Media & Entertainment

3 methodologies for automated video game highlight detection and capture

Comment

Image of a gaming computer setup with two monitors.
Image Credits: mikkelwilliam (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Nathan Babcock

Contributor

Nathan Babcock is a computer scientist and freelance writer in Chicago and a co-founder of automated highlight detection startup Clip It.

With the rise of livestreaming, gaming has evolved from a toy-like consumer product to a legitimate platform and medium in its own right for entertainment and competition.

Twitch’s viewer base alone has grown from 250,000 average concurrent viewers to over 3 million since its acquisition by Amazon in 2014. Competitors like Facebook Gaming and YouTube Live are following similar trajectories.

The boom in viewership has fueled an ecosystem of supporting products as today’s professional streamers push technology to its limit to increase the production value of their content and automate repetitive aspects of the video production cycle.

The online streaming game is a grind, with full-time creators putting in eight- if not 12-hour performances on a daily basis. In a bid to capture valuable viewer attention, 24-hour marathon streams are not uncommon either.

However, these hours in front of the camera and keyboard are only half of the streaming grind. Maintaining a constant presence on social media and YouTube fuels the growth of the stream channel and attracts more viewers to catch a stream live, where they may purchase monthly subscriptions, donate and watch ads.

Distilling the most impactful five to 10 minutes of content out of eight or more hours of raw video becomes a non-trivial time commitment. At the top of the food chain, the largest streamers can hire teams of video editors and social media managers to tackle this part of the job, but growing and part-time streamers struggle to find the time to do this themselves or come up with the money to outsource it. There aren’t enough minutes in the day to carefully review all the footage on top of other life and work priorities.

Computer vision analysis of game UI

An emerging solution is to use automated tools to identify key moments in a longer broadcast. Several startups compete to dominate this emerging niche. Differences in their approaches to solving this problem are what differentiate competing solutions from each other. Many of these approaches follow a classic computer science hardware-versus-software dichotomy.

Athenascope was one of the first companies to execute on this concept at scale. Backed by $2.5 million of venture capital funding and an impressive team of Silicon Valley Big Tech alumni, Athenascope developed a computer vision system to identify highlight clips within longer recordings.

In principle, it’s not so different from how self-driving cars operate, but instead of using cameras to read nearby road signs and traffic lights, the tool captures the gamer’s screen and recognizes indicators in the game’s user interface that communicate important events happening in-game: kills and deaths, goals and saves, wins and losses.

These are the same visual cues that traditionally inform the game’s player what is happening in the game. In modern game UIs, this information is high-contrast, clear and unobscured, and typically located in predictable, fixed locations on the screen at all times. This predictability and clarity lends itself extremely well to computer vision techniques such as optical character recognition (OCR) — reading text from an image.

The stakes here are lower than self-driving cars, too, since a false positive from this system produces nothing more than a less-exciting-than-average video clip — not a car crash.

A computer vision methodology has drawbacks, though. The AI required is computation-heavy — too heavy for an average user to run while their computer is already tied up with rendering a modern game at 1080p and 60-plus frames per second, and encoding a live video stream on top of that.

That means the AI has to run in the cloud. Raw video is uploaded to Athenascope’s server cluster — called “Athena” — and after processing, the highlights are delivered to the user’s inbox for downloading. The upkeep of these high-end video analytics servers is a cost incurred by Athenascope. Another downside is the round-trip processing time and quality loss associated with streaming raw video to external servers and back again.

Early-stage startups like Clip It, which we co-founded, attempt to eliminate this downside by streamlining the image processing AI so that it can be run at the edge directly on the user’s computer, resulting in quicker results for the users and lower infrastructure costs for the company.

Game memory access

The difficult trade-offs involved in computer vision motivate a completely different approach to the same problem. Rather than using rendered video pixels as input, a program can instead inspect the game’s raw memory as it’s running, skipping the video rendering entirely and directly accessing the internal representation of in-game notifications and events in their purest form.

Overwolf is the incumbent pioneer of this particular variation. Founded in 2010 with a $100,000 seed investment, this year Overwolf launched a $50 million fund for creators utilizing their platform, which is built on this methodology. In contrast to Athenascope as a consumer service, Overwolf monetizes by licensing its technology to other developers.

Direct memory access is faster and more reliable than computer vision. It requires no expensive image analysis, and the data collected is immediately actionable.

However, the practice of inspecting the running memory of a third-party program is a security gray area. In fact, it’s the same method used by most cheat programs like first-person-shooter aimbots, a violation of games’ terms of service.

As a result, a lot of time and effort in the game development industry is spent blocking this approach. Game memory is often obfuscated or encrypted, and the anti-cheat software of many mainstream competitive games will monitor and block any unauthorized memory access.

In June, an update to Call of Duty’s anti-cheat system blocked Overwolf when it was flagged as malicious. It took over a month for Overwolf to work with Call of Duty’s development team to create a manual exception for their software and restore functionality for Overwolf’s customers.

On top of these security issues, any update to the game’s code that involves a change in internal memory representation will also temporarily break compatibility for any memory-reliant programs, as the particular bits and bytes they had been utilizing for may have changed locations. This results in a brittleness that requires constant development attention, and some unavoidable amount of customer downtime, on every update for every supported game.

In a sense, the cloud infrastructure maintenance cost of a computer vision method is traded for an ongoing development cost to stay in sync with game updates, as well as outreach and negotiation directly with game developers if necessary.

Playstream.gg is another example of the internal memory method in action — with their unique value proposition being automated in-game challenges rather than video clip capture.

GPU-integrated SDKs

A third distinct method can be identified among automated highlight detection software.

This is the approach developed by NVIDIA in its NVIDIA Highlights software, formerly called Shadowplay. NVIDIA’s unique positioning in the computer graphics pipeline gives it direct access to video data on the graphics processing unit (GPU) itself — in contrast to Athenascope, which requires video data streaming in from across an internet connection.

The result is lightning-fast and high-quality video capture. Unlike other systems, NVIDIA delegates control over clip generation to the actual games themselves; they offer a software development kit (SDK) for game developers to hook into an NVIDIA GPU and request a clip of the last 15-30 seconds on demand.

This puts the onus of development onto each individual game developer, and if they don’t create bindings for NVIDIA Highlights, it won’t be usable for that game.

Another obvious requirement is that the users must have an NVIDIA GPU — AMD users will be out of luck since AMD’s replay recording software does not have any support for automatic highlight recording. There’s no way to support console gamers either (Xbox, PlayStation, etc). In contrast, computer vision approaches are universal, and the platform that the video originates from is not a relevant factor in the compatibility of the product.

A solution that combines the GPU-accelerated video capture of NVIDIA Highlights with the computer vision methodology of Athenascope could be a unique combination of tradeoffs: the immediacy of Overwolf with the portability of a computer-vision approach, perhaps with the machine learning itself also running on the GPU. At the moment, no such application utilizes this particular approach.

The spectrum of gameplay analysis

A major differentiator between competitors in this space pivots on how early in the video rendering pipeline the analysis occurs.

Athenascope lives at one extreme end of this spectrum — receiving the final video output for analysis, after capture, encoding, mixing with overlays or filters, and uploading to Athenascope servers.

Clip It moves the analysis one step closer to the user, using the same technique but in real time on the user’s local computer.

Overwolf and Playstream both move the analysis even closer to the game itself by inspecting the game’s memory as it’s running. Arriving at the other end of the spectrum, we have NVIDIA Highlights, which pulls video directly from bare metal of the GPU, triggered from SDK bindings integrated in the game’s actual code itself.

The subtle distinctions between these methodologies are the basis for competition in the niche market of automated video game highlight detection and capture. As computer vision AI becomes more and more sophisticated, the flexibility and portability of purely software-based approaches will become more and more competitive with the hardware benefits on the other side of the scale.

More TechCrunch

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

16 hours ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

18 hours ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data

X users will now be able to discover posts from new Communities that are trending directly from an Explore tab within the section.

X pushes more users to Communities

For Mark Zuckerberg’s 40th birthday, his wife got him a photoshoot. Zuckerberg gives the camera a sly smile as he sits amid a carefully crafted re-creation of his childhood bedroom.…

Mark Zuckerberg’s makeover: Midlife crisis or carefully crafted rebrand?

Strava announced a slew of features, including AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, a new ‘family’ subscription plan, dark mode and more.

Strava taps AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, unveils ‘family’ plan, dark mode and more

We all fall down sometimes. Astronauts are no exception. You need to be in peak physical condition for space travel, but bulky space suits and lower gravity levels can be…

Astronauts fall over. Robotic limbs can help them back up.

Microsoft will launch its custom Cobalt 100 chips to customers as a public preview at its Build conference next week, TechCrunch has learned. In an analyst briefing ahead of Build,…

Microsoft’s custom Cobalt chips will come to Azure next week

What a wild week for transportation news! It was a smorgasbord of news that seemed to touch every sector and theme in transportation.

Tesla keeps cutting jobs and the feds probe Waymo

Sony Music Group has sent letters to more than 700 tech companies and music streaming services to warn them not to use its music to train AI without explicit permission.…

Sony Music warns tech companies over ‘unauthorized’ use of its content to train AI

Winston Chi, Butter’s founder and CEO, told TechCrunch that “most parties, including our investors and us, are making money” from the exit.

GrubMarket buys Butter to give its food distribution tech an AI boost

The investor lawsuit is related to Bolt securing a $30 million personal loan to Ryan Breslow, which was later defaulted on.

Bolt founder Ryan Breslow wants to settle an investor lawsuit by returning $37 million worth of shares

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, launched an enterprise version of the prominent social network in 2015. It always seemed like a stretch for a company built on a consumer…

With the end of Workplace, it’s fair to wonder if Meta was ever serious about the enterprise

X, formerly Twitter, turned TweetDeck into X Pro and pushed it behind a paywall. But there is a new column-based social media tool in town, and it’s from Instagram Threads.…

Meta Threads is testing pinned columns on the web, similar to the old TweetDeck

As part of 2024’s Accessibility Awareness Day, Google is showing off some updates to Android that should be useful to folks with mobility or vision impairments. Project Gameface allows gamers…

Google expands hands-free and eyes-free interfaces on Android