by Simon Firth
Cellular phones that help you shop, interactive gaming
on your phone and face-to-face communications any time,
anywhere – welcome to the new, mobile world envisioned
by researchers in HP's Mobile and Media Systems Lab.
Computers plus telephone lines gave us distributed IT
networks and the World Wide Web. Now computing and cell
phone networks are converging, opening up possibilities
for all sorts of new services and ways of communicating.
"We'll soon be living in a world with media-rich
communication and collaboration amongst people, wherever
they are," predicts Susie Wee, director of the Mobile
and Media Systems Lab.
The lab is tackling some of the obstacles that stand in
the way of that happening. For one thing, most cell phone
networks currently can’t talk with most computer
And yet, says Wee, “people want to be connected
wherever they are. There is a lot of talk about converged
networks, and that will happen in some networks in some
regions. But people don't really want a converged network,
they want a converged user experience. What we need to
do is make sure that it works.”
The idea of bridging mobile and computer networks is a
major force behind current research in Wee’s lab.
But the vision is broader than that. Researchers want
to make it possible for anything digital, including multimedia
such as audio and video files, to move seamlessly across
any kind of network; from your desktop at work to your
mobile phone to your iPAQ or laptop, or even on your TV
Wee and her colleagues believe the answer lies in creating
a ‘media delivery infrastructure’ that can
stream any kind of multimedia content, adapt those streams
to different networks, and store and cache the material
where it’s needed in the most effective and efficient
A key characteristic of the new infrastructure must be
the ability to exploit the new capabilities being built
into the next generation of cell phone networks.
Most mobile phone operators are already moving to or plan
to move to ‘3G’ networks in the near future.
These networks can send data in packets rather than through
traditional circuits, allowing phone companies to offer
more services – including letting you create, transfer
and view video on your phone.
The telecommunications companies believe that many of
their 3G killer apps will include video,” says
researcher John Apostolopoulos. Easier said than done,
however. When you transmit video rather than speech,
things get a lot trickier, Apostolopoulos notes.
With data-intensive media like video, “you want
to have a large amount of bandwidth, with no data losses
and very low delay," he explains. "Yet with cellular,
or over 802.11 wireless, you don’t have that bandwidth
and you often have a large loss rate or a large delay.”
Most cellular companies have little experience dealing
with video, but Apostolopoulos and his colleagues have
been working in the area of streaming media for a decade.
They've already addressed problems like security, random
access into video, ad insertion in compressed video, overcoming
data loss and more.
The group is now working closely with HP’s Open
Call Business Unit based in Grenoble, France, to add such
capability to the HP Open Call Media Platform – an
already popular platform for next-generation messaging,
portals and enhanced media-enabled interactive services – to
position HP to power many 3G networks as they are built
around the globe.
Adding capabilities such as video to a cell network should
do more than simply allow us to perform the same tasks
we already do on our desktops. It also ought to let us
create a whole range of new, mobile-specific experiences.
That’s the notion being explored by Michael Sweeney
and his colleagues in HP Labs Tokyo, Japan.
3G phone networks offer what Sweeney calls new ‘enablers’ such
as the current geographic location of the phone user and
the name of anyone else currently using the network.
Add to that data the ability to stream audio and video,
to manage lists of ‘buddies’ such as you have
online with instant messaging, and you have a recipe for
creating intriguing new games, for example.
Researchers are creating an interface that allows users
to click on a game server and see what is happening in
real time in many aspects of the gaming world provided
by a mobile game service operator.
"You’d instantly be able to see who’s
online, and in which rooms," says Sweeney. "You’d
have chat, presence and location information and you could
integrate any friends who are online into your game.”
For quite possibly the first time, you'd be able to play
a game against a friend on a phone in real time. You could
play games featuring ‘real world’ elements
along the lines of popular GPS-based, geo-caching treasure
hunts. You could even potentially watch someone else play
a game ‘live’ on your phone screen -- a function
very popular among online gamers.
Rather than design new games themselves, Sweeney and his
colleagues are creating a mobile gaming service platform
that lets game developers with little telecommunications
experience (which is just about everyone in the business)
develop cell phone games without having to become experts
in how the networks themselves work.
Allowing any game creator to write mobile-specific games
ties into another aspect of the wider Labs vision of a
new media delivery infrastructure.
“We want to build a system that is programmable,” says
Wee, the lab director. She wants as many people creating
new services for the infrastructure as possible. “After
all,” she says, “nobody can predict what the
next killer app or, in this case, game will be. But we
can provide a platform that lets people create it.”
Even if researchers are successful in creating a media
delivery infrastructure that maximizes the benefits of
cellular-digital network convergence, nobody is going to
provide new mobile services if there's no profit in it.
Another team at HP Labs’ Tokyo office is exploring
how the unique qualities of 3G mobile networks can be tapped
to grow revenues for mobile operators.
“Operators are nearing saturation in terms of subscribers
and average revenue per user,” notes researcher Shinya
Nagagawa of current mobile operators. At the same time,
he adds, “they are investing a lot in the 3G environment.
So they want to know how they can effectively use their
advanced service assets to get more revenue.”
What services might be the most profitable? To find out,
Nakagawa and other researchers have been working in Japan
and Korea, which have two of the most advanced mobile infrastructures
in the world.
In one recent project, the team worked with the Radio
Frequency ID (RFID) tags that are increasingly being embedded
in products around the world for inventory tracking and
New cell phones in Japan and Korea are soon expected to
have built-in RFID readers. Nakagawa and his colleagues
designed a platform that would use RFID to aggregate services
and promotions to mobile users based on the user, their
interests and preferences, and where they are.
"Imagine walking into a store," Nakagawa says, "and
a swipe of an RFID tag tells the store’s IT network
you’re there. It would open up a whole range of services."
The store could send your phone an informational or promotional
video about products you might like to buy. Or you could
use your RFID reader to collect information about particular
items that interest you as you walk about the store.
Because your phone already has account information associated
with it, you could use it to pay for something you liked.
And, if you did that regularly, you’d build up a
shopping profile that might allow the store, with your
permission, to offer you other deals on items that it predicts
you would like.
Although such research is focused on creating an infrastructure
to enable new mobile services, it is also about making
that infrastructure work with a local network environment,
in this case an RFID system run by a store.
“Depending on where you are throughout the day,
you go through different types of networks all the time,” says
Wee. “What we’re doing is trying to understand
the architectures that are used in each of these domains.
What are the commonalities and the differences? And how
can we do the work to make sure data streams can actually
make it across them?”
“The main reason we look at mobility is because
people are mobile,” notes Wee. “We want to
give people the same functionality when they’re mobile
as they have when they’re at their desk or at home.”
Simon Firth is a writer and television producer living in Silicon Valley.