Thursday, December 20, 2012

Building the Netflix UI for Wii U

Hello, my name is Joubert Nel and I’m a UI engineer on the TV UI team here at Netflix. Our team builds the Netflix experiences for hundreds of TV devices, like the PlayStation 3, Wii, Apple TV, and Google TV.

We recently launched on Nintendo’s new Wii U game console. Like other Netflix UIs, we present TV shows and movies we think you’ll enjoy in a clear and fast user interface. While this UI introduces the first Netflix 1080p browse UI for game consoles, it also expands on ideas pioneered elsewhere like second screen control.

Virtual WebKit Frame

Like many of our other device UIs, our Wii U experience is built for WebKit in HTML5. Since the Wii U has two screens, we created a Virtual WebKit Frame, which partitions the UI into one area that is output to TV and one area that is output to the GamePad.

This gives us the flexibility to vary what is rendered on each screen as the design dictates, while sharing application state and logic in a single JavaScript VM. We also have a safe zone between the TV and GamePad areas so we can animate elements off the edge of the TV without appearing on the GamePad.

We started off with common Netflix TV UI engineering performance practices such as view pooling and accelerated compositing. View pooling reuses DOM elements to minimize DOM churn, and Accelerated Compositing (AC) allows us to designate certain DOM elements to be cached as a bitmap and rendered by the Wii U’s GPU.

In WebKit, each DOM node that produces visual output has a corresponding RenderObject, stored in the Render Tree. In turn, each RenderObject is associated with a RenderLayer. Some RenderLayers get backing surfaces when hardware acceleration is enabled . These layers are called compositing layers and they paint into their backing surfaces instead of the common bitmap that represents the entire page. Subsequently, the backing surfaces are composited onto the destination bitmap. The compositor applies transformations specified by the layer’s CSS -webkit-transform to the layer’s surface before compositing it. When a layer is invalidated, only its own content needs to be repainted and re-composited. If you’re interested to learn more, I suggest reading GPU Accelerated Compositing in Chrome.


After modifying the UI to take advantage of accelerated compositing, we found that the frame rate on device was still poor during vertical navigation, even though it rendered at 60fps in desktop browsers.

When the user browses up or down in the gallery, we animate 4 rows of poster art on TV and mirror those 4 rows on the GamePad. Preparing, positioning, and animating only 4 rows allows us to reduce (expensive) structural changes to the DOM while being able to display many logical rows and support wrapping. Each row maintains up to 14 posters, requiring us to move and scale a total of 112 images during each up or down navigation. Our UI’s posters are 284 x 405 pixels and eat up 460,080 bytes of texture memory each, regardless of file size. (You need 4 bytes to represent each pixel’s RGBA value when the image is decompressed in memory.)

Layout of poster art in the gallery

To improve performance, we tried a number of animation strategies, but none yielded sufficient gains. We knew that when we kicked off an animation, there was an expensive style recalculation. But the WebKit Layout & Rendering timeline didn’t help us figure out which DOM elements were responsible.

WebKit Layout & Rendering Timeline

We worked with our platform team to help us profile WebKit, and we were now able to see how DOM elements relate to the Recalculate Style operations.

Our instrumentation helps us visualize the Recalculate Style call stack over time:
Instrumented Call Stack over Time

Through experimentation, we discovered that for our UI, there is a material performance gain when setting inline styles instead of modifying classes on elements that participate in vertical navigation.

We also found that some CSS selector patterns cause deep, expensive Recalculate Style operations. It turns out that the mere presence of the following pattern in CSS triggers a deep Recalculate Style:

.list-showing #browse { … }

Moreover, a -webkit-transition with duration greater than 0 causes the Recalculate Style operations to be repeated several times during the lifetime of the animation.
After removing all CSS selectors of this pattern, the resulting Recalculate Style shape is shallower and consumes less time.

Delivering great experiences

Our team builds innovative UIs, experiments with new concepts using A/B testing, and continually delivers new features. We also have to make sure our UIs perform fast on a wide range of hardware, from inexpensive consumer electronics devices all the way up to more powerful devices like the Wii U and PS3.

If this kind of innovation excites you as much as it does me, join our team!