Breaking Eggs And Making Omelettes

Topics On Multimedia Technology and Reverse Engineering


Subtitling Sierra RBT Files

June 1st, 2016 by Multimedia Mike

This is part 2 of the adventure started in my Subtitling Sierra VMD Files post. After I completed the VMD subtitling, The Translator discovered a wealth of animation files in a format called RBT (this apparently stands for “Robot” but I think “Ribbit” format could be more fun). What are we going to do? We had come so far by solving the VMD subtitling problem for Phantasmagoria. It would be a shame if the effort ground to a halt due to this.

Fortunately, the folks behind the ScummVM project already figured out enough of the format to be able to decode the RBT files in Phantasmagoria.

In the end, I was successful in creating a completely standalone tool that can take a Robot file and a subtitle file and create a new Robot file with subtitles. The source code is here (subtitle-rbt.c). Here’s what the final result looks like:

Spanish refrigerator
“What’s in the refrigerator?” I should note at this juncture that I am not sure if this particular Robot file even has sound or dialogue since I was conducting these experiments on a computer with non-working audio.

The RBT Format
I have created a new MultimediaWiki page describing the Robot Animation format based on the ScummVM source code. I have not worked with a format quite like this before. These are paletted animations which consist of a sequence of independent frames that are designed to be overlaid on top of static background. Because of these characteristics, each frame encodes its own unique dimensions and origin coordinate within the frame. While the Phantasmagoria VMD files are usually 288×144 (which are usually double-sized for the benefit of a 640×400 Super VGA canvas), these frames are meant to be plotted on a game field that was roughly 576×288 (288×144 doublesized).
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Subtitling Sierra VMD Files

May 31st, 2016 by Multimedia Mike

I was contacted by a game translation hobbyist from Spain (henceforth known as The Translator). He had set his sights on Sierra’s 7-CD Phantasmagoria. This mammoth game was driven by a lot of FMV files and animations that have speech. These require language translation in the form of video subtitling. He’s lucky that he found possibly the one person on the whole internet who has just the right combination of skill, time, and interest to pull this off. And why would I care about helping? I guess I share a certain camaraderie with game hackers. Don’t act so surprised. You know what kind of stuff I like to work on.

The FMV format used in this game is VMD, which makes an appearance in numerous Sierra titles. FFmpeg already supports decoding this format. FFmpeg also supports subtitling video. So, ideally, all that’s necessary to support this goal is to add a muxer for the VMD format which can encode raw video and audio, which the format supports. Implement video compression as extra credit.

The pipeline that I envisioned looks like this:

VMD Subtitling Process

VMD Subtitling Process

“Trivial!” I surmised. I just never learn, do I?

The Plan
So here’s my initial pitch, outlining the work I estimated that I would need to do towards the stated goal:

  1. Create a new file muxer that produces a syntactically valid VMD file with bogus video and audio data. Make sure it works with both FFmpeg’s playback system as well as the proper Phantasmagoria engine.
  2. Create a new video encoder that essentially operates in pass-through mode while correctly building a palette.
  3. Create a new basic encoder for the video frames.

A big unknown for me was exactly how subtitle handling operates in FFmpeg. Thanks to this project, I now know. I was concerned because I was pretty sure that font rendering entails anti-aliasing which bodes poorly for keeping the palette count under 256 unique colors.

Computer Science Puzzle
When pondering how to process the palette, I was excited for the opportunity to exercise actual computer science. FFmpeg converts frames from paletted frames to full RGB frames. Then it needs to convert them back to paletted frames. I had a vague recollection of solving this problem once before when I was experimenting with a new paletted video codec. I seem to recall that I did the palette conversion in a very naive manner. I just used a static 256-element array and processed each RGB pixel of the frame, seeing if the value already occurred in the table (O(n) lookup) and adding it otherwise.
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Running Windows XP In 2016

January 1st, 2016 by Multimedia Mike

I have an interest in getting a 32-bit Windows XP machine up and running. I have a really good yet slightly dated and discarded computer that seemed like a good candidate for dedicating to this task. So the question is: Can Windows XP still be installed from scratch on a computer, activated, and used in 2016? I wasn’t quite sure since I have heard stories about how Microsoft has formally ended support for Windows XP as of the first half of 2014 and I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant.

Spoiler: It’s still possible to install and activate Windows XP as of the writing of this post. It’s also possible to download and install all the updates published up until support ended.

The Candidate Computer
This computer was assembled either in late 2008 or early 2009. It was a beast at the time.

New old Windows XP computer
Click for a larger image

It was built around the newly-released NVIDIA GTX 280 video card. The case is a Thermaltake DH-101, which is a home theater PC thing. The motherboard is an Asus P5N32-SLI Premium with a Core 2 Duo X6800 2.93 GHz CPU on board. 2 GB of RAM and a 1.5 TB hard drive are also present.

The original owner handed it off to me because their family didn’t have much use for it anymore (too many other machines in the house). Plus it was really, obnoxiously loud. The noisy culprit was the stock blue fan that came packaged with the Intel processor (seen in the photo) whining at around 65 dB. I replaced the fan and brought the noise level way down.

As for connectivity, the motherboard has dual gigabit NICs (of 2 different chipsets for some reason) and onboard wireless 802.11g. I couldn’t make the latter work and this project was taking place a significant distance from my wired network. Instead, I connected a USB 802.11ac dongle and antenna which is advertised to work in both Windows XP and Linux. It works great under Windows XP. Meanwhile, making the adapter work under Linux provided a retro-computing adventure in which I had to modify C code to make the driver work.

So, score 1 for Windows XP over Linux here.

The Simple Joy of Retro-computing
One thing you have to watch out for when you get into retro-computing is fighting the urge to rant about the good old days of computing. Most long-time computer users have a good understanding of the frustration that computers keep getting faster by orders of magnitude and yet using them somehow feels slower and slower over successive software generations.
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Things I Have Learned About Emscripten

August 31st, 2015 by Multimedia Mike

3 years ago, I released my Game Music Appreciation project, a website with a ludicrously uninspired title which allowed users a relatively frictionless method to experience a range of specialized music files related to old video games. However, the site required use of a special Chrome plugin. Ever since that initial release, my #1 most requested feature has been for a pure JavaScript version of the music player.

“Impossible!” I exclaimed. “There’s no way JS could ever run fast enough to run these CPU emulators and audio synthesizers in real time, and allow for the visualization that I demand!” Well, I’m pleased to report that I have proved me wrong. I recently quietly launched a new site with what I hope is a catchier title, meant to evoke a cloud-based retro-music-as-a-service product: Cirrus Retro. Right now, it’s basically the same as the old site, but without the wonky Chrome-specific technology.

Along the way, I’ve learned a few things about using Emscripten that I thought might be useful to share with other people who wish to embark on a similar journey. This is geared more towards someone who has a stronger low-level background (such as C/C++) vs. high-level (like JavaScript).

General Goals
Do you want to cross-compile an entire desktop application, one that relies on an extensive GUI toolkit? That might be difficult (though I believe there is a path for porting qt code directly with Emscripten). Your better wager might be to abstract out the core logic and processes of the program and then create a new web UI to access them.

Do you want to compile a game that basically just paints stuff to a 2D canvas? You’re in luck! Emscripten has a porting path for SDL. Make a version of your C/C++ software that targets SDL (generally not a tall order) and then compile that with Emscripten.

Do you just want to cross-compile some functionality that lives in a library? That’s what I’ve done with the Cirrus Retro project. For this, plan to compile the library into a JS file that exports some public functions that other, higher-level, native JS (i.e., JS written by a human and not a computer) will invoke.

Memory Levels
When porting C/C++ software to JavaScript using Emscripten, you have to think on 2 different levels. Or perhaps you need to force JavaScript into a low level C lens, especially if you want to write native JS code that will interact with Emscripten-compiled code. This often means somehow allocating chunks of memory via JS and passing them to the Emscripten-compiled functions. And you wouldn’t believe the type of gymnastics you need to execute to get native JS and Emscripten-compiled JS to cooperate.
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