return to the offer and click on "redeem now." That will take you to the SR site, where you can use your new card to buy a PS3 and get the $150 rebate right away. To use the new card (which you haven't yet received in the mail) you must print out the confirmation page you got upon receiving approval online, or at least write down the account number, expiration date, and CVV2 code of the card. With this information, you will be allowed by the SR site to buy a PS3 on the new card right away, and the $150 rebate is (supposedly) applied immediately to your purchase.

If you don't "redeem now," I gather you can "redeem later" by going back to the original SR entry point and belatedly clicking "redeem now." As long as you have the card account number, expiration date, and CVV2 code, you should be good to go.

I ran into a problem because I didn't "redeem now," nor did I retain the crucial info that would allow me to do so later. Days later, when the new card came in the mail, I went back to the SR site and bought my PS3 on that card. That by itself did not allow the $150 rebate to be applied immediately.

Instead, I had to wait about two weeks more for an e-mail to show up in my inbox which told me how to obtain the rebate. You can click here to see a similar set of instructions. I'll reproduce them here:

To claim your $150 rebate:

1. Register your new PlayStation Card at

2. Complete the Rebate Form, under Your Account

-- Rebate Name must include ‘PS-PS3 $150 Rebate’

3. Submit Rebate Form online

4. Print out and mail the completed Rebate Form with copy of your PS3 sales receipt to the address as indicated within 60 days from date of purchase

You can learn more about these instructions and dealing with the actual Rebate Form in Getting My PlayStation 3 $150 Rebate. When I posted that entry, I was going under the assumption that the same instructions/form might be used by anyone taking advantage of the rebate. But, no. You have to — (a) buy the PS3 — (b) at the SR site — (c) using the new PlayStation Card — to go this route.

As for the other entry point, the SS site, it does not offer a "redeem now" option, just an "apply now" link. That offer's fine print says:

PlayStation Card is issued by Chase Bank USA, NA, and is subject to credit approval. To qualify for this offer, you must apply for your new PlayStation Card by 12/31/08. In some instances an application may require additional processing, in which case instant approval will be unavailable. To qualify for the $150 card credit, you MUST purchase a PLAYSTATION 3 system with your new PlayStation Card ("PS3 Purchase") at an authorized Sony retailer such as Sony Style store and Complete instructions will be sent upon your approval for the PlayStation Card via email. To receive card credit, your account must be opened by 01/31/2009 and PS3 Purchase must be made by 03/07/2009. Card credit will be posted to your PlayStation Card Statement within 8-12 weeks after PS3 Purchase. This promotional offer is available to new PlayStation Card accounts only and only one $150 card credit may be earned per PlayStation Card account. Existing PlayStation Card account holders or accounts are not eligible.

So you have until 12/31/08 to apply. You don't have to get approval by that date. If you "require additional processing" before approval is granted, and then get approved after 12/31/08, you're fine. Just create an account at prior to 1/31/09 and use your new card to buy a PS3 on that account at that site by 3/7/09. Need more information? "Complete instructions will be sent upon your approval for the PlayStation Card via email."

Notice that the same logic applies if you fail to get instant credit approval when you use the SR entry point. If approval and the card itself don't arrive until 2009, you can still get the rebate. You can do this at the SR site, as my own experience attests, or you can do it at the SS site.

A few more words to the wise:

  • Unless you go the instant "redeem now" route at the SR site, your rebate will be delayed until after the credit card bill comes due for the PS3 purchase itself. If you pay off that bill in timely fashion, the $150 rebate will offset future purchases on the PlayStation card, not the PS3 purchase per se.
  • Using either the SR site or the SS site to buy the PS3 will incur shipping/handling charges above and beyond the nominal price of the PS3.
  • If you have to wait until after your PS3 arrives before the instructions for the rebate show up in your e-mail, be aware that the Rebate Form you eventually fill out will probably want you to enter the 12-digit Universal Product Code (UPC) printed by the scanner bar code shown on the PS3 box. If you throw out the box, write down the UPC code. I failed to do that, so I had to "borrow" the UPC code shown on this web page: 711719801306. I later visited my local Best Buy and saw UPC 711719801504 on PS3 80GB boxes there. I don't know why there are multiple UPC codes, and I don't know whether failure to use the "right" UPC code will bollix up the rebate.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

My New Sony PlayStation 3, Part II (Installation and Setup)

As I said in My New Sony PlayStation 3, Part I, the Sony PlayStation 3 is a games machine and a Blu-ray player. I got it mostly for the latter. And, as I mentioned in Good Deal on Sony PlayStation 3, through the end of December 2008 you can get a $150 rebate on a PS3 by getting a Sony PlayStation VISA card with which you then buy the PS3.

I did that, and though actually getting the rebate turned out to be a bit harder than I had hoped, it looks like it's finally on its way (see Getting My PlayStation 3 $150 Rebate). Meanwhile, I'm really enjoying the advantages of Blu-ray high-def video when played by the PS3 through an HDMI cable into My New Samsung LN52A650 TV.

Installing my new PS3 was not hard. It replaced an existing DVD player, so as a preliminary step I removed that player and (strictly for aesthetic reasons) replaced the 6-ft.-plus HDMI cables I was originally using for it and my other video components with longer (10-ft.) HDMI cables. The shorter cables I originally used posed a problem because they were too short to sag down behind some furniture and hide themselves. Also, I was using a now-obsolete DVI to HDMI cable for the DVD player, along with a separate left-right stereo audio cable. HDMI carries audio as well as video, so it does not need a separate audio cable.

Yes, an HDMI connection is really the way to go with the PS3, but of course there are other options the PS3 offers for those whose TV lacks HDMI. You can use the PS3's AV MULTI OUT connector and:

Optionally, if you don't want to use an analog audio connection, you can hook an optical-digital audio cable between the PS3 and your TV or AV receiver, as long as the TV or receiver supports it.

You have to supply the cable(s) yourself, unless you're using the supplied AV MULTI OUT-to-composite video and stereo audio cable, which (as does S-Video) limits you to 480i video output resolution.

I don't have an AV receiver yet for the entertainment center I've built around the new Samsung HDTV in my living room, so I didn't need to include a receiver in my PS3 cabling scheme. If I did have an up-to-date, HDMI 1.3-capable AV receiver, I would have run one HDMI cable from the PS3 to the receiver to deliver the audio and video signal, and a second HDMI cable from the receiver to the TV to pass along just the video.

My PS3 is sitting in a horizontal position, à la a DVD player, but I could have chosen to stand it vertically on one of its sides. In the horizontal position it presents a minor problem, in that its top surface is humped, so you can't stack other equipment on it. Luckily, I already had a custom-made acrylic riser from JMK Displays that I could set the PS3 beneath, with a TiVo HD unit on top of the riser.

Making the physical connection was a snap. I just hooked my HDMI cable to the TV and to the PS3. That was it!

At this point, if I had wanted to connect my PS3 to the Internet using a wired Ethernet connection, I would have plugged the Ethernet cable into the back of the PS3. Actually, I am using a wireless network, so that wasn't necessary.

Next I connected the PS3's power cable from the back of the PS3 to an electrical outlet (actually, to one of those on-the-wall outlet extenders that do basically what a power strip would do). Then I toggled the master on/off switch on the back of the PS3 to its "on" position. That put the PS3 in standby mode, with a red LED lit on its front. To get it out of standby mode, I pressed the 1/0 power button on the right side of the front of the system. The red LED turned green, and the system was fully on. (Another way to turn the system on is to press the PS button in the center of the controller.)

It was time to perform the initial setup process of the PS3. For that, I would need to activate the controller that came with the system.

The PS3 comes with a handheld DUALSHOCK 3 wireless controller, an improvement on Sony's earlier SIXAXIS controller, that is ideal for game play, but it is not very easy to use as a remote control for playing Blu-ray videos. (No remote comes with the PS3; you'll have to buy that separately. Sony offers this Bluetooth-compatible remote for $25.)

The Bluetooth-capable controller is usually used wirelessly, but when you install the PS3, you'll at first have to use the included USB cable to connect the controller to the PS3's USB 2.0 port (one of two on the front of the console). That automatically "pairs" (registers) the controller with the PS3 as its controller #1 (there can be up to seven controllers in use at any one time, I believe) and begins charging it (it doesn't have replaceable batteries).

So, again, you need to connect and "pair" your supplied controller right away, as soon as you hook up the PS3. One reason you need to do that is so that you can use the controller's buttons to interact with the PS3 during its initial onscreen setup process. This setup process consists of a series of steps that (a) utilize the TV's screen and (b) require some sort of input from you. It is in this way that the PS3 asks you various questions about how you want your unit's setup to proceed.

To repeat: in order to interact with the onscreen setup options, you'll be using the controller, and it will be (temporarily) plugged into the PS3 console via the supplied USB cable. This turned out to be a bit awkward for me: short cable, bad seating position with respect to a too-close screen. Also, since I had only a passing familiarity with using game-console controllers, I had a hard time figuring out what buttons to use for what. I was able to determine that I could use either the left of the controller's two "control stick" knobs or the array of four buttons on the left side of the controller (for up, down, left, right) to "move around" on the screen and choose from various options displayed there.

The currently selected option is always highlighted on the screen. To confirm a highlighted selection, you use the X ("Enter") button in the group of four on the right side of the controller. To back out of a selection or a whole screen before confirming it, or to cancel a pending selection, you use the O ("Back"/"Cancel") button.

When the setup process begins, you will first be asked what language the PS3 should communicate with you in. I chose English.

Next, you will be asked about which type of video connector you are using for your PS3-to-TV connection, and which video output resolutions to use. I cover this topic in PlayStation 3 Video Resolutions. In my particular case, I specified an HDMI connection and told the PS3 to automatically choose which video output formats to support.

Automatic choosing of output formats is, I believe, possible only when you are using an HDMI connection, as I am, and it applies as well to the automatic choosing at setup time of the audio output format(s) the PS3 is going to use. In my case, it looks as if the PS3 and my TV mutually agreed on converting whatever the selected audio track on a Blu-ray disc is — say, DTS-HD Master Audio at up to 7.1 channels — into Linear PCM 2.0-channel sound (since the TV is limited to reproducing lowly stereo sound).

As I said before, if for some reason you don't want the automatically chosen video and/or audio format, you can elect at setup time to manually specify the format(s) you want. You may in fact (I don't know) have to do this if you aren't using an HDMI connection. Until and unless you specify a better format, though, the PS3 will default to a format that is guaranteed to be usable.

For video, for example, this means defaulting to a standard-def, 480i video signal. When the setup process begins, this is what you'll see on the TV screen. As soon as you tell the PS3 at setup time to switch to using an HD video output signal, you'll then see the result come up right away on the TV screen, which is nice. (Of course, you have the right to stick with the SD signal during setup, and then switch to HD later on, by going into the PS3's Video Options menu and making the change.)

Another thing that must be decided at setup time is what aspect ratio ("TV screen size") your TV has. If you have automatically or manually determined the TV will always be given high-def input — 720p, 1080i, or 1080p — the widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio will be automatically chosen. But if you are using either 480p or "Standard (NTSC)" video output from the PS3 — the latter means 480i, by the way — you are given a chance to choose between 16:9 and 4:3.

All the above sounds terribly complicated, but I found the actual setup process to be quick and smooth ... because I am using HDMI, I just told the PS3 to work everything out with the TV and don't bother me with the details!

Once the initial setup is done, you'll get your first taste of the PS3's "home menu" on the TV screen. This "home menu" amounts to the "main screen" of the PS3's "XrossMediaBar" (or "XMB") menu system. It displays several categories across the screen. You navigate to a category using the controller, and once you do the items for that category will be seen stacked vertically around the chosen category, forming a cross.

If you navigate to the Settings category you can access all sorts of settings for your PS3, including revising the video and audio output settings chosen during initial setup. To revise the audio output settings, navigate to Settings —> Sound Settings, then press X on the controller to bring up Audio Output Settings.

To revise the video output formats, navigate to Settings —> Display Settings. Selecting that by pressing X on the controller gives you access to a list of possible settings, including Video Output Settings. Selecting that option lets you re-specify connector type, re-choose the video output formats you want to use, etc.

To find out more about not only how to use the Settings category but also how to use the PS3 in general, you'll want to visit the online PS3 User's Guide. The Settings category is documented specifically here. To see an index of all the topics covered in the guide, click here.

You can get on the Internet and look at the online User's Guide right from the PS3, right on your TV screen!

But before you do that you need to (a) set up your network settings for either a wired (Ethernet) connection or a wireless connection, and then (b) use the network to download and install the latest update to the PS3 system software, assuming your PS3 is like mine was and does not come with the latest update.

I'm assuming you have a broadband (DSL or cable modem) connection to the Internet already in place and connected to your home network. Also, if you are using an Ethernet cable from the PS3 to (say) a router on your (wired) home network, I assume it was plugged in earlier in the installation process. For Ethernet networking, just navigate to Settings —> Network Settings —> Internet Connection Settings in the PS3 home menu, select "Easy," and press the Right button on the controller (or move the left control stick rightward). The PS3 will figure out all the proper settings to get on the Internet.

If you have a wireless home network, as I do, your DSL or cable modem connects via an Ethernet cable to a wireless access point or router (mine is an Apple AirPort Extreme base station). The PS3 will be set up to "talk to" that access point/router wirelessly. This time, after you navigate to Settings —> Network Settings —> Internet Connection Settings in the home menu and select "Easy," you will select "Wireless" on the next screen that comes up, then "Scan" on the next. That brings up a list of wireless networks that your PS3 can "see." You select the network you want to use. Then you configure the usual wireless network security settings: password, encryption key, etc.

Now you can get on the Internet. For ordinary browsing, navigate to Network —> Internet Browser in the home menu. To see the User's Guide, go to Network —> Online Instruction Manuals and proceed from there.

Before you do that, though, you'd better use your Internet connection to download and install the latest PS3 system software. Go to and select Settings —> System Update —> Update via Internet in the PS3's menu system. The latest software will immediately begin downloading. An onscreen progress bar will keep you informed as to the status of the operation. Once the software is downloaded, it will immediately be installed, after which your PS3 system will automatically restart with the new software in place.

Now that you have the latest software, you are all set to look at the online User's Guide, which applies to that level of the software. However, if for some reason you do not have the latest software, you can choose to access the (earlier) User's Guide version that applies to it.

There is still one more thing you'll probably want to do during the installation of your PS3: if you have bought the optional Bluetooth-compatible remote to make it easier to work with Blu-ray discs, you'll need to register this so-called "BD remote control" with the PS3.

Once you have put the supplied pair of AA batteries in the remote, you turn on the PS3 (if it's not already on), navigate to Settings —> Accessory Settings —> Register Bluetooth Device, and press the X button. Next, select the "Register BD Remote Control" option. (Remember, you are doing this using the controller; the remote does not yet function.) Then follow the onscreen instructions, which tell you to press the Start and Enter buttons on the remote simultaneously, until the screen changes. Once the screen changes, the remote is registered and its buttons start to function.

It took me three attempts to get this to work. I have no idea why.

Another thing you'll probably want to do at this point is create a "User" identity for yourself. See this page in the online User's Guide.

The process involves navigating to Users —> Create New User in the home menu, then entering a user name. Once you do that, then while that user name is selected onscreen, you can press the Options button (the one with the triangle on it) to bring up a menu on the right side of the screen. The only item in this menu, Information, can be selected (press X), then press X again to "edit" the user. Editing consists of scrolling up or down through a list of icons to select the one you want to be used to represent the user (you) onscreen. (If you have photos stored on the PS3, you can make one of them your icon.)

Oh, and one more thing. How do you turn the PS3 off? You can press the 1/0 power button on the front of the system for about two seconds, until you hear a beep. But that's clumsy when you're several feet away from the console with a controller (or remote) in your hand. In that case, first you back out of whatever it is you're doing, usually by using the O button and then confirming that you want to stop play or whatever. Once you are back at the home menu, you select Users —> Turn Off System and confirm that you want the system turned off.

That's pretty clumsy too. It gets easier once you realize that the Users category is all the way at the left end of the cross, and then Turn Off System is all the way up. That means you can navigate to it with your eyes closed: left control stick hard left, then hard up.

Still, it would be nice if Sony would make pressing the PS button on the controller/remote turn the system off. Actually, though the printed Quick Reference Guide and the online User's Guide fail to mention this, if you press the PS button on the controller or remote for two seconds, then no matter what the system is doing, the PS3 asks you via the TV screen whether you want to turn off the system, or turn off the remote. If you select the former, it asks for confirmation that you do indeed want to turn off the system. If you give that confirmation, the system turns off!

Yes, it's still pretty clumsy. The reason it has to be clumsy is that powering the system off too readily can sometimes be done inappropriately, causing data loss or corruption or outright damage to the system. If you have to wade through a number of power-off selection/confirmation steps, it's unlikely you'll do any damage.

You'll notice that I have yet to talk about actually using the PS3 to do anything like actually watch a Blu-ray disc or play a PS3 game. Those topics will be covered starting in Part III of this series.

My New Sony PlayStation 3, Part I

The Sony PlayStation 3 is a games machine and a Blu-ray player. I got it mostly for the latter purpose. I mentioned in Good Deal on Sony PlayStation 3 that I've bought a PlayStation 3 in hopes that I would be getting it for its normal price of $399.99 minus a $150 credit for getting a Sony PlayStation VISA card. I have run into problems actually securing the credit, but I do have the PS3, and I love it!

The PS3's nominal $400 price tag is a bit high, just for a Blu-ray player — but if my $150 credit comes through, my total outlay will be just a reasonable $250, plus shipping. For that amount, the buyer (me) gets what amounts to pretty much a state-of-the-art Blu-ray machine ... and a game player, too!

For those who have been living under a rock recently, Blu-ray is the videodisc format that is heir-presumptive to the DVD. Where a standard-definition DVD looks pretty darn good on an HDTV, a Blu-ray disc, or BD, is high-definition and looks superb. To play BDs, you need a Blu-ray player. It will also play DVDs just like a DVD player does, so your DVDs will never be orphans.

BD-Videos (commercially recorded BDs that physically look like DVDs, but aren't) can record movies and other fare in 1920 x 1080p high-definition. Movies use a frame rate of 24 frames per second, just as they do on film. My New Samsung LN52A650 TV, a 52-inch flat panel LCD HDTV, accepts 1920 x 1080p/24 input from the PlayStation over an HDMI cable, as will many current HDTV models on the market today. That means its 1920 x 1080p display screen is being fed, pixel for pixel, with exactly what's on the disc.

In other words, each pixel in the TV's array of 1,080 rows of 1,920 pixels per row has a different pixel to display every 1/24 second. Each screen pixel is equivalent to a tiny picture detail. You can't get better spatial resolution than that! Moreover, from movies shot at 24 fps you get every frame as is without the compromises inherent in conforming the video signal to a "normal" television rate of 60 fps.

Today, virtually any currently sold model of Blu-ray player, when combined with just about any current model of 1080p HDTV, and connected to it by HDMI, can do the same thing. This stunning video capability, even if it is head and shoulders above high-def broadcast TV, is nothing unique to either my PS3 or my Samsung TV. (It is unique, however, to the Blu-ray disc.)

Where the PS3 really excels, though,
is in its support for BD-Live.

BD-Live is also known as BD-Video Profile 2.0, and not all current Blu-ray players support it. Many earlier players still on the market today support only Profile 1.1 — a.k.a. "Bonus View" — which is not BD-Live — and some very early Blu-ray players supported only the "Grace Period" profile, Profile 1.0.

BD-Live, if also supported by the particular disc you are playing on the PS3 or some other BD-Live capable Blu-ray player, allows richer interactive content, linked to over the Internet — assuming you do as I did and point your PS3 to a wireless (or Ethernet-based, wired) network in your home.

That's right: if your Blu-ray player is like the PS3 and supports BD-Live Profile 2.0, and if the disc you are playing also supports it, you can in effect hop on the Internet from your Blu-ray player and do things like play additional bonus material like director's commentaries. There are various types of interactive content unlike anything on DVD. Among the types of special BD-Live content that I have found with the BD of Disney's WALL-E, the first BD-Video I looked at, are chat rooms and interactive games based on the movie.

In the future, all new Blu-ray players and all newly released BD titles are expected to offer BD-Live. You should not — repeat, should not — buy a player today that does not support BD-Live, a.k.a. Profile 2.0. Remember: if you fail to heed this advice, you may wind up with a player that is already obsolescent.

People who bought any of the early PS3 models that were sold before BD-Live appeared on the market are the exception to the obsolescence rule. The PS3 has always been firmware-upgradable, and firmware upgrades (the current level is 2.50) have given it, among numerous other crucial improvements, BD-Live capability.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Getting My PlayStation 3 $150 Rebate

I wrote in Good Deal on Sony PlayStation 3 about my purchase of a Sony PlayStation 3 80GB Blu-ray player-cum-games machine. The general idea was that obtaining a new "PlayStation Card" VISA card from Sony brought with it the benefit of a $150 rebate on the purchase of a new PlayStation 3 80GB or 160GB before the end of 2008.

One online offer to this effect is available here, and I'd say it's the best place for you to head for if you want to buy a PS3, because in addition to showing an "apply now" link for the credit card, it also has an instant "redeem now" link. You use "redeem now" after filling out the online "apply now" application for the card (which comes from Chase Bank) and getting, hopefully, instant approval. Once that is done, you write down your new card's account number, expiration date, and CVV2 code — or you just print out a copy of your application confirmation. Then you return to the offer page and click the "redeem now" button to order your PS3 system from the Sony Rewards website right away and "save $150 instantly."

Notice that going this route locks you into doing business with Sony Rewards, and not with (say) online, or a local store such as Best Buy. Sony Rewards (or any online store) will charge you shipping ... but the local outlet will charge you sales tax. You can buy the PS3 from any authorized dealer, online or local, and take advantage of the $150 rebate ... if you obtain a PlayStation Card and use it to buy the PS3.

But therein lies a tale.

I completely missed the opportunity to "redeem now" from Sony Rewards for some reason — ozone in the know zone I suppose. Upon being accepted for the card, I figured (wrongly) that I had to wait until I got my new card in the mail to redeem the rebate offer. Later on that same day, or possibly the next, I discovered my error and tried to retrace my steps and activate the "redeem now" at that time ... with no success. I had failed to write down the card number, expiration date, and CVV2 code of my PlayStation Card, and I could not retrieve them. Hence I was unable to place an order.

Once I did have the card in hand about a week later, I activated it with a phone call and then went right to the Sony Rewards site to place my PS3 order, using the new card. That went fine, but it ended up charging the card with the full $399.99 MSRP, plus shipping. (OK, I got a tiny reduction because a few "reward points" were awarded to me for opening a Sony Rewards account at that time.) But there was no "save $150 instantly" involved.

Well, I thought, maybe instructions as to how to get the rebate will show up in my e-mail inbox, in the order confirmation from Sony Rewards? No such luck. Maybe wait a day or two for instructions to arrive? No. Maybe they will magically appear in my inbox after the order actually ships? Uh uh.

I then used the "Contact" form at the Sony Rewards site to ask for clarification and was told (after a two-day wait for a response) to call 1-866-556-SONY (7669), as the problem I had was not one that could be dealt with via e-mail (!).

Calling the toll-free number, I was told to wait a week and then expect written instructions to arive via e-mail ... so I waited, and when the rebate instructions failed to materialize, I called the toll-free number again. I was then told I would get a phone call from a Rewards Administrator within two days. That was two days ago, and still no phone call ... but never mind. The desired set of instructions finally appeared in my e-mail inbox this morning!

The instructions came from the Sony Rewards site, but they seem to be applicable to any qualifying PS3 purchase from any authorized Sony retailer, not just the Sony Rewards store. You can click here to see a similar set of instructions. I reproduce them here:

To claim your $150 rebate:

1. Register your new PlayStation Card at

2. Complete the Rebate Form, under Your Account

-- Rebate Name must include ‘PS-PS3 $150 Rebate’

3. Submit Rebate Form online

4. Print out and mail the completed Rebate Form with copy of your PS3 sales receipt to the address as indicated within 60 days from date of purchase

You'll have to establish an account at Sony Rewards to do this. You can buy the PS3 elsewhere, but to get a rebate through Sony Rewards, you'll need to open an account for which you then register your PlayStation Card. Then, when you are logged in to the Sony Rewards website, you navigate to "Your Account" and click on "Rebate Form." What you should see is a form to fill out online. (This form should give "C8D8-C8D2-PS-PS3 $150 Rebate -Nov08" as the "Rebate Name." Make sure it does.) On it you will see, already filled in, such data as your first and last name, your street address, and your e-mail address. You will then fill in manually:

  • your PS3 purchase date
  • the name of the retailer (mine was "Sony Rewards")
  • the city and state of the store location (mine was "Park Ridge, NJ")
  • the total purchase amount (mine was $399.99)
  • the credit card number (mine was already filled in with all XXXX's except the last four digits)
  • the model number (I put "PlayStation 3 80GB")
  • the product price (I put $399.99 again)
  • the UPC (see below)

The UPC???

It's the 12-digit Universal Product Code associated with the scanner bar code shown on the PS3 box.

Only problem was, in my case I threw out the box. I had no idea what the UPC was. So I went to this web page where the UPC for a Sony PlayStation3 80GB is shown as 711719801306. That's what I used to fill in the UPC field on the rebate form.

When I clicked "Continue," the completed form appeared in condensed form in an overlay over the original form on my screen in my web browser. I clicked "Submit and Print" on the overlay and the form was simultaneously submitted online and printed on my computer printer.

But I still wasn't done. I had to mail the printed version of the form (now called a "Mail-in Rebate Document," by the way) along with a printout of my online order confirmation (in lieu of a copy of the hardcopy sales receipt a Best Buy would provide), to:

Sony Rewards Redemption Center
1 Sony Drive MD-2F4
Park Ridge, NJ 07656

Now, I've done all that. I just have to wait "8-12 weeks" for the $150 rebate to be credited to my PlayStation Card account.

Notice the gotcha here. Unless you are smarter than I was and use the instant "redeem now" link at the very outset to "save $150 instantly," the rebate (once it is credited) sits in your PlayStation Card account until you use the card again to buy at least $150 worth of stuff. My hope was to use the new card for just this one transaction, since I like to use another VISA card I have for all my credit purchases. Now I'll have to break out the new PlayStation card at least one more time, in order to take advantage of the $150 rebate.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Good Deal on Sony PlayStation 3

Q.: The Sony PlayStation 3 (left) is:

1. A video game console that also plays Blu-ray discs and DVDs
2. A Blu-ray/DVD player that also plays video games
3. Both of the above

A.: 3. Both of the above (Yes, it was a trick question!)

This CNet review says the PlayStation 3 is about the best Blu-ray player around. The new Panasonic DMP-BD35 gives it a close run for its money and, at its roughly $250 street price, may nominally be the better value, if you have little interest in games. The PS3 with 80 GB of storage usually costs $150 more, at $399.99 MSRP.

But wait! Sony is offering this deal on a new PlayStation VISA credit card. Sign up for the card between now and the end of 2008 and you can use it to buy an 80 GB PS3 for $399, after which you will receive a $150 credit on the card! The net cost of the PS3/80: "as low as $249.99."

Update: OK, I pulled the trigger and applied for the PlayStation VISA card today. Got instant approval ... but I missed a trick at that point and failed to note my new card's account number and the CVV2 number. Had I done that, I could have immediately gone to this page at the Sony Rewards website and bought my PS3 without waiting to actually receive the VISA card in the mail. The VISA account number and magic CVV2 code that lets you use the card online were apparently given on the confirmation page that came up after I submitted my application and it was approved, according to this blog entry about the PS3 offer.

However, I didn't catch on to that fact. I closed the browser tab instead. Now I can't retrieve the vital information, no matter how creative I get with my browser's history window.

That means I'll just have to wait until I get the card in the mail.

If you want to do it the right way and not my way, you can click here to see a version of the offer that lets you (a) apply for the card first, then (b) redeem the offer immediately, as soon as approval has been granted. Just remember to note your VISA account and CVV2 numbers.

BTW, if you don't redeem the offer right away, and/or for some reason you don't want to buy your PS3 from the Sony Rewards site, you supposedly can use your new card to buy it at any authorized
PlayStation dealer, and the $150 credit will just show up on your PlayStation VISA billing statement. OK, fine, but I'm not exactly sure how, if you buy it at (say), the credit card people know you bought specifically a PS3 and should get the $150 credit. I plan to use the Sony Rewards site and sidestep any doubt in the matter, so I may never know.

Update #2: I just discovered that the PS3 doesn't come with a true remote to control Blu-ray play! You can use the game controller, but it's awkward.

This is from the CNet review:

Our only real complaint with the PS3's movie playback is the remote control issue. Accessing Blu-ray and DVD menus with the PS3 controller is functional, yet a bit awkward. Unfortunately, you won't be able to program a standard universal remote to control your PS3 as it lacks an infrared port. Thus, it needs to receive commands via Bluetooth. Not coincidentally, Sony offers a Bluetooth compatible remote for $25. Other options have surfaced to combat this issue, such as the Nyko Blu-Wave Infrared Remote and the USBIRX3 from

I've just ordered the Sony remote from Amazon for $20. (BTW, the Bluetooth approach of the PS3 beats the usual Blu-ray player's infrared-type remote in that Bluetooth does not need to a clear line of sight to the PS3.)

Update #3: I received the Sony PlayStation VISA card in the mail today, activated it, and ordered my PlayStation 3 80GB at the Sony Rewards website. This involved becoming a member of the website, which allows you to buy Sony stuff for reward points. Each reward point is worth a cent, so my $399.99 PS3 cost 39,999 points, minus the 50 points I got for joining, which came to 39,949 points. The shipping on the PS3 cost 3401 points, or $34.01, so the total for the transaction was 43,350 points. I had to buy the points, and so $433.50 was charged to my PlayStation VISA. I expect to get a $150 credit on the VISA account for the PS3 promotional discount. My final bill should be $283.50.

Update #4: Above I mentioned that I had failed to exercise the "redeem now" option on the Sony PlayStation card offer ... because the offer I was looking at was similar to this one, and did not include a "redeem now" option. I now find that purchasing the PlayStation 3 on my new card at the Sony Rewards website is not enough, all by itself, to trigger the $150 credit/rebate automatically. Today I have called 1-877-865-SONY (7669), the Sony Rewards contact number, and am now waiting for a callback "within two business days" from someone who can help me.

It boggles the mind, trying to explain why my use of my brand new Sony PlayStation card to purchase a PlayStation 3 at the Sony Rewards website did not automatically result in a $150 credit or rebate on the purchase, but that's what happened!

Apparently, the "Complete instructions [for the $150 card credit] will be sent upon your approval for the PlayStation Card via email" fine print on some of these offers is not true. I have received the card itself, but no email instructions as to how to obtain the $150 credit.

Update #5: I have finally received the instructions for how to get the $150 rebate. See Getting My PlayStation 3 $150 Rebate for details.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

TiVo MRV — Use a Second Wrapper?

Recently, in TiVo Multi-Room Viewing (Yet Again) and earlier TiVo Multi-Room Viewing entries to this blog I indicated my disappointment that my second TiVo DVR can't share recordings with my first TiVo if the recordings are copy-protected. I suggested that digital watermarking might be used on TiVo video recordings to enable tracking of the account from which a recorded program has been copied from one TiVo to another using Multi-Room Viewing (MRV).

I now have come to believe watermarking isn't the answer. I'll go into what the answer to the problem of using MRV on copy-protected material later in this entry. First, more about why watermarking isn't such a good idea.

In the following sample of a graphic image that has been given a watermark ...

... the identity of the image's creator has indelibly become part of the visible image. I suggested that something like this could be done with the video images associated with a TiVo recording when the recording is copied (a) to another TiVo using MRV, or (b) to a computer using TiVoToGo (TTG). The watermark could represent the 10-digit Media Access Key (MAK) of the recording TiVo(s) on a local home network, or else it could contain the user name on the TiVo account associated with the MAK.

After posting my last entry on the subject, I began to worry about whether a watermarking scheme to protect MRV is even feasible, so I started rummaging about in Google to see if watermarking has ever been seriously proposed for TiVo recordings.

It seems that the answer is only a highly qualified yes. In 2005, TiVo Inc. issued this press release indicating it would be using watermarking for TiVoToGo:

To discourage abuse or unlawful use of this feature, TiVo intends to employ "watermark" technologies on programs transferred to a portable device using the TiVoToGo feature that would enable tracking of the account from which a transferred program originated.

In other words, the "low-cost software [that users need to purchase] to facilitate the [TiVoToGo] transfer of content from the PC to ... portable devices" such as an iPod supposedly will watermark the transferred and reformatted content. For example on a Mac, Roxio's Toast Titanium software transfers a TiVo recording from the TiVo to the Mac, optionally decrypts it — since it is received in encrypted form — plays it on the Mac, makes a standard DVD of it, and/or converts it to a format compatible with an iPod.

I have made iPod-compatible copies of TiVo recordings in this way. I can't confirm that they're actually watermarked. They're certainly not visibly watermarked ... but watermarking can also be done invisibly.

Even if watermarking of TiVoToGo conversions is being done invisibly, it seemingly is not really what I'm looking for. The problem I've been fretting about with watermarking MRV transfers, as opposed to TTG conversions, is that in the latter the MPEG-2 video in the TiVo recording has to be decoded and then re-encoded in MPEG-4/h.264 format for (say) an iPod. The watermarking can be done rather easily between the decoding step and the re-encoding step.

But with MRV there is no decode/re-encode process. (Nor is there in TTG, prior to the actual format conversion which is the optional final step.) Instead, the intact MPEG-2 program stream as recorded on the TiVo, complete with the "wrapper" that the recording TiVo has added to the stream in order to encrypt it and keep it from being used in the absence of a TiVo-authorized decryption algorithm, is copied to the receiving TiVo as is. There is no convenient opportunity to watermark the video, visibly or invisibly.

So, if watermarking is out, what is in?

Watermarking is out, I repeat, due to the need to burrow down to an inner level of the information in the MPEG-2 program stream — the digitally encoded video information itself — decode it, add a watermark to it, and re-encode it. Such a process is difficult and time-consuming, and decoding and re-encoding lossy MPEG-2 video compression sacrifices quality.

If the burrowing-watermarking approach is a non-starter, then perhaps the right way to approach the MRV problem would be to add something to the very outer level of the MPEG stream.

Keep in mind that a TiVo already encases each MPEG-2 program stream that it records in a "wrapper" which in effect encrypts the stream. Unless the playback software or hardware knows the Media Access Key (MAK) of the recording TiVo and knows precisely how that MAK can be used to decrypt the stream, thereby removing the wrapper, playback is impossible.

Still, for better or for worse, that particular TiVo encryption/decryption algorithm has been hacked. Software known as tivodecode is available which can decrypt a .TiVo file that TiVoToGo has transferred to a computer from a TiVo DVR. This software is independent of the official software used with TiVoToGo, such that an average computer user can learn to decode any .TiVo file he has by providing the recording MAK as a parameter to tivodecode. Once the .TiVo file is decrypted, it can be used in any number of ways — including reformatting it to MPEG-4/h.264 for an iPod, with no watermarking whatever!

That means that authorized MRV copying of copy-protected programs needs an extra, better, layer of protection.

I envision it working something like this: when TiVo B wants to receive an MRV copy of a copy-protected program that has been recorded on TiVo A, B uses a secure network connection to send A an encryption key. This key is one which B has made up at random; it is not the MAK which is shared by the two TiVos.

The ad hoc encryption key would be generated by B, the requesting TiVo, at the time the MRV request is initiated. In fact, it could be (based on) a number representing the precise time and date, down to the millisecond or nanosecond, that the MRV request occurs.

The ad hoc encryption key would be transmitted by the receiving TiVo B to the sending TiVo A using something like a "secure socket layer," a type of safeguard against digital eavesdropping that is familiar to all those sending credit card numbers across the Internet.

Once it received the ad hoc encryption key from TiVo B, TiVo A would use it to add a second "wrapper" around the requested program stream, in addition to the wrapper already being used that depends on the MAK. This second wrapper would represent an additional layer of encryption. Only TiVo B, the receiving TiVo which has requested the MRV copy and which has provided the ad hoc key, could remove the second wrapper and play the copy in the customary way.

This strategy of using a second wrapper would apply only to Multi-Room Viewing, not to TiVoToGo. TTG would still not be able to transfer copy-protected programs. Only MRV would be able to do that.

The general idea here would be that the only real threat to digital rights management posed by TiVo MRV has to do with eavesdropping. If two TiVos, using nothing but approved methods, send copies of copy-protected programs between themselves on a home network in a way that is completely secure from eavesdropping, there is presumably no possibility of illicit activity.

An assumption here is accordingly that the elaborate new authentication protocol that, I am suggesting, ought to be used for MRV would make the process unhackable — that is, the MRV "handshake" between two authorized TiVos (including, but not limited to, the secure transmission of the ad hoc key) could never be faked by a computer hacker programming his computer to pretend to be "TiVo B," the requesting TiVo. Hence, the only way the hacker could get access to the copy-protected MPEG stream being transmitted on the network would be by "listening in" to its MRV transmission, while it is in progress. But that would only get him an encrypted program stream that he lacks the ad hoc key to decrypt.

Monday, November 17, 2008

TiVo Multi-Room Viewing (Yet Again)

Recently, in TiVo Multi-Room Viewing (Again), I indicated my disappointment that my new (second) TiVo DVR can't share recordings with my first TiVo if the recordings are copy-protected.

I have a home wireless network. Both of my TiVos are nodes on it (in addition to my two Mac computers, a cable modem, and assorted Apple TV and AirPort networking devices). After a TiVo makes a recording, in theory that recording can be copied via the network to the other TiVo, in what the folks at TiVo Inc. call "multi-room viewing" or MRV. The only problem is, an awful lot of the programs are copy-protected: their digital bitstreams contain a flag bit that says, "This program can be copied once, i.e., only for a single generation. The copy cannot then itself be copied."

Owing to how TiVo Inc. has chosen to comply with an agreement it has entered into with CableLabs, a consortium representing the cable TV industry and, indirectly, the providers of copyright-protected programming to cable channels, that flag bit is in fact honored by not letting a copy-protected program participate in MRV.

Note that no programs on channels that are broadcast locally over the air and then carried on cable are copy-protected in this way, only many (but not all) programs on cable-only channels.

If a copy-protected program on the first TiVo could be viewed on a second TiVo, then the way that would happen is this: it would be copied to the second TiVo. Thenceforth, it could be watched on the second TiVo ... or the original could still be watched on the first TiVo.

But, no. TiVo Inc. chooses instead to not allow MRV copying of "copy once" originals. As far as I can tell, the main reason is the fear on the part of the cable industry and program copyright holders that the original bitstream could be intercepted and have its copy protection stripped while a legitimate copy is being made across the home computer network.

In theory, at least, TiVo Inc. could go to CableLabs and ask for special approval of a (presently unspecified) scrambling or encryption method that, if used by TiVo DVRs for MRV, would nullify the piracy threat. However, the granting of said approval is not something that has happened ... yet.

The present way of doing MRV ties the original version of a copy-protected program to a specific device: the actual TiVo DVR that made the recording. A non-copy protected recording is, on the other hand, tied to a specific home network, not a specific device on that network. I believe any "fix" for the present inability to share copy-protected programs among multiple TiVos on a single home network would need to make such programs network-specific rather than device-specific.

I believe it was the original intent of TiVo Inc. to do exactly this, but the CableLabs agreement got in the way.

TiVo Inc. apparently intended to base MRV authorization on the TiVo's Media Access Key (MAK). The MAK is a unique 10-digit number that identifies every TiVo. It can be brought up on a TiVo's associated TV screen by means of the Messages and Settings menu hierarchy of the TiVo. Once you know what your TiVo's MAK is, you can (for instance) enter it into TiVo Desktop/TiVo Transfer software on your computer to enable TiVoToGo.

TiVoToGo is the ability to copy (again, non-copy protected) recordings from a TiVo to a computer. Once the copies are on the computer, they can be viewed and/or decrypted, then converted to other video formats such as for use on an iPod.

The decryption of a computer file with a .TiVo extension, once it has been copied from a TiVo DVR to the computer via TiVoToGo, requires that you enter the MAK of the originating TiVo into the computer software doing the decrypting. (That is, the MAK needs to be specified both to copy the recording and to decrypt it. The latter may be done by the same software as the former. If it is not, the MAK has to be specified to both.)

Details of the TiVo encryption-decryption system are hard to come by. Apparently, the TiVo DVR takes the "MPEG-2 program stream" which contains the TV show's video and audio information, as recorded in digital form, and it puts some kind of digital "wrapper" around it. For the original video and audio to be played, the wrapper must first be removed. This is something that cannot be done properly unless the software knows the MAK used by the originating TiVo DVR at the time the wrapper was created — at the time the show was recorded by that DVR, that is.

When a recording is copied from its original TiVo to a computer or to a second TiVo, the wrapper comes along with it. The resulting copy of the original recording cannot be played unless it can be unwrapped first — which can't happen unless the computer or second TiVo knows the MAK.

As I found out when I added a second TiVo to my home network, all TiVos on the same home network share the same MAK! (A TiVo on a different home network, though, has a different MAK.) Clearly, if the MAK is the basis for unobstructed MRV'ing of material on a local home network, all TiVos on the same home net should be able to participate in unobstructed MRV sharing of copy-protected material, in particular. TiVos not on the same network, since they do not share the same MAK, couldn't share the recordings. Neither could computer software applications that have not been supplied with the original MAK.

I suggest as a possible solution to the current MRV impasse that the MAK might be used as a digital "watermark" which the recording TiVo (or any other compliant DVR) visibly embeds in the video of a recording that is being shared via MRV.

Below is a sample of a watermarked image:

In the simplest implementation, "watermarking" would indelibly stamp the copied video recording with the identity (MAK) of its source DVR, which, as I have said, is actually the MAK of the home network. Any DVR with the same MAK (because it is on the same network) could compensate for the watermark and effectively "erase" it from the video as it is being legitimately played back. Watermark "erasure" would be done for legitimate playback only. The watermark would remain a part of the original recording and all copies made of it. Moreover, if a third-generation copy were made from a legitimate second-generation copy, it too would bear the watermark. No matter how many generations of copies were made, every generation's copies would duly inherit the watermark.

In a more elaborate implementation of the watermark strategy, instead of using the actual MAK as the watermark, the watermark could be an encrypted version of the MAK that could be matched for purposes of "erasure" during playback only by using that same encryption key (or a closely related one) to manipulate the supposedly identical MAK which is known to the playback device or application. More on that possibility later.

Or, instead of using the (encrypted or not) MAK as the watermark, the recording TiVo could use the user name on the account to which the TiVo belongs. Because every TiVo on the home network has access, via the network, to the TiVo Inc. database, it could (based on the MAK) fetch the same user name when doing MRV playback of a copy-protected recording. The retrieved user name, instead of the MAK itself, could be used as the basis of "erasing" the watermark for playback.

In any implementation of MRV watermarking, the MAK would be crucial in three ways. First, the MAK would need to be specified by the receiving TiVo to the recording TiVo in order for the latter to gain access to the recording TiVo's Now Playing list. Second, the MAK would be required for the receiving TiVo to be able to "unwrap" the copied recording. Third, the MAK would be required for the receiving TiVo to know how to "erase" the video watermark at playback time.

Similarly, if the destination device were a computer and not another TiVo, the same three mandatory uses of the MAK would apply. All legitimate uses of a watermarked TiVo recording would be MAK-dependent in three interlocking ways.

If a watermarked video recording were intercepted and diverted in an act of piracy, all protocol-compliant computer software, or any protocol-compliant home-entertainment hardware such as a TiVo or another DVR, could simply refuse to play it if that software or hardware were not privy to the same MAK. Alternatively, protocol-compliant software or hardware could go ahead and play it in the assurance that the watermark would show up on screen and effectively ruin the playback.

Non-compliant software/hardware might also play it ... but the watermark would be constructed such that only protocol-compliant software/hardware, on the same network with the recording DVR and therefore privy to the same MAK, could successfully "erase" it during playback. Non-compliant software or hardware accordingly would be able to play the video only in a "ruined," visibly degraded way, owing to the presence of the uncompensated visible watermark.

In the scheme I propose, the watermark, which would show up on a TV or computer screen that was trying to play an unauthorized copy of an original recording, would be in some way based on the MAK of the recording DVR. The MAK uniquely identifies the TiVo account of the owner of the recording TiVo, whose responsibility it is to see that his personal recordings don't show up in someone else's hands. As a legitimate TiVo user wanting to avoid the consequences of having "my" recordings show up in "your" (illicit) hands — I might face de-authorization of my TiVo account, or worse — it would accordingly behoove me to make sure my home network was secure against piracy.

In a worst-case scenario, a video pirate might supply a customer with (a) a watermarked video recording derived from someone's TiVo, along with (b) playback software or hardware that is capable of "erasing" the watermark during playback, but only if given (c) the MAK used to watermark the recording.

That scenario could be averted by encrypting the watermark, as suggested earlier. That is, instead of having the watermark be the MAK itself, it could be an encrypted version of the MAK that would be matched for purposes of "erasure" during playback only by using that same secret key (or a closely related one) to manipulate the original MAK and "erase" the watermark. Our pirate (or his customer) would thus have to know the actual MAK of the recording TiVo, not just the encrypted version thereof which shows up as the watermark. He would also have to know the key used to encrypt the MAK for purposes of creating and "erasing" the watermark.

Such an encrypting key might at some point be discovered by the piracy community and compromised. Because TiVos are regularly updated from TiVo Central by means of an Internet connection or phone line, the encrypting key in question could be changed any time it was compromised. If that happened, MRV copies made with the old key would no longer work.

That is, unfortunately, unavoidable. Occasionally, blameless users would be irked to find a legitimate copy they made only yesterday no longer works today. But that's far better than the current situation, in which legitimate users can never make MRV copies of copy-protected TiVo recordings.

Note also that if the MAK-based watermark were encrypted, casual users who stumble across a pirated video online would be unable to learn the MAK of the source TiVo — which is a good thing. Yet TiVo Inc. or any other authorized watchdog, being privy to the original encryption key, would be easily able to identify exactly whose TiVo the pirated copy originated from.

I realize that the ideas I'm broaching herein are sketchy and provisional. They need to be vetted to make sure they are reasonably watertight. The various interlocking concerns who are involved in this issue do have a right to protect their programming against piracy. No one who says otherwise is going to win that argument.

Still, the key word in that preceding paragraph is "reasonably." It is generally recognized that dedicated pirates will find a way around any copy-protection system, given enough time. The aim is to make it very, very hard for them to do so, since making it absolutely impossible is impossible.

That said, any sketchy proposal such as this one needs fleshing out and thorough vetting by all concerned who would be betting their "family jewels" on the success of the methodology. Such fleshing out and vetting ought to be done in the context of developing a full industry-standard protocol for MRV and "to go" usage of copy-protected recordings made by home DVRs and potentially used by other DVRs/hardware devices/computer applications.

It is the present absence of such a multi-industry protocol and accord which is really to blame for my not being able to MRV my copy-protected recordings of TNT's "The Closer."