Pocket Video
By Heidi Kriz, Mon Oct 30 00:00:00 GMT 2000

"Putting the Internet in your pocket" has become a catchphrase for the mobility movement, but one San Diego-based company is working to put full-motion, high-quality video in your pocket, or anywhere else your mobile device can go.

Ahh, the videophone. The concept has tickled the imagination of science fiction writers and filmmakers as long as there has been moving pictures and telephony. Remember the space-bound astronaut checking in with his daughter on a two-way videophone in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Or Harrison Ford cold-calling android Sean Young in Blade Runner?

Until now, the two-way videophone has always seemed to be the elusive stuff of fiction - or at least the far-off future. But if we are to believe Robert Tercek, programming chief of PacketVideo Corp., the future has arrived.

"With our new technology, we are liberating video content from its traditional distribution outlets," says Tercek. "Soon, streaming video will be everywhere - on your PDAs, your cell phones, everywhere."

According to Tercek, PacketVideo is the only company around right now that has the goods to make this happen. The company is developing applications based on the MPEG-4 standard, a technology that compresses images to produce a video standard at the level of a DVD. Its format makes it easy to take out non-essential parts of the picture, so that high-quality video can be shipped over both fast and slow networks.

The technology is still far from perfect, though. Currently, the system can only support five frames of video per second, about a sixth of the rate of your television screen, which makes for a very choppy image.

Bring On Hollywood

But those limitations haven't kept Hollywood giants like Warner Brothers and Sony Pictures Digital Enterainment from jumping on board. Desperate not to miss the boat like they did with the Internet and MP3, they and at least 35 other media companies have joined forces with PacketVideo to explore providing original video content to stream over mobile networks.

If Hollywood has its way, soon, faster than you can shout "I want my MTV!" you'll have the likes of Britney Spears doing the splits on your Palm Pilot.

"But that stuff is at least five years -- if not more -- away," says Forrester wireless analyst Amanda McCarthy. "There is still the bandwidth problem, which will be solved in part by the faster third-generation (3G) networks - but they haven't arrived yet," she points out. "What people are looking for now, and what will be the first applications of this technology, will be more practical stuff."

So for now, you may have to swap Britney for a close-up of presidential candidate Al Gore during the pre-election debates, an application currently available through the partnership of PacketVideo and another video-distribution company called Virage.

Tercek demurs that initially, more "utilitarian" applications will be more attractive to the average consumer. "What the consumer is after are the simple things," he says. "News and information people can use are the next big things on wireless, and many of them can be enhanced with video."

Beyond Britney

So PacketVideo has been conducting trials to determine what applications might be the most attractive in the short term. The most popular so far? A device which allows parents to get a realtime peek at their babies in daycare.

The reason for this is that "these days, most households have two working parents, strained by yuppie guilt that they can't spend more time with their kids," says Tercek. "In the tests we did on streaming video shots live from daycare centers, over 87 percent of the people we polled said they would use such a device."

And for the non-parent? What "news you can use" is coming down the pike for the rest of us?

"We're looking at what concerns people every day," says Tercek. "And that, of course, is traffic, weather and money. " So PacketVideo is hooking up with a company called Traffic411.com to provide live streaming video from the bottleneck bugaboos that plagues drivers all around the San Francisco Bay area. If that application takes off, they will expand the service regionally.

As for weather reports, Tercek says with PacketVideo technology, they can be as personalized as your choice of socks in the morning. In much the same manner as the traffic application, a "weather-cam" can provide realtime pictures of how sunny it really is out on your local golf course. "With embedded features like GPS in the wireless device, these services can be extremely configurable," says Tercek.

Trade stocks online? Wanna know why your favorite blue chip just moved 15 points? PacketVideo imagines a feature that will allow you to check out a video of a CEO talking about his company's latest earnings report - before you make a trade. There will be fun applications, too, like replays of sports events for the sports fanatic; or a quickie movie or music clip you can check out before buying tickets, or a new CD.

Money Talks

Tercek thinks that these kinds of applications will help people get over any reluctance they might have in paying extra for these services on their cell phone or PDA, and analysts seem to agree. Forrester predicts that revenues from mobile Internet services will leap from $5.3 million this year to nearly $4 billion over the next five years.

That's too big a cash cow for Hollywood to ignore, of course. Right now, though, it mostly sees the wireless video space as another source for ads and promotion. For example, Columbia TriStar is working with PacketVideo to produce movie trailers for your cell phone or PDA. This is the scenario they envision: you're sitting in a restaurant, having dinner and decide you wanna see a movie playing nearby. You whip out your video-enhanced cell phone, peruse a few short previews, and then use the phone to buy your tickets.

Such an application hardly requires a leap of imagination, but other folks in Hollywood are getting a lot more creative with the new medium. Two-year old AtomFilms, for example, plans to distribute original independent short films through the new applications, and Warner Brothers has a deal with PacketVideo to produce an original animated series for the medium, based on some of their famous cartoon icons.

Tercek believes producing original content for the new medium of wireless video is will be a key to its success. "For people to be willing to pay for this, it can't be rehashed or warmed over material they can get elsewhere," he says.

Tercek points to the example of cable as a perfect model for the future of wireless video. "People pay for different levels of service, and they pay for the original content, like with HBO original programming, that they can't get anywhere else," he says. "Eventually, they will be as comfortable doing that with wireless video."

Heidi Kriz is a San Francisco-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Wired, Red Herring, and PC Computing.