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Revision as of 19:38, 29 July 2013 by Tomas Slavicek (Talk | contribs)

Real-time camera effects on Windows Phone 7 and 8

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Note.pngNote: This is an entry in the Nokia Imaging Wiki Competition 2013Q3

This article explains how to efficiently read a live stream from the camera on Windows Phone 7 and 8 devices and how to apply an effect filter on this stream.

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Article Metadata
Code ExampleTested with
SDK: Windows Phone 7.1 SDK, Windows Phone 8.0 SDK
Devices(s): Nokia Lumia 800, Samsung Omnia 7, Nokia Lumia 720, HTC 8X
CompatibilityPlatform Security
Capabilities: ID_CAP_ISV_CAMERA
Created: Tomas Slavicek (27 Jul 2013)
Last edited: Tomas Slavicek (29 Jul 2013)



Most of the photo apps on the market are pretty simple. They allow users to take a photo, then apply some interesting vintage filter and save the photo. But only a few applications have a true live viewfinder with a real-time applied filter. Would it be nice to see how the photo will look like, even before you press the shutter button? What about some other live effects, like a pixelated 8-bit style screen?

We will show you in this article how to make an app (in C# language) that can run on both Windows Phone 7 and Windows Phone 8 devices. Our goal will be to design a sufficiently fast implementation that can run flawlessly even on the oldest and slowest devices. We will go through several ideas and implementations and we will compare them.

The main ideas

  • We will use a VideoBrush component at first. We will demonstrate its limitations.
  • We will read ARGB values directly from the camera, and see how this values can be efficiently packed and unpacked.
  • We will discover a faster solution (reading values from the YCbCr buffer).
  • We will discuss how to make this processing even better (to work with a smaller resolution).
  • We will see an idea how to make an interesting 8-bit style photo app based on these methods.

We will be demonstrating these methods on the Windows Phone 7 (WP7) project. In the last chapter we will cover the differences between WP7 and Windows Phone 8 (WP8):

  • We will see how to use this approach on WP8 thanks to MonoGame Framework
  • We will compare all methods and measure the rendering time

VideoBrush component

The most simple solution for showing a direct stream from the camera is the VideoBrush component. The code is the same on WP7 and WP8. You can add this code into your XAML page:

<Rectangle Width="320" Height="320">
<VideoBrush x:Name="viewfinderBrush" />

In the code-behind you can initialize the camera and set the stream to the VideoBrush:

PhotoCamera camera;
protected override void OnNavigatedTo(NavigationEventArgs e)
// Initialize a camera object, set stream to the VideoBrush
camera = new PhotoCamera();
protected override void OnNavigatingFrom(NavigatingCancelEventArgs e)

Do not forget to add an ID_CAP_ISV_CAMERA capability. This is a very simple solution. The stream from the camera is quite distorted and wrongly rotated, but you can fix this by setting a RelativeTransform on the Rectangle. But what is a real pity, you can't modify this stream in any way. You can't apply any filter or effect on the VideoBrush object, you don't have an access to the raw data of the pixels.

Reading from the buffer

We will use a different approach. As you can discover, there are some GetPreviewBuffer methods on the PhotoCamera object. This is the way how we can get the raw data from the camera. But we would like also to display this data somewhere, in some fast and efficient way. WritableBitmap component from the Silverlight is very slow, writing data pixel by pixel using this component can take a hundreds of milliseconds. We will need to find another solution.

We will create a new combined Silverlight/XNA project for Windows Phone 7 (we will talk about WP8 later). We would like to combine the ease of XAML and Silverlight with the power of the XNA in one solution. We will use a very similar approach to one described in the article Use Camera with XNA.

You need to have installed a Windows Phone SDK 7.1. Open your Visual Studio 2010 (Express or the Professional/Ultimate) and create a new Windows Phone Silverlight and XNA Application project.

New xnasilverlight project.png

To be able to read from the camera we need to place a fake Canvas to our XAML code. Add to GamePage.xaml page this line of code:

<Canvas x:Name="cameraDisplayFake" Width="0" Height="0"></Canvas>

We will create a helper object now. Lets create a new class CamReader.cs and place into it these declarations:

PhotoCamera camera;
int[] previewBuffer, outputBuffer;
Point previewSize, outputSize;

As you can see, there is some preview buffer and the output buffer. The preview buffer will contain the raw values from the camera and will be usually 640x480 pixels big. Applying effects on this large resolution would be very resource intensive and slow. We do not need such a big resolution for the live preview. Our output buffer will be smaller, for example only 240x240 px. All computations and filter calculations will be executed on this smaller resolution. We can scale up this image later, it will be a little blurred, but that does not matter much for us.

This is how the CamReader.StartCamera method can look like:

public void StartCamera(Dispatcher dispatcher, Canvas fakeCamCanvas, Point outputSize)
this.outputSize = outputSize;
if (camera != null)
// Create a PhotoCamera instance
if (PhotoCamera.IsCameraTypeSupported(CameraType.Primary))
camera = new PhotoCamera(CameraType.Primary);
else if (PhotoCamera.IsCameraTypeSupported(CameraType.FrontFacing))
camera = new PhotoCamera(CameraType.FrontFacing);
System.Windows.MessageBox.Show("Cannot find a camera on this device");
// Wait camera initialization before create the buffer image
camera.Initialized += (a, b) =>
// Move to UI thread
dispatcher.BeginInvoke(() =>
outputBuffer = new int[outputSize.X * outputSize.Y];
previewSize = new Point((int)camera.PreviewResolution.Width, (int)camera.PreviewResolution.Height);
previewBuffer = new int[previewSize.X * previewSize.Y];
// Initialize camera
// - we need to initialize VideoBrush to given Canvas, otherwise the stream wouldn't be loaded
var brush = new VideoBrush();
fakeCamCanvas.Background = brush;

Reading ARGB data

Now we can design a method for reading ARGB data from the camera:

public int[] GetBufferFromARGB()
if (camera != null && previewBuffer != null)
// Get preview Image buffer (640x480)
try { camera.GetPreviewBufferArgb32(previewBuffer); }
catch { return null; }
// Select outputBuffer pixels (outputSize = smaller than 640x480 preview pixels)
// Swap Red and Blue channel (Silverlight -> XNA's texture)
return outputBuffer;
return null;

This method retrieves the data from the camera to preview buffer (640x480). Then the selected values are copied to the smalled output buffer (see the next paragraph for the method implementation). Output colors are swapped to correct XNA's Texture2D format and finally the output buffer is returned.

The output buffer is a linear array of integer values. Every integer has the compressed info about the whole RGB value of the pixel and its alpha (transparency). In the field outputSize we have the X and Y size of the output image.

Helper methods

The first method is used to copy values from the preview to output buffer. Here you can find quite a complex variant. This implementation automatically crops the image by the correct output ratio. The image is also auto-rotated and scaled.

private void CopyValuesToOutputBuffer()
// Copies data from preview buffer (640x480) to smaller output buffer in correct ratio
Point start = Point.Zero, incr = Point.Zero;
GetOutputParams(ref start, ref incr);
// Inserts values to the output buffer
for (int y = 0; y < outputSize.Y; y++)
for (int x = 0; x < outputSize.X; x++)
// Auto flip / rotate the image to output
int sourceX = Math.Min(start.X + y * incr.X, previewSize.X - 1);
int sourceY = Math.Min(previewSize.Y - (start.Y + x * incr.Y) - 1, previewSize.Y - 1);
int i = sourceX + sourceY * previewSize.X;
outputBuffer[x + y * outputSize.X] = previewBuffer[i];
private void GetOutputParams(ref Point start, ref Point incr)
// Returns correct params for the output buffer
// = start index & increment, how should we read from the preview buffer
start = Point.Zero;
incr = new Point(previewSize.X / outputSize.Y, previewSize.Y / outputSize.X);
if (previewSize.X / (float)previewSize.Y > outputSize.Y / (float)outputSize.X)
// Preview is wider, output buffer will be cropped at left/right side
start.X = (int)((previewSize.X - outputSize.Y * previewSize.Y / (float)outputSize.X) / 2);
incr.X = (previewSize.X - 2 * start.X) / outputSize.Y;
// Output buffer is wider (preview is taller, crop at top/bottom)
start.Y = (int)((previewSize.Y - outputSize.X * previewSize.X / (float)outputSize.Y) / 2);
incr.Y = (previewSize.Y - 2 * start.Y) / outputSize.X;

Note.pngNote: We are using the integer division for calculating the increment (for performance reasons). This will work fine if the output buffer is sufficiently smaller than the camera preview. If the output and preview sizes are almost similar, this method may give you poor results.

The next method converts the image buffer into XNA format:

private void SwapRedBlueChannel(int[] buffer)
for (int i = 0; i < buffer.Length; ++i)
// Converts a packed RGB integer value from Silverlight's to XNA format
// - we need to switch a red and blue channel
buffer[i] = (int)((uint)buffer[i] & 0xFF00FF00)
| (buffer[i] >> 16 & 0xFF)
| (buffer[i] & 0xFF) << 16;

And finally, we should include to our CamReader class the method for stopping the camera. It will be called when we leave the app, or when the app was switched to background:

public void StopCamera(Canvas fakeCamCanvas)
if (camera != null)
camera = null;
previewBuffer = null;
fakeCamCanvas.Background = null;

Rendering the live stream

Now we have prepared a helper class CamReader.cs. We would like to integrate this logic into our app.

Lets open a GamePage.xaml.cs file. This is the place where we can write the code for the XNA Framework.

Add these declarations to this file:

Point outputSize;
CamReader camReader;
Texture2D texture;

And add this inicialization logic to method OnNavigatedTo:

protected override void OnNavigatedTo(NavigationEventArgs e)
// Initialize the camera reader + XNA's texture (of the correct size)
GraphicsDevice device = SharedGraphicsDeviceManager.Current.GraphicsDevice;
outputSize = new Point(240, 240);
texture = new Texture2D(device, outputSize.X, outputSize.Y);
camReader = new CamReader();
camReader.StartCamera(this.Dispatcher, cameraDisplayFake, outputSize);

Our CamReader object and the texture will be initialized. Note that we are passing a cameraDisplayFake object to our StartCamera method. This is the one component that we have already added into our XAML code.

We can insert a similar logic into OnNavigatedFrom:

protected override void OnNavigatedFrom(NavigationEventArgs e)

Now we can finally render our photo stream on the display! Method OnDraw is called 30 times per second by default. We obtain a data from CamReader object every frame, then copy this data to the texture and draw this texture.

private void OnDraw(object sender, GameTimerEventArgs e)
GraphicsDevice device = SharedGraphicsDeviceManager.Current.GraphicsDevice;
// Get camera values, draw image directly on screen by SpriteBatch (by converting into Texture2D)
int[] buffer = camReader.GetBufferFromARGB();
if (buffer != null)
//ApplyEffect(buffer, outputSize, effect); // Applies special filter on image
device.Textures[0] = null;
spriteBatch.Draw(texture, new Vector2(0, 0), Color.White);

Note.pngNote: We can change the interval of the drawing loop from standard 30 frames per second (FPS) to a different value. You only need to change the timer.UpdateInterval in the GamePage contructor into TimeSpan.FromTicks(166666); and the rendering will run at amazing 60 FPS!

Note.pngNote: We can combine a XAML code (Silverlight) and the XNA content on one page together. XAML elements can be rendered into texture and displayed even over the content from the XNA. Similar situation is on the WP8, C#/XAML content can be also combined with MonoGame Framework at one page.

Working with image data

XNA is a very powerfull framework for manipulating with images. In this sample we are drawing the texture on a point 0,0 (into the upper left corner), in 100% zoom. We can easily change the rendering code to draw this image two times bigger (= in 200% zoom):

spriteBatch.Draw(texture, Vector2.Zero, null, Color.White, 0f, Vector2.Zero,
2f, SpriteEffects.None, 0);

For this texture - we can also set the scale, the rotation, transparency... Before we convert our buffer into the texture, we can also apply any special filter on these data, for example: grayscale, sepia, lomo, vintage... Anything what we can imagine.

8-bit style renderer

So, we have a raw data from the camera. We do not need to convert them to the texture directly. We can work with this values and, for example, we can draw an extra image for every pixel!

We can make an interesting 8-bit looking app with a real live preview. The power of the XNA Framework will handle it (the slowest Windows Phones can draw around 120x120 non-transparent textures at once, in more than 20 FPS).

This 8-bit effect can look like this:

8bit live effect demonstration mini.png

Note.pngNote: These sample images have been generated with some advanced filters. Colors were restricted to a limited palette (for example only 16 specific colors) with a specified treshold. Variants of the Ordered Dithering and Floyd-Steinberg algorithm were applied.

Rendering pixels from images

We will show here the most simple version of this 8-bit renderer. Every pixel obtained from the camera will be drawn as a small image, colored with the RGB data. For example - our sample image will be 6x6 pixels big. If we set the output buffer of the camera to 80x80 pixels, the final image will be 480x480 px big.

You can download the sample image here: Sample sprite.png

And add this image to your Content project:

Xna content2.png

Now we can load this image into our app. Add to your GamePage.xaml.cs this declaration:

Texture2D sprite;

Modify the OnNavigated method like this:

protected override void OnNavigatedTo(NavigationEventArgs e)
// Initialize the camera reader + small Sprite texture
sprite = contentManager.Load<Texture2D>("sample_sprite");
outputSize = new Point(80, 80);
camReader = new CamReader();
camReader.StartCamera(this.Dispatcher, cameraDisplayFake, outputSize);

The image will be loaded to the sprite variable.

Note.pngNote: We are using a standard XNA Content pipeline, the image is converted to the uncompressed .xnb file, then loaded into the texture. We can also load this image directly from .png file.

Now we can draw the values. Modify the OnDraw method like this:

private void OnDraw(object sender, GameTimerEventArgs e)
// Get camera values, draw image
int[] buffer = camReader.GetBufferFromARGB();
if (buffer != null)
// Draw a pixelated 8-bit effect
Draw8BitStyle(spriteBatch, buffer);

Our method Draw8BitStyle will simply read the values from the buffer, extract the color data and draw the sprite for every pixel:

private void Draw8BitStyle(SpriteBatch spriteBatch, int[] buffer)
// Draw a pixelated 8-bit effect from the buffer
for (int y = 0; y < outputSize.Y; y++)
for (int x = 0; x < outputSize.X; x++)
int val = buffer[y * outputSize.X + x];
// Convert value into color, draw the sprite
int a = val >> 24;
int b = (val & 0x00ff0000) >> 16;
int g = (val & 0x0000ff00) >> 8;
int r = (val & 0x000000ff);
Vector2 position = new Vector2(x * sprite.Width, y * sprite.Height);
spriteBatch.Draw(sprite, position, new Color(r, g, b));

Our live camera stream will look like this now. This is awesome!

8bit effect.png

Tip: If you want to know how to convert RGB values back into one integer value, this method will help you:

private int PackRGBValue(byte r, byte g, byte b)
// Pack individual RGB components into one single integer
uint output = 0xff000000; // Alpha
output |= (uint)b;
output |= (uint)(g << 8);
output |= (uint)(r << 16);
return unchecked((int)output);

Note.pngNote: You can find both variants of the algorithm in the attached sample project. The component for measuring frames per second (FPS) from the XNA is also attached.

Reading from the YCbCr buffer

Our photo stream from the camera looks great. But it's still not perfect. This implementation is horribly slow on the first generation of Windows Phone devices. For example on the Samsung Omnia 7 Device, the 120x120 pixels large scene composed of 4x4 px sprites runs only at 6 FPS! Can we fix it?

Fortunately there is a second method on the PhotoCamera object for reading raw values from the camera: GetPreviewBufferYCbCr. It is little more complicated to use, but gives us much better results. The main difference between these methods is - when we read an ARGB data from the camera, the whole 640x480 buffer is internally converted into RGB values. It doesn't matter that we wanted only a 120x120 px small array. All values had to be converted.

Method GetPreviewBufferYCbCr returns a buffer from the camera in the "more raw" format. We will convert to RGB values only those pixels that we really want. I can reveal you in advance that this implementation will run on the Samsung Omnia 7 Device faster than 20 FPS!

Note.pngNote: Do not worry about Nokia Lumia product line. Both implementations are sufficiently fast even on the Nokia Lumia 710 or 800 Device. The ARGB method runs at a stable 15 FPS, the YCbCr method runs at 22 FPS.

Note.pngNote: Windows Phone 8 devices will be even faster, on the Windows Phone 8X Device by HTC the ARGB method runs at 27 FPS and the faster YCbCr method is attacking 30 FPS (we are talking about WP7 application in a compatible mode, the native WP8 solution will be discussed in the last chapter of this article).


We will extend our CamReader class. Add here these declarations:

// Special buffer for the YCbCr reader
YCbCrPixelLayout bufferLayout;
byte[] yCbCrPreviewBuffer;

The StartCamera method will also be slightly modified. Add these inicialization logic to the dispatcher.BeginInvoke() call:

// Buffer initialization for reading from the YCbCr buffer
bufferLayout = camera.YCbCrPixelLayout;
yCbCrPreviewBuffer = new byte[bufferLayout.RequiredBufferSize];

And finally we can add here a new method - GetBufferFromYCbCr. It is the alternative to the GetBufferFromARGB, it returns data in the same format (but it is faster).

public int[] GetBufferFromYCbCr()
if (camera != null && previewBuffer != null)
// Get preview Image buffer
try { camera.GetPreviewBufferYCbCr(yCbCrPreviewBuffer); }
catch { return null; }
// Select outputBuffer pixels (outputSize = smaller than 640x480 preview pixels)
return outputBuffer;
return null;

YCbCr to RGB conversion

YCbCr is a pretty interesting color model. Y stands for the Luminance (brightness), Cr and Cb are Chrominance values (they represents the color difference). If we load to our app only a Luminance (Y) value, we will obtain a grayscale image.


Now we need to implement the last few helper methods. We want to select the specific pixels from the YCbCr buffer, extract the correct Y, Cr and Cb values, convert them back to the ARGB and finally to save the value of each pixel to the output buffer.

private void CopyYCbCrValuesToOutputBuffer()
// Copies data from YCbCr buffer to smaller output buffer (in correct ratio)
Point start = Point.Zero, incr = Point.Zero;
GetOutputParams(ref start, ref incr);
for (int y = 0; y < outputSize.Y; y++)
for (int x = 0; x < outputSize.X; x++)
// Auto flip / rotate the image to output
int sourceX = Math.Min(start.X + y * incr.X, previewSize.X - 1);
int sourceY = Math.Min(previewSize.Y - (start.Y + x * incr.Y) - 1, previewSize.Y - 1);
// Read Y, Cb and Cr values of the pixel
byte yValue;
int cr, cb;
GetYCbCrFromPixel(bufferLayout, yCbCrPreviewBuffer, sourceX, sourceY, out yValue, out cr, out cb);
// Convert to RGB and write to output buffer
int rgbPackedValue = YCbCrToArgb(yValue, cb, cr);
outputBuffer[x + y * outputSize.X] = rgbPackedValue;
private void GetYCbCrFromPixel(YCbCrPixelLayout layout, byte[] currentPreviewBuffer, int xFramePos, int yFramePos, out byte y, out int cr, out int cb)
// Parse YCbCr value from given pixel
// - finds the bytes corresponding to the pixel location in the frame.
int yBufferIndex = layout.YOffset + yFramePos * layout.YPitch + xFramePos * layout.YXPitch;
int crBufferIndex = layout.CrOffset + (yFramePos / 2) * layout.CrPitch + (xFramePos / 2) * layout.CrXPitch;
int cbBufferIndex = layout.CbOffset + (yFramePos / 2) * layout.CbPitch + (xFramePos / 2) * layout.CbXPitch;
y = currentPreviewBuffer[yBufferIndex];
cr = currentPreviewBuffer[crBufferIndex];
cb = currentPreviewBuffer[cbBufferIndex];
// Cr and Cb will be from -128 to 127, Y (luminance) from 0 to 255
cr -= 128;
cb -= 128;

Note.pngNote: These methods for unpacking YCbCr values and converting them into RGB were inspired by the former article on the MSDN (Windows Phone 7 Camera Color Conversion). The content is no longer available there.

Especially the next method for converting YCbCr value to the RGB looks totally devilish. But don't worry, it's a pretty standard algorithm. You can find lots of implementations of it on the internet. This conversion uses the integer-only divisions again (for the performance reasons).

private int YCbCrToArgb(byte y, int cb, int cr)
// Converts YCbCr to packed RGB
int r, g, b;
uint argbPixel;
// Integer-only division.
r = y + cr + (cr >> 2) + (cr >> 3) + (cr >> 5);
g = y - ((cb >> 2) + (cb >> 4) + (cb >> 5)) - ((cr >> 1) + (cr >> 3) + (cr >> 4) + (cr >> 5));
b = y + cb + (cb >> 1) + (cb >> 2) + (cb >> 6);
// Clamp values to 8-bit RGB range between 0 and 255.
r = r <= 255 ? r : 255;
r = r >= 0 ? r : 0;
g = g <= 255 ? g : 255;
g = g >= 0 ? g : 0;
b = b <= 255 ? b : 255;
b = b >= 0 ? b : 0;
// Pack individual components into a single pixel.
argbPixel = 0xff000000; // Alpha
argbPixel |= (uint)b;
argbPixel |= (uint)(g << 8);
argbPixel |= (uint)(r << 16);
// Return the ARGB pixel.
return unchecked((int)argbPixel);

Now if you switch your rendering logic in the GamePage.xaml.cs file to this line, you should see an acceleration in your framerate speed:

int[] buffer = camReader.GetBufferFromYCbCr();

Windows Phone 8

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