Streaming MPEG-4/H.264 Files to the Xbox 360

I was excited when Microsoft added support for H.264 video (my video codec of choice due to its extremely efficient compression) to the Xbox 360 earlier this year. I eagerly fired up Windows Media Player to turn on content sharing and went to try it out, only to find that all files with an .mp4 or m4v extension did not even show up in the list of available videos. Feeling a little disappointed, I forgot about this for a while.

Then, I read an article on arstechnica which alerted me to the fact that the Zune software could also share with the 360, and it supports H.264 and MPEG-4. Feeling a little excited again, I downloaded and installed the Zune software (the installer takes an unusually long time for some reason). However, as Zune loaded up my video library, only a couple of my videos appeared. These files did, indeed, play on the 360. However, some Google searching revealed that while the 360 itself supported H.264 High Profile, the Zune software only supports H.264 Low Profile. This basically meant that only those videos which I had encoded for my iPod were appearing in the Zune library. This is not the majority of my library, since my usual intent when encoding videos is to try to preserve the quality of the original DVD while taking up the least amount of hard drive space.

For those of you not following along with all the techno-speak, the short version is that Microsoft supplies two different programs which can stream content to an Xbox 360, but neither program supports all the video formats that the 360 itself supports.

Anyway, my goal of streaming H.264 to my 360 got put back into its box again until the release of the "New Xbox Experience" (NXE) last week. NXE brings Netflix streaming to the Xbox 360, which is absolutely fantastic. Yes, the library of available videos is small, but the intersection of the set movies that I want to see and the set of available movies is not empty. Furthermore, the quality is quite good. So, from my perspective, this is a great addition to the 360 experience. Yet, having this new feature brought back the bug to get H.264 streaming working on my 360. Some furious google searching revealed some good fruit.

There is a way!!

Red Herring has created a registry patch which can coerce Windows Media Player into reading MP4 files. Red Herring's instructions which actually allow you to play H.264/MP4 files in windows media player, but I didn't even bother going that far. Simply installing his registry patch causes WMP to add your MP4 and M4V files to its library, where you can now stream them to the 360.

Discovery of this technique has also coincided with a new release of Handbrake. Handbrake is an excellent encoder for Windows/Mac/Linux that can encode to MPEG-4 and H.264. The new release has support for some fancy new psycho-visual rate reduction techniques that essentially allow the encoder to output a smaller file while preserving the same perceived video quality. After following along with some forum threads, I have discovered some settings which produce excellent quality video which can be played back on my computer, and Xbox 360, or an Apple TV.

handbrake-thumb.jpg My Handbrake settings. Click image for full-size version.

Basically, starting with the new AppleTV preset, turn off "large file size", then go to the "advanced" tab. Change "b-frames" to 3, "subpixel motion estimation" to 6, and turn on "CABAC entropy encoding". Finally, add the text ":b-adapt=2" (without the quotes). Your final options string should look like this (order of entries doesn't matter):

ref=3:mixed-refs=1:bframes=3:weightb=1:direct=auto:no-fast-pskip=1:me=umh:subq=6:analyse=all:b-adapt=2

Enjoy!

The Force Unleashed

I finished Star Wars: The Force Unleashed last week. I had a lot of fun with this game, but I was disappointed to discover that I mostly agreed with the reviews I read. This is a game that has great elements. Playing a dark Jedi means that you get to destroy basically everything in your path. And the designers wrap each level in a story which is about as good as video game storytelling gets. Unfortunately, the overall experience is diminished by a couple of annoying flaws which really should have been caught by quality control. First of all, there is the targeting system. I can't even begin to describe how annoying it is to repeatedly lose a boss fight because you are trying to grab the box right in front of you but the game keeps trying to grab the static object which is unmovable behind it. Now, this is challenging programming task to get right... and while it occasionally frustrated me, I was able to overcome the targeting problems. The more serious issue is with the Star Destroyer.

Here is a set piece which has the potential to leave the gamer screaming, "that was awesome!!!" but instead, it causes him to get increasingly frustrated, have to read several online guides after unsuccessfully trying for 30 minutes, return to his computer 15 minutes later to get some help from YouTube videos, and then he finally is able to complete it. And why did this happen? Because the little joystick images at the bottom of the screen which direct the player to the proper alignment of the Star Destroyer do not correspond with the actually game mechanics. In other words, you have to ignore what the game is telling you to do in order to beat the game. Huh? How did this ever get past the testers? (For anyone curious, the star destroyer is not properly oriented until it is rotated so that you can see the underside of the ship)

Unfortunate to see a game with so much potential get dragged down by a couple of careless problems.

Fantastic Contraption

After discovering it on a physics blog yesterday, my labmates and I have all become obsessed with a flash physics game called Fantastic Contraption.

Procrastinators may want to stay away.

Guitar Hero is selling songs

I bought Guitar Hero 3 for the Xbox 360 about a week ago (I know, I am a bit late getting on the bandwagon). I find it to be a rather fun rhythm game, less exhausting than DDR (a minus, I like the physical craziness of DDR), but also a less familiar experience (a plus). I am stuck on medium difficulty until I get more familiar with the game.

Something that surprised me, though, as I was browsing the iTunes music store's best sellers a couple days ago, was that many of the songs I had been playing in Guitar Hero were on the best sellers list. After a bit further investigation, I noticed that almost the entire song list of Guitar Hero 3 is on the 100 best sellers in the Rock genre of the iTMS.

Maybe I should not be surprised that Guitar Hero can revive interest in some great rock classics-- it is a popular game and it features some great music. However, it does suggest something else... the makers of Guitar Hero now have a good argument that they shouldn't have to pay to license songs for future Guitar Hero games, because having your song in their game will create a massive increase in demand for your music.

It also means that we have entered a time when video games are influencing music listening, and not in some minor way. Digital music sales have finally surpassed retail store sales, so when the top sellers on iTMS are from a video game, that indicates a big impact. It would be fun to see some real numbers on sales for these songs.

Nothing can ruin your day like

Nothing can ruin your day like having your file server crash at the end of a long day. This happened to me yesterday, and I have been dealing with the repercussions for a good 24 hrs, and it looks like I have another day of the same in store for me tomorrow.

Luckily, the pain has been dulled somewhat by a marvelous little flash game that I found through Wired. The game mechanics of Bloxorz are dead simple, but it is a lot of fun.

Bloxorz

The goal of the game is to fit the block into the hole, without falling off the edges of the level. Enjoy!

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