This morning I found an email from LOVEFILM in my inbox saying that their service was now available on the PS3. I rushed to the living room to try it out. My verdict? Meh.

There’s two reasons for my lack of excitement about the service, and it’s not the film offerings. I have been a LOVEFILM customer for years, and have been quite happy with what I can get there.

The first reason I’m not as excited as I could be is that the video quality isn’t entirely what I expected. It looks to be par for the course for online video, that is, quite blurry on a 50″ screen, and definitely below standard definition digital TV.

The second reason I’m not that excited is because the video controls for play/pause, fast forward, rewind, etc. don’t work on my device. I’m sure that’s a glitch that’ll get fixed, but it hasn’t helped my first impressions.

Looking at both these issues in a bit more detail, I have a third reason why I’m disappointed, but admittedly that’s a bit of a pet peeve and/or technical, so people shouldn’t necessarily take this to heart: the LOVEFILM player appears to be written in flash.

How do I know? About a year and a half ago, I was still working at Joost, and one of the things my teammates and I were trying to achieve is to get the Joost player on as many platforms as possible. I’ve made it my personal mission, so to speak, to convince the powers that be that consoles are the ideal delivery platform for online video – you get the same sofa experience as for regular TV/spinning disc media, but some extra convenience in that you don’t even have to buy/rent your videos. Great stuff.

Finally, towards the beginning of 2009, that message took hold, and one of my teammates started designing the Joost flash player for the PS3, with a little bit of help from yours truly because he did not in fact own a PS3 of his own. Only he ran into a handful of problems. One of them was that it proved impossible to implement the standard video controls that every PS3 gamer would be used to from the built-in players. Flash on the PS3 apparently only offered access to the X button, and cursor buttons.1

So we opted to use X for play/pause, and left and right for forward and rewind. Turns out, that’s exactly what the LOVEFILM player offers.

Now if LOVEFILM is done in flash, then I’m not surprised by the poor video quality. For one thing flash’s networking code leaves a few things to be desired, which ends up meaning that you want to transmit lower bitrate video than flash can strictly speaking play, just so you avoid the potential for stalls and stuttering.

Second, flash is pretty CPU intensive, even with hardware acceleration for video playback (which has been a sore point on the PS3, where flash AFAIK still is less comprehensively accelerated as it could be). Again, the solution is to use lower resolution video than the hardware would be able to deal with.

Lastly, the configurations of H.264 encoding that the flash player supports are fairly modest, requiring higher bitrate for lower-quality video than is technically possible.

All of which leads to blurry video, which the LOVEFILM player seems to display. My bet, therefore, would be that it’s implemented in flash.

There’s a last factoid that supports that theory, in that Sony told us at Joost that they were working on letting third parties install apps in the XMB, and that using flash in those apps was not only an option, but the best option for video at the time. Seems that things haven’t changed much in the last year+.

All that said, for a quick video fix, this player looks like a viable option. It just doesn’t even begin to stop me from renting or buying videos.

  1. For those curious, the blog post announcing Joost on PS3 is still there, but the player doesn’t work any longer. []

  • Andy

    I read your post and quickly put LOVEFILM into Google to find out about it. I’m very interested in competition in the streaming media space. It is after all the future of video (multimedia) distribution, though many market segments and traditional media content owners may not want to admit it.

    It’s actually quite exciting that LOVEFILM is putting resources of its company into streaming media on consoles. I totally agree with you on all counts about the benefits of what I like to call “The Lounge Experience”. IPTV groups have to move away from this idea that people want to stream content to their computers. This is true for only certain segments of the spectrum of streaming media content and service types, such as short form content; news bites and music video clips are an example. Premium content though, such as feature films and TV shows are wasted if played on anything less than large screens with proper audio systems.

    This is really where the money is too, and media moguls know this. While it’s not mainstream yet, IPTV is going to take the world by storm in a few years, and it will start in those countries with an abundance of bandwidth. When you go to the IBC media conference and see the IPTV area, you see the length and breadth of research in set top box innovation. There are many big companies seriously looking for that killer setup of content + device that can go into a living room and provide the world the first truly interactive TV experience delivered online. When they do, the traditional media companies who are trying to hold back the tide will see how much money is in instant gratification and premium content delivered to your living room.

    I’ve digressed a bit here, but the argument I’m trying to make is, companies like LOVEFILM are helping mature an infant service. Of course their attempt is somewhat clunky and lacking that high end polish in the end user experience. But by the mere fact that they are trying they are setting a standard for the service that the next generation of competitors have to exceed to compete, and they advance the business model for this service forward making it cheaper for the end consumer.

    In a lot of ways I wish 5 years from now would happen tomorrow, because it will be exciting to see just what IPTV will have come up with to put in our living rooms, and quaint to look back on the technology of today and laugh at how stone age it all looks like by comparison.


    PS: I’m still waiting for a good service like this to start here in NL. I get the feeling we are far behind places like The UK and Germany for services like this.
    .-= » Andy’s last blog: =-.

    • unwesen

      Well, the main point I was trying to make is that the state of the art doesn’t seem to have advanced in the last year or so.

      I’m still quite excited about where all this will eventually lead, so must agree with the points you’re making. At the same time, it’s quite sad to note that upcoming services haven’t pushed the boundaries compared to what we were doing a while ago already. That’s my main point here…

      I’m still excited that other companies are trying to make their way in this space; it’s the results I can’t get very excited about at this point in time.

  • Andy

    I think perhaps for IPTV as a whole that would be true. For the progress on consoles though, I don’t think it’s so surprising. Consoles are much more tied to the politics of DRM and media content licensing than website only solutions. Consider that the XBOX360 is a perfect high end media player but there are virtually no streaming media content services worth speaking of because Steve Ballmer passionately loves DRM and has severely restricted every aspect of that console to the point where it is virtually useless as a media player for the masses. Then consider the rise of the Western Digital media players that have gone the opposite route where they are very open in terms of encoding formats and who they will accept streaming services from. In the short time they have been in the media player market (2 years or so), they have become one of the dominant brands.

    In the end – as we saw with Joost – the technical side of delivery of IPTV services is only a portion of the equation, and may not be the biggest portion. It’s content licensing, and the restrictions that come with that which really dictate the end consumer experience.

    But I guess if you were specifically writing about the quality of the video you were watching all this discussion is a bit out of scope :) Indeed it should be better. But then, the UK has a poorer service in general for internet connectivity than many places in the European continent, and upcoming Asian countries. Maybe it has something to do with the national obsession with drinking and smoking :)

    .-= » Andy’s last blog: =-.

    • unwesen

      Yes, I was talking about video quality — or rather, the quality of the video playing experience, which includes controls, video quality, etc.

      The rest of the discussion… well, the success of any content delivery platform is hinged on content. You can get content one of two ways, either by bringing content providers on board, or by opening up the platform and making it easy for third-party apps to deliver licensed content illegitimately (as well as niche content legitimately).

      Unfortunately, it’s hard to control whether third-party developers will choose your platform, and ultimately make it popular, while it’s not an easy but at least well-defined problem to bring content providers on board. My guess would be that’s why the majority of deliver platforms for apps or media that are popular today are highly restrictive.

      In fact, when it comes to media DRM, that’s pretty much mandated by the big content providers before they’ll give you content — making your platform restrictive is pretty much a given if you want to get in bed with them.