Oldskooler Ramblings

the unlikely child born of the home computer wars

Posts Tagged ‘FMV’

8088 Domination Post-Mortem, Part 1

Posted by Trixter on June 19, 2014

These next few posts are a technical write-up of how I created 8088 Domination, which is a program that displays fairly decent full-motion video on a 1981 IBM PC. Before reading further, it might be worthwhile to familiarize yourself with the production itself if you haven’t seen it. Here is video of what it looks like running on a 1981 IBM PC 5150 connected to a TV via the composite output jack:

…and if you doubt the above video’s authenticity, you can download the production and run it on your own vintage hardware as proof.

I would like to apologize in advance for switching between past tense (ie. my thought process during the design phase) and present tense (when describing how to achieve certain objectives) throughout this write-up.


I’ve been fascinated by desktop digital video for decades. Starting with the first Video For Windows tools in the early 1990s, using early capture hardware (like the Media Vision Pro Movie Spectrum, which captured directly into MSV1/CRAM format), I’ve toyed with desktop video and its possibilities.

Of course, I’ve also been fascinated with demos since the early 1990s, and when you love two things that much, you find ways to mash them together. Many of my demoscene productions have had video as a part or whole of them in some way. Grind (1993) was a modplayer that displayed dancing Spring Break girls in perfect time to the music; the end-part of Explicit (1996) has dancing clubbers embedded in cubes, also dancing in perfect time to the music; and of course 8088 Corruption (2004) which displayed FMV on a 1981 IBM PC and took a chunk out of my 15 minutes.

8088 Corruption was not recognized for amazing quality video, but rather its novel solution to the problem of trying to display FMV on such a limited platform. That solution was to use 40×25 text mode, since that was the only mode represented in an amount of video memory that could be completely changed every frame without distracting artifacts or overtaxing the system.

I gave a talk in 2007 that explained 8088 Corruption in detail, and in that talk I explained that displaying FMV using CGA in graphics mode would be impossible. This is because CGA graphics mode uses 8x the amount of video memory that 8088 Corruption was handling. Even a simple calculation assuming 24fps video reveals that the amount of data needing to be updated per second (24fps * 16KB = 384KB/s) is outside of the IBM PC’s capability: CGA RAM can only be changed at a rate of 240KB/s, and most hard drives of the era operate at roughly 90KB/s. It sure felt impossible, so that’s why I said it.

Then I thought about the problem for 7 years.

Adjusting Expectations

I came to several realizations over the past few years thinking about this “impossible” problem. The most basic realization is that it isn’t always necessary to change every single pixel on the screen to show convincing FMV. If only a portion of the frame is in motion, such as in traditional animation, or a “talking heads” newscast, not every pixel is changing onscreen. But even if all pixels in a frame are changing, they might only be changing just a little bit… and if they are changing that little, the viewer might not notice if we cheat and don’t change them at all. So, we need to let go of the idea that we must change the entire screen every frame.  With the right picture content, we can get away with changing only a portion of screen memory, and it will look like we’re changing the entire screen.


Left: Black and White=differences, Grey=unchanged. Right: What the user sees after applying only the changes

Another realization was found re-evaluating what kind of bandwidth is available on the system. Previously, I was using the “40×25 text mode 2K of RAM” definition as the limit of what can be changed onscreen. But “2K of data changed” isn’t the real limitation; rather, it’s “not exceeding the time it takes to alter 2K”. In other words, the real limitation is not exceeding a specific time quantum per frame updating screen memory, no matter how much screen memory you’re changing.

This lead to a similar thought about disk I/O. In Corruption, I treated disk bandwidth as a series of fixed-length reads at a frequency of the framerate I needed to produce. As a result, Corruption uses fixed-length video+audio packets, so that (framerate * packetsize) is guaranteed to be less than the available disk bandwidth. But there’s no reason to adhere to that; the real limitation is the disk I/O itself, and I could read any amount of disk I wanted in a given time period as long as I didn’t exceed what the hardware could provide. This lead to the realization that video+audio packets could be of a variable length.

The combination of these and other ideas led to the design of a system that could fulfill the original requirement of “FMV in graphics mode”, which means we need a system that:

  • Finds differences between frames and updates screen memory with only those differences
  • Keeps track of how much time it takes to change screen memory and doesn’t exceed it
  • Keeps track of how much disk space is used and doesn’t exceed the transfer rates of the disk subsystem
  • Most importantly, degrades gracefully if we run out of CPU time or disk bandwidth before the source image is finished displaying

Because the IBM PC is not fast enough to make these decisions realtime (nor has the bandwidth to do so), all of these constraints needed to be handled during the encoding phase, when we have nearly unlimited time. That also means that most (if not all) of these constraints are really just data management problems, which I’ll get to later. But before we write even a single line of code, we need to back up a little and see how to convert 24-bit color pictures into something that doesn’t look like total crap on a CGA card.

CGA FMV Graphics Conversion

A quick primer on CGA: CGA was the first color graphics standard for the IBM PC, and contains 16KB of memory to hold screen contents. That memory can be presented as a few different graphics modes that appear different, but are actually all the same under the hood: 80 “byte columns” wide by 200 lines. Those 80 byte-columns can be sliced up a few different ways:

  • 640×200 with 2 colors (1 bit per pixel)
  • 320×200 with 4 colors (2 bits per pixel)
  • 160×200 with 16 colors (4 bits per pixel)

Let’s see what those look like in practice. Here’s a pretty hummingbird:


…and here’s that hummingbird converted to our three basic choices without any fancy processing:


160×200, 16 colors


320×200, 4 colors, palette 1

640x200, 2 colors

640×200, 2 colors


Already the graphics programmers in the audience are screaming DITHER THAT SHIT, and they would normally be correct. However, most dithers that people are familiar with are error-diffusing dithers, which means that error differences are propagated throughout the entire picture. This is not a good idea for a system that is going to be recording changes between frames, because if a single pixel changes in the source material, every single pixel in the dither algorithm’s row scanning order after the change is going to change as well. What we need is a so-called stable or localized dither, where the value of each output pixel does not depend on its neighbors. That way, when only a local area of the source material changes, only that area of the destination dither will change as well.

While there are some modified, alternate dithers that keep error propagation to a spatial minimum (ie. Riemersma dither, which dithers along a Hilbert curve), the only truly localized dithering algorithm I know of is ordered dithering, sometimes called Bayer dithering. Some of the best publicly-available research on color ordered dithering is by Bisqwit (“Yliluoma’s arbitrary-palette positional dithering algorithm“) so I won’t try to explain the concepts here; consult that instead.

Applying even a rudimentary ordered dither to our sources now shows this for our hummingbird converted to our three graphics modes:

160x200, 16 colors, ordered dither

160×200, 16 colors, ordered dither

320x200, 4 colors, palette 1, ordered dither

320×200, 4 colors, palette 1, ordered dither

640x200, 2 colors, ordered dither

640×200, 2 colors, ordered dither

Much nicer, and we don’t have to worry about the dither introducing massive differences between frames if only one pixel changes in the source.

While all three of those modes look viable in their own way, for Domination I had to make the decision to discard the middle one (320×200, 4 colors). This is because the 16-color and 2-color modes display properly via the composite output jack on the CGA card, and I knew I’d have to present at the compo with the native hardware hooked up to a projector.  So my choices were limited to 160x200x16 and 640x200x2.

Managing Ch-Ch-Changes

The very fastest way to change screen memory on the 8088 is to either copy a linear sequence of bytes using REP MOVSB, or set a linear sequence of bytes all to the same value using REP STOSB. With this in mind, I chose to keep track of each change as a starting and ending offset of changed bytes, because that was closest to the exact method I would be using to “replay” those changes. I adopted a terminology to reduce confusion throughout the source code: I coined the term “delta” to refer to an area of changed bytes, and further classified deltas into “slices” (a delta where not all bytes are the same) and “runs” (deltas where all bytes are the same). This was important because “runs” can fill screen memory extremely quickly using REP STOSB, so it was worth keeping track of them. Here is the actual data structure I used:

    startOfs:word;         {starting offset of delta in buffer (first changed byte)}
    endOfs:word;           {ending offset of delta in buffer (last changed byte)}
                           {rest are calculated during insert or other operations:}
    dtype:deltaType;       {slice or run}
    fillvalue:byte;        {for informational purposes only, not used for anything}
    blength:word;          {length of delta in bytes}
    numPixelsChanged:word; {# of pixels changed in the entire delta}
    REPcycleCost:real;     {different whether slice or run}
    frozen:boolean;        {flag used to control various optimization phases}

    Constructor Init(starto,endo:word);
    Destructor Done; virtual;

All of these deltas needed a good structure to collect and manage them, so I decided to use a Turbo Pascal 7 data structure called a TSortedCollection, which is analogous to a sorted linked list. Deltas were added to this list and maintained in sorted order using a variety of criteria in the following priority:

  1. Larger/Longer Deltas placed before smaller/shorter ones
  2. Given the same length, “runs” placed before “slices”
  3. All runs sorted by their fill value
  4. Given the same length, all deltas sorted by their interlaced start offset in memory

The sort order seems like an odd thing to mention here, doesn’t it? I’ve done so because it was a contributing factor to the success of the project, as it solved many data processing problems later on. It was so helpful that I think it’s worth going over in detail:

  1. Larger/Longer Deltas placed before smaller/shorter ones: As we process deltas from the top of the list to the bottom, the largest areas of the screen will change first until we run out of bandwidth. If we decide to completely jettison the list entirely before it is finished due to bandwidth starvation, only the smallest changes at the bottom of the list — the ones that don’t matter very much visually, as they only change a few pixels — are discarded.
  2. Given the same length, “runs” placed before “slices”: This gave priority to runs, because setting an area of screen memory with REP STOSB is both faster and smaller than trying to copy the same area with REP MOVSB.
  3. All runs sorted by their fill value: This came in handy during the encoding phase, where I was able to set a fill value once and then cache that value for subsequent runs if applicable. I would not have been able to do that if all the similar fill values weren’t right next to each other.
  4. Given the same length, all deltas sorted by their interlaced start offset in memory: This was an aesthetic choice; if I had to change an area where all deltas were exactly the same length (like a rectangular area of the screen), this allowed the changes to “paint” in somewhat linear top-to-bottom order.  This is necessary because CGA’s framebuffer is not organized in a linear fashion, but is interlaced.

For the curious, this is what the sort operator looked like:

Function TDeltas.Compare;
We want to maximize motion fidelity, so we are going to make our lives
easier and sort deltas by size.
Note that the comparisons are reversed -- that's because we want the largest
deltas at the beginning of the list.  (-1 means beginning of collection.)
- We add a second comparison so that deltas of the same length are sorted
by cycle execution time; this keeps runs prioritized over slices in terms
of what to prioritize if our bandwidth gets starved.
- We add a third comparison so that runs of the same run value
are kept together, so that we can cache the run value.
- We can optionally add a fourth comparison so that, all things being equal,
deltas are sorted by start offset compensated for CGA interlaced memory layout
(this is what I'm colloquially calling "Dave Murry interlace handling"
based on how Dave handled it in the PC booter Sierra Championship Boxing).


  if MurryHandling then begin
    {if k1so > screenRAMsize div 2 then k1so:=k1so-(screenRAMsize div 2);
    if k2so > screenRAMsize div 2 then k2so:=k2so-(screenRAMsize div 2);}
    k1so:=k1so AND $1fff;
    k2so:=k2so AND $1fff;
  {sort by delta length}
  if PDelta(Key1)^.blength > PDelta(Key2)^.blength
    then Compare := -1
    else if PDelta(Key1)^.blength < PDelta(Key2)^.blength
      then Compare := 1
      {sort runs at a higher priority than slices}
      else if PDelta(Key1)^.REPcycleCost  PDelta(Key2)^.REPcycleCost
          then Compare := 1
          {sort runs by fill value}
          else if PDelta(Key1)^.fillvalue > PDelta(Key2)^.fillvalue
            then Compare := -1
            else if PDelta(Key1)^.fillvalue < PDelta(Key2)^.fillvalue
              then Compare := 1
              {sort deltas by start offset}
              else if k1so  k2so
                  then Compare := 1
                  else Compare := 0;

With the data structures finalized, encoding one video frame’s worth of changes becomes a simple matter of doing the following:

  1. Scan the preexisting frame and new source image for differences, and insert each found difference into the delta list data structure
  2. Determine the amount of CPU time and disk bandwidth we have available to paint our changes (a “byte pool” and a “cycle pool”)
  3. For every delta in the list, starting with the first and iterating to the last:
    1. Estimate the cycle and byte cost to paint this delta
    2. If our cycle or byte pools won’t be exhausted by these costs, encode the delta to disk and then remove it from the list, then updated the pools
    3. If one of the pools will be exhausted, skip this delta and move to the next one, which will likely be smaller or faster (or both) and have a better chance of not exhausting a pool
  4. If we empty the list, we’re done with the frame
  5. If we reach the end of the list, we are out of “time” for this frame and need to either:
    1. Spend the next frame going through the list again to finish up so that the existing source image has a chance to fully display, or:
    2. Throw away whatever is left and start working on a new source image

That’s pretty much it. When I release the source in a few weeks, you’ll see that the code implements the above logic very closely. However, there’s one very important detail that I haven’t explained yet, and it’s critical to playback performance: What does “encode the delta to disk” mean exactly, and how do we play an encoded delta back to screen memory as quickly as possible? Head on over to the conclusion of  our thrilling tale, where I’ll explain how I came up with a unique solution to that problem.

Posted in Demoscene, Digital Video, Programming, Vintage Computing | Tagged: , | 48 Comments »