vReveal is a new application from upstart MotionDSP that aims to help consumers fix problems affecting their digital video. The software is designed to be easy to use even for computer novices and aims to improve the quality of video captured by mobile phones and cheap camcorders. What sets vReveal apart from the crowd is how readily it takes advantage of any recent NVIDIA graphics card to speed up the time it takes to enhance your movies. Have "magic button" programs finally jumped from CSI to your computer? Read on for our full review.
Interface and Design
For the last twenty years, one of the main ways manufacturers have marketed their systems has been on the strength of the processor. The CPU has long been considered to be a computer's most important component and the biggest predictor of system performance. Video cards have been relevant for gamers and workstation users but the general public tends to ignore them. Graphics card companies are trying to change that by helping developers write software that takes advantage of the strengths and advantages inherent to these cards that the CPU can't match.
Any application that is what developers call "highly parallelizable" can see profound improvements by using the graphics card to accelerate performance. This means that whatever is being computed for this piece of software can be broken down into little parts, analyzed by the GPU, and added together for a final result. The most common applications that take advantage of these extra capabilities are video transcoders (software that can change a video's format, like DivX or h.264); some graphics programs, such as certain parts of Adobe's most recent Creative Suite, can also use the GPU to speed things up.
MotionDSP's vReveal is similar to video transcoders, though it doesn't change the actual format. Instead, vReveal analyzes each frame of a video and performs a series of analyses and calculations. Similar to using Photoshop or Photoshop Elements to fix underexposed or undersharpened pictures, so does vReveal help users overcome common problems with many digital videos.
The software opens up and offers to scan common Windows directories for video files. If there are a lot of videos in various My Documents directories, it may be best to add videos manually; vReveal just lumps everything together in one panel. The panels are updated dynamically, so if videos are later added to the folders vReveal scans, then the software automatically adds them to its collection.
From the Gallery tab, it's easy to just click on a specific video that needs correction. Selecting a video in the left pane brings it up on the right, and a few simple buttons control media playback. On the playback panel, users can opt to show both the original video as well as the enhanced version (if applicable), rotate the video, loop playback, or even capture still frames from the videos.
Once the right video is selected, users can click on the Enhance tab at the top of the screen to start the correction process. What's really interesting about vReveal when comparing it to other video applications is how simple it is to use. The software itself is designed to be navigable with just a few clicks. MotionDSP put in a "One Click Fix" button that analyzes videos and automatically applies its various corrective algorithms: cleaning / noise reduction, resolution interpolation, sharpening and auto contrast filters. Users can customize which features the One Click button applies as well as their strength.
It's possible to selectively apply certain aspects, like only noise reduction, only contrast enhancement or only sharpening. This is handy if there's only one issue with a specific video, like muddy contrast or a really shaky cameraman. vReveal also lets users disable the GPU acceleration, so the application can still be used on non-NVIDIA hardware. It probably won't run as fast, but it's nice to know that the option is available for ATI users.
For those who want to take finer control with the preset options, there's the advanced menu, which replaces the colorful icons with a series of slides and boxes. The flexibility is no doubt appreciated by many, but I found it difficult to do a better job than the One Click Fix button when trying to enhance videos. This is both a strength and a weakness of the software; it's very easy to do too little or too much correction. It makes it difficult to find a happy medium.
Going down the list, the clean feature attempts to smooth out the video and reduce noise. There are four different levels to choose from, from Low taking the least amount of time to process but delivering the worst results, to High which takes longer to process but offering the cleanest picture. 2x Resolution doubles the vertical and horizontal resolution of any video that is 288 pixels on a side or smaller. Sharpen can increase edge detail to make the video seem sharper, while fill light and the associated sliders can dynamically change the brightness and shadows in the video.
When it comes down to it, all the ease of use in the world is worthless if the product can't deliver. To test out how well the vReveal software can work when provided with some flawed videos, we grabbed a standard definition camcorder and ran a couple of test scenarios. The first video shows a black cat walking across a dimly lit parking lot at night: almost a worst-case scenario as far as consumer video cameras are concerned. vReveal has the capability to output both the original video and enhanced video side-by-side in one file, which makes comparing the before and after results really easy.
The unmodified video is on the left hand side, and it's essentially a muddy mess that is almost unwatchable. The cat is barely visible against the dark background, but it's hard to tell that the animal in question is actually a cat. Around two-thirds of the way through the clip, the scene blurs out momentarily, but that's the camera/operator's fault, not the software. The most obvious difference between the two halves of footage is that the vReveal-modified version is much lighter; it's easy to pick the cat out as it walks along the parking lot. Unfortunately, however, upping the brightness so much also introduced significant amounts of noise into the picture, rendering some of the detail moot. While both of our sample clips were enhanced using the auto-fix button, I did try to clean the videos up a little bit, to no avail. Sharpening helped slightly, though it also brought out the edge of some of the video's noise. While the results of the process aren't Oscar-worthy, the vReveal software made a noticeable impact and rendered what was essentially an unusable video at least watchable.
The second video was taken indoors and mostly tests a much more interesting feature of the vReveal software: video stabilization. What this function attempts to do is eliminate camera shake by selectively centering and turning frames. I was surprised to find that this feature works exceptionally well; in the video it's very noticeable both when looking at the fire extinguisher and at the end, when I shook the camcorder from side to side to introduce camera shake.
The downside to the stabilization feature is that as the video is recentered, it leaves constantly shited black borders all around the video. vReveal does provide an option for zooming in on the video and discarding the overlaps which gets rid of the borders at the cost of omitting some footage. When DesktopReview spoke to the MotionDSP group at CES this year, we discussed future possibilities for the software, and one of these was using the GPU to extrapolate the footage that would be in the black borders and generate filler material. It would never look quite like the original footage, but it would go a long way towards cleaning up the end result.
In order to export the finished video, users have to click on the 'Share' tab at the top of the screen. This is completely unintuitive, and I hope they change it to 'Save' or something similar. Once that panel is brought up, users can choose between exporting their video on the computer, or uploading it straight to YouTube. It's a really surprising feature to support direct-to-youtube uploading, but not a bad idea considering the target audience.
For users not wanting to upload their content, the Computer icon brings up the option to save the video to the local drive. As mentiond earlier, it's possible to save the video with both the original and corrected copies in one file. It's also possible to upscale the video files to certain resolutions such as 720p. The upscaling feature worked pretty well; while it's obvious that the file was never originally 720p, it looks better for having been subjected to it. It would be nice if MotionDSP renamed this tab, since most users will be looking for a save button, not a share button. Despite using the software for a while, on at least one occasion I find myself searching through menus for a save feature before I remembered that it was under the Share tab. Renaming it to 'Save' or 'Save and Share' would be useful.
So, has MotionDSP succeeded in creating a software suite like those on popular TV shows? Well, the results are something of a mixed bag. You can't create something from nothing, and if there just isn't any detail there to start with, vReveal isn't going to be much help. That's not to say, however, that vReveal doesn't work. While the videos above are pretty extreme examples that show the limits of the program, there's no denying that the video on the right looks better than the video on the left the vast majority of the time. The vReveal software does have limits, but so does every other editing app out there. MotionDSP's software, however, is phenomenally easy to use; compared to most other video software out there, this is an absolute revelation. The basic mode has a grand total of about eight buttons to click on, and the advanced mode just adds a few sliders. Even the newest of computer users should have no problem whatsoever quickly picking up how the program works.
It's also worth keeping in mind that this software is very new; while the company has been working on these technologies for several years, CES 2009 was the first time most people experienced it. The software is already pretty strong, and there's no reason to believe it won't get better from here. Despite what seems like a lackluster reaction above, certain features such as video stabilization are almost astonishing; while it does look to have a couple of bugs that need ironed out, it can certainly make something easier to read or track.
At $50, vReveal is in the middle price range for consumer applications, though I can't help but feel like $40 might result in a more marketable product. Compared to other video applications, however, the price suddenly seems far more palatable. The GPU acceleration an NVIDIA card provides can be useful, though not incredible; it's only going to be noticeable on extended length videos (in our example videos, the GPU acceleration saved less than five minutes each). In the end, vReveal provides decent results with an incredibly easy-to-use interface. If you find your videos too dark or full of camera shake, then this might just be the app for you.
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