Development Update – December 2019 part 1

I took a bit of a break from writing the Development Updates. September was pretty busy with Bcc: (more on that below) and then I was completing a commission for Will’s Kitchen/The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and preparing for my solo exhibition, We Are Your Friends.

With all of that now completed I’m writing a few posts about one project in particular: Bcc:

The Bcc: exhibition opened at Vivid Projects on Friday 6th September. It was a collaboration between Vancouver-based Decoy Magazine and Birmingham-based Vivid Projects. The exhibition featured a curated selection of works from Decoy Magazine’s online art subscription service called Bcc:. The basic premise is that each month you’d get specially commissioned art in your e-mail inbox.

Bcc:

Bcc:

After being part of Bcc: in 2018 I suggested to Lauren Marsden, the Curator and Editor of Decoy Magazine, that it could possibly become an IRL exhibition at Vivid Projects. At the time I was still working there so I worked on getting most things in place to get the exhibition going. Then I left in 2019. Because of my prior involvement in Bcc: and the massive technical challenge involved in installing the work (more on that later) I was asked to produce the exhibition.

Depending on how you look at it the technical aspect of installing the exhibition could be very simple. Most of the works in Bcc: were short movies and animations/gifs, and Vivid Projects has long used the Adafruit Raspberry Pi Video Looper to handle playing videos.

Some works, however, required more attention. There were some works that were interactive websites, some that were animated gifs and some that require additional hardware. Prior to the exhibition this probably didn’t present any problems as the works were viewed by most likely one person on their personal phone or computer. The challenge comes when it’s on a shared computer in a public environment. Additionally, operating the works needs to be as hands off as possible. That is, I didnt want it to be the case that myself or another technician had to be on hand every day to go through complicated procedures to turn on all of the work. They needed to be automatic. With 17 works each needing their own computer/Raspberry Pi there was a lot to prepare. Over the next few posts I’ll take you through some of the works and their technical challenges:

Playing gifs on a raspberry pi

Of the 17 works on show in the exhibition 10 were animated gifs. To stay true to the small nature of animated gifs (don’t get me started on the concept of HD gifs) we decided to display the gifs on the Official Raspberry Pi 7″ Touchscreen Display. This proved to be a really good decision overall. It required that visitors get really close to the works and spend time with a format that can sometimes be a bit throwaway.

Bcc:

As mentioned before, for a long time Vivid Projects has used the Adafruiit Raspberry Pi Video Looper software to play videos. It works (mostly) great with the exception that it doesn’t play animated gifs. The main underlying software, omxplayer, only supports video files. Even the supplied alternative player, hello_video, also only plays video files.

Your immediate though might be to just convert the animated gifs to video files. Whilst this “works” there is always the danger that in converting a file you reduce the quality of it. For an artist like Nicolas Sassoon, who makes pixel-perfect animations that match a specific screen size, this would be unacceptable. So I went on a journey to find a way to play gifs.

The requirements for the software is that it should operate in a similar way to the Adafruit software and play a gif on loop with little or no pause between loops. It should play in the frame buffer (i.e. without needing to load the desktop) and it should make use of the GPU (helps prevent screen tearing). And for a bonus it should be able to play a series of gifs one after the other. Simple, right?

TL;DR: There isn’t a reliable way, I had to convert to a video.

Some of the solutions I saw were saying to use Imagemagick to play the gifs. This wouldn’t work as I would need to launch the desktop. Then, I’d need to script it to go full screen, centre the gif, change the background to black etc.

FBI and FIM don’t support animated gifs, although they are useful if you ever want to play a slideshow of static images.

feh is another image viewer that uses the framebuffer. However, it also doesn’t support animated gifs and, according to this response from the author, this is by design.

This suggested solution of converting to images kinda works but doesn’t take into account if each animation frame has different durations (see this GIMP tutorial for example on how to use it). With that in mind for this to work I would need to get the duration of each frame in each of the 10 gifs, separate the gifs into their individual frames, and then tell feh to play each frame for it’s specified duration. So, this method could work but it would require a lot of work!

This thread on the Raspberry Pi forum did provide a possible solution which I didn’t try but it also pointed me to FBpyGIF, which was certainly the most promising of the solutions. However, a couple of problems prevent me from using it. Still very promising though!

Finally, I tried one of the various GIF Frames that play a folder of animated gifs on loop. Sounds like it works but there’s screen tearing on some fast-moving gifs. I’m guessing this is because it doesn’t have hardware acceleration and/or because it uses Chromium to play the gifs.

Soooooo after all of this I felt a bit defeated and I decided to just convert the animated gifs to videos. I used Handbrake and noticed no loss of quality in the conversion. Even if there was, on a 7-inch screen it’d be quite hard to see. Using the Adafruit player/omxplayer I was initially having some issues with aspect ratio. Even with –aspect-mode set to fill stretch or letterbox, the videos were being stretched to fill the screen. To illustrate take the following video, which is 1024×68/4:3.


(fyi it was made using Natron and this script to add in a timecode)

When play on the screen it is stretched to fill the screen.

The Raspberry Pi touch screen has a resolution of 800 x 480, which is a 5:3 aspect ratio. Most of the videos and animated gifs were HD/16:9 so would be letterboxed by default.

So I had the bright idea of padding each video so that it was exactly 800×480.

Now, the Adafruit player/omxplayer says it can play any video which is H.264 encoded but I’ve had some troubles in the past, so whenever I’m given a video I usually convert it using Handbrake with the Fast 1080p30 preset. These settings have always worked for me but for some reason on this occasion the video was stuttering a lot! What was strange was that the original videos (the animated gifs converted to videos without resizing) played fine. Even after they were run through Handbrake. Why when they were converted to 800×480 size did they stutter?

It was two days before the exhibition opening that I remembered that some time in 2016 I had an issue with omxplayer in that it didn’t play videos if the video didn’t have an audio track. Why? I don’t know. Maybe audio was the problem in this scenario too? It was worth a try and so I decided to disbale the audio track using the -n -1 option. This doesn’t just turn the audio down, it disable encoding of it. And guess what. IT WORKED!

I have absolutely no idea why this worked or why the error ocurred in the first place. Here’s the extra arguments that I included on line 107 of video_looper.ini.

extra_args = --no-osd --audio_fifo 0.01 --video_fifo 0.01 -n -1 --aspect-mode stretch

All of that just to play animated gifs! Now that I had the code perfected copying it to all of the other Raspberry Pi’s was simple. If the aforementioned softwares had animated gif playback by default then this would’ve been solved much quicker but for now it seems the most reliable way to play animated gifs on a loop on a Raspberry Pi is to convert them to video.