Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, with a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that


Thursday, 23 June 2022

Zoom! - OOOOOH! - phut....


 I'm aware of other bloggers publishing rather splendid accounts of their remote wargames, and I'm very impressed, not to say envious.

I started off using Zoom for wargames with great enthusiasm early in the pandemic lockdown, I hosted a number of games, and I was very pleased and excited by the results and the potential. It was only later, when I took the trouble to find out, that I realised that the video quality I was sending out was so poor that it wasn't such a great experience for the generous friends on whom I was inflicting it. I was sent some very iffy-looking screenshots of what was visible at the far end, and then the Bold David mentioned that he was pleasantly surprised to see how attractive my wargame figures were, when he studied the photographs which I took during the refight of Kilsyth in which he had been involved. The wonders of what I could see on-site had nothing to do with his view, far, far away.

I confess my crest was more than a little fallen.

There was a time when it seemed possible that Zoom offered all that was likely to be available for the foreseeable future in the twilit world of Covid. I had a paid account, since I was involved with the musical activities of the Folk Club of a neighbouring town, and I'd learned a lot there about what could be achieved on a shoestring budget. For the wargaming, I had grandiose plans to spend money on a top-quality streaming video camera, to improve the pictures. My youngest son made the useful observation that I could spend what I wanted, but Zoom would take one look at the available bandwidth out here in The Sticks, and would automatically dumb-down the picture resolution to what it thought our broadband could sustain reliably.

 
Roman mosaic (low-resolution)
 

The set up I used here consisted of my (5-year old) Android tablet as the main camera/host, with my alter ego Max attending the sessions using my old iPhone to provide a second camera from the far end of the table. Both of these devices have excellent built-in cameras, and the pictures I can see on-screen at my end of the sessions look very good, but the cruncher has been the dreaded rural broadband. Our service arrives by radio broadcast (no, you read that correctly), by line-of-sight transmission from a hill about 8 miles away. The maximum service available was a humble 12Mb/sec, which may sound laughable but was easily the best of all the options available. No wonder, then, that my Zoom sessions produced pictures with the resolution of a Roman mosaic floor.

 
Traprain Hill - there's a transmitter up there somewhere
 

[In passing, I must note that when we were originally being sold the idea of the radio transmission service, one of my neighbours was not happy at all, since she believed that a line-of-sight transmission would not work at night - this has been one of the brighter moments in our experience.]

Well, time has passed, and my internet service provider has upgraded the kit, so we now get a handsome 32Mb/sec, which would still be regarded as a joke in Kensington but represents a whole new age of promise here. Buoyed up by the new possibilities, I roped in some brave volunteers to check out what effect this had on Zoom pictures, and I regret to say that it didn't seem to make any notable difference. The quality at the far end of the connection was still, to coin a technical term, duff.

 
The Far End view - this screenshot kindly provided by The Other David, captured in far-off Londinium. This is post-upgrade - the camera in use at this instant is the old iPhone at the West End of the table. Not terrible, but certainly not great.
  

So I wrote to the technical support people at Zoom. If you have never attempted this, by the way, I recommend you do not bother. They are pretty good at debiting money from your bank account very promptly, but their customer service is non-existent. It would be tempting to suggest it is about as bad as you can get, but my world survey is not yet complete; however, I think it must be up there.

So I am left to wonder what is possible. How do those guys out there successfully run remote wargames, with no-one getting frustrated or going blind?

* Despite our local pride in the upgrade, 32Mb/s may still be show-stoppingly slow. I tried connecting the devices directly (by cable) to my hub, rather than use the wi-fi, but it made no difference.

* I could try some more modern mobile devices, but that would cost money, and doesn't seem to offer any guaranteed improvement.

* There must be something in my Zoom settings, you would think, that would sort this out? Well there isn't. I can choose to have my wrinkles blurred a bit, or the background replaced by a photo of Miami, but the picture resolution appears to be a given.

* It does occur to me that the overall traffic on a Zoom session can be cut back a bit by switching off the video pictures from the remote generals, but at this point I am just tinkering with details.

That's about it, really. I am disappointed, since I got the Zoom games quite nicely organised, video quality apart. If I am not going to be able to improve this I shall stop the paid account and go back to the freebie one, which restricts the number of participants and the length of multiple sessions.

I would be really very pleased to get any useful advice here. I thought of moving to Kensington, but decided against it. 


***** Late Edit *****

I came across this notice on the Zoom site, which may be bad news; it seems that Zoom have restricted display on sessions involving more than 2 participants to "standard quality" rather than HD. It is hoped this is a temporary measure, and apparently it is because of Covid, and apparently it may only be Zoom that got us through Covid anyway. Humility does not seem to come naturally to Zoom's marketing people, but I guess we have to be grateful.

*********************


17 comments:

  1. We've been using Zoom for games for nearly two years now, it had by far the best video resolution of everything we tried (Skype, Google, even Teams). That image doesn't look a million miles from what my players endure. I tend to play on quite small tables with the laptop camera as close as I can get it, and they don't seem to mind that they can't necessarily see every detail. If we've got particularly nice toys to display, we wave them in front of the camera in close up. It works particularly well for aircraft!

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    1. Thanks Martin - that's interesting and useful. With the big table, I have a camera at each end, one of them being identified as a separate attendee, and the remote participants can select which view they want at any moment between the two cameras. As you say, the facility exists for me to offer close-ups (or drone fly-bys) as requested.

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  2. No helpful tips from me sorry I have not even dared to contemplate remote gaming, given the trouble I often experience with IT and technology in general! I agree with Martin though, the image doesn't look particularly bad, it's just too big an area on too small a screen that seems to be the main problem

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    1. Thanks Keith - I do offer a choice of views of the field - maybe I should offer more, but things get more complicated quite quickly.

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  3. Traprain Law? I think that's quite an impressive interweb signal to get from a Dark Ages hill fort - you don't get that in Kensington.
    I've been away for a bit and I'm just catching up on what I've missed. I'm interested in your Bishops' Wars idea from a couple of weeks back, and Sheriffmuir - any progress?

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    1. Hi Chris - I'm not sure, but this may be the view of Traprain from the south side - the far side from us - the side facing the mysterious Standing Stones Farm. Sheriffmuir is an entertaining read but looks as if it is not a goer for a game. The Bishops' War(s) is certainly a possibility, but it would rely heavily on the history being re-written - this is fine, because it means it is certain I could bung in absolutely anybody I wanted, so it would be possible to put something together. I'm still thinking about this - the really clever bit would be to come up with a suitable alternative narrative. Charles I - an idiot or what?

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    2. He had evil advisers. That's what the Covenanters said, anyway.

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  4. Like Martin, I have been using Zoom for nearly two years too and agree that of the applications tried (Zoom, Skype, Google, Ring, Discord) Zoom seems the best.

    I am happy to set up testing sessions to allow you a look at how I manage and to test picture quality and speed. There are sometimes tech issues to overcome but usually these hurdles are manageable.

    Don’t give up yet!

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    1. Jon - you are one of the heroes whose exploits I have been watching. If you have a little time and patience, I'd be very interested in some experiments, if you were up for it. I promise not to be a nuisance! I'll email you next week sometime if that's OK - I'm still a bit incapacitated, falling asleep all the time after Covid! Thanks for your comment.

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    2. Fire your email when ready, Gridley.

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  5. I think bandwidth is the key as much or more than the tech on your end. Perhaps you could ask yout MP to arrange fibreop highspeed internet to your house,....hmm well maybe not. My system/sevice over cable doesn't provide a whole lot better resolution for video chat even though it streams tv, movies etc to me with better res than my eyes deliver to my brain.

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    1. Thanks for this Ross - I would be pleased to have a better understanding what the Zoom default standards are, and how they are monitored and applied. I think you can pay for a superior category of service if yo are a business customer and have whizzo infrastructure.

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  6. I'm hoist by my own petard here, as I always say that detailed paint jobs on figures shouldn't matter, and 'button counting' is a bad look; but it would be lovely to get a really good view of your excellent figures when gaming remotely! I hope you can get some improvement - I bet Jon F will have some good ideas .

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    1. Hi David - thank you for being nice about the figures - personal gratification apart, the main benefit of a clearer view would be that participants might be able to identify their units from what they can see - at least whether they are on horses, for example! The restrictions mentioned on the link I put in my late edit may be bad news, but I hope to get some insight into this from discussion with Jon the Tree Slayer, so let's see what's possible. He is, as you suggest, the man.

      It does bother me a bit that Zoom customers who are less stingy than me might address the problem by throwing money at it, which doesn't look like a promising approach. It has occurred to me that some form of hook-up involving two high-spec streaming cameras and my shiny new iMac should produce a fantastic show, but it looks as though I would defeated by the fact that Zoom says "no".

      Interesting technology, but I get headaches reading about it, and it narks me a bit that we only access the bad news if we dig at it. I don't have to be told constantly what a privilege and a life-affirming experience Zoom represents - I just need to know how to work it! I pay for it, and to me that implies that a certain level of transparency should be a given. [In the years since I used to write technical manuals, something has slipped a little - mumble, mumble]

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    2. "it narks me a bit that we only access the bad news if we dig at it."

      My mother always told me not to go looking for trouble.

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    3. Hi Jon - your mother was right on the money, I think.

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    4. At my former workplace, we had an (internal) slogan which went: "If you wish to be truly happy, never read your Service Level Agreement".

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