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September 2005

Going mobile:

Streaming video, new gaming services and more coming to your cellular phone


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Susie Wee, director of the Mobile and Media Systems Lab
Susie Wee, director of the Mobile and Media Systems Lab

two young adults playing video game

Content starts here
Business woman and man using PDA and cell phone outside of building

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 networks.

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.”

New mobile media infrastructure

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 at home.

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 way.

Streaming video on mobile phones

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.”

Creating a product

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.

3G opens up possibilities

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.

Mobile gaming reinvented

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.

Game developers' platform

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.”

New services, new profits

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.

Smarter shopping

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 retail security.

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.

Seamless user experience

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.

Related links

» Mobile and Media Systems Lab
» Watch: Mobile Streaming Media video
» Get your hands on HP's iPAQ Pocket PC

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Read the other features in this Special Report on Mobility

» Good to go:
HP mobility solutions: Smarter, simpler, safer ways to stay connected
» Make it Personal. Make it Now. Make it Anywhere. Share Memories on the Go with HP's PhotoSmart Cameras and Printers
» Get somewhere: Enterprise workers are really going places with HP mobility solutions
» Gov. to go:
Access to critical information on the go
» Relax. Entrepreneur on vacation? A reality with help from mobile devices
» Bank on IT: Delivering mobile computing-based financial services NonStop

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